Europe's 15-Headed Diplomat Tries to Face the World as One

But EU often gets stage fright when places like Bosnia or Albania erupt

As Albania descended into anarchy in the past few weeks, foreign ministers throughout Europe found themselves hopelessly divided. The French and Italians wanted to send in troops to stabilize the explosive situation in their backyard. The British and Germans did not see a clear military mission.

The upshot? Just as in the former Yugoslavia a few years back, little got done. Finally, last Friday, an ill-defined force was approved by the United Nations using European soldiers. It will be dispatched to Albania, but its mission remains limited to distributing aid, and most observers doubt whether it will be strong enough to restore political stability.

The delay underlines the weakness in Europe's supposedly common foreign policy. Unable to find unanimity among its 15 members, the European Union (EU) often ends up waffling or waiting for the UN or the United States to take charge. "You can't run a foreign policy by consensus," complains Guillaume McLaughlin of the European Policy Center in Brussels. "New institutions are needed."

At a meeting in Amsterdam this June, European leaders will decide whether to name a "Mr. Foreign Policy" (or "Ms. Foreign Policy") for the first time and whether to sometimes take action based on only a majority, rather than a unanimous, vote.

After seeing the success of US Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke in brokering a peace deal in Bosnia in 1995, the EU has begun naming a series of "special envoys" to carry its banner into conflict zones.

Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt, now in Bosnia, remains the best known. But other envoys, such as Ireland's Kester Heaslip in Cyprus and Spain's Miguel Angel Moratinos in the Middle East, may be even more influential. Recently Mr. Moratinos helped use economic power - the EU is the Palestinians' leading aid donor - to push Yasser Arafat to sign the Hebron accord.

In Cyprus, "The Americans can put pressure on the Turks, but we are the only ones who can bring the Greek Cypriots to the table," says Lousewies van der Laan, an adviser to one of the EU's foreign affairs commissioners. "That's because the [Greek Cypriots] want desperately to join the European Union."

US diplomats say the coordination with the new European envoys has proved better than expected. "We share the same goals across the board," says one US diplomat. "We just sometimes disagree on tactics." One disagreement is on Iran, which the US wants to isolate but with which Europe pursues a "critical dialogue" - to Washington's annoyance.

What worries the US more are the vacillations of its European partners. When Greece and Turkey threatened war a few years ago over Cyprus, the Europeans couldn't agree on how to respond. Mr. Holbrooke accused them of "sleeping through the night."

He was not the first American to express frustration. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger supposedly once posed the question "When I want to speak to Europe, whom do I call?"

"We're looking increasingly to the European Union as a global partner, and when the union speaks with one voice, given its financial resources, [it] can have an important impact in a lot of regions such as the Middle East, Bosnia, and Cyprus," says the US diplomat. "The problem is that the union's foreign-policy mechanism, dependent on getting a consensus among 15 countries, isn't always coherent or timely."

The crisis in former Yugoslavia, which boggled the EU until the US took charge, "showed us just how essential some sort of common foreign policy is," McLaughlin agrees. "We need diplomatic weight equal to our economic weight."

The Europeans lack a truly combined military force. In theory, Brussels can call on the Western European Union (WEU), which can borrow troops from member countries, including a special French-German Eurocorps. In practice, the WEU could only act in agreement with NATO, an organization that includes the US and Canada and doesn't include several EU members such as Finland, Austria, and Ireland.

Even more debilitating, the EU has no central political leadership. Its executive body, the European Commission, divides foreign-policy responsibility among five commissioners. Even then, the commission only forms a third of a foreign-policy troika along with two national foreign ministers, who rotate every six months.

Numerous reform proposals are being floated. The French would like to appoint a single chief diplomat. They have proposed former French President Valry Giscard d'Estaing for the post. This official would coordinate work of the special envoys and would build a powerful planning center for Europe's separate foreign ministries and the European Commission.

But almost as soon as these ideas were floated, a backlash set in. The commission, not wanting to see its power usurped, called for a more malleable senior civil servant for the new post. In some capitals a worry set in that the French wanted to hijack European foreign policy.

Proposals to increase the use of majority voting also are floundering. Britain and other Euroskeptics refuse to give up any of their foreign-policymaking sovereignty. Even Euro-optimists like France worry about their influence on the world stage diminishing. Moreover, majority voting might be dangerous if it papered over deep divisions among members.

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