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Opinion: There is no European foreign policy

The EU is struggling to come up with a response to the brutal advance of the Islamists in Iraq. It comes across as weak and uncoordinated, according to Christoph Hasselbach.

The foreign ministers' meeting was in itself little short of a miracle. It took quite a while for the majority to come round to the idea of sacrificing sunbathing on a beach, going to restaurants, or hiking in the mountains for a tedious session in Brussels. But it wasn't just the inconvenient timing that initially discouraged them. For a long time European governments underestimated the seriousness of the situation. In addition, many felt that the conflict in Iraq was a purely American problem, because America invaded Iraq in 2003 under President Bush, and there's a widely-held view that the United States is responsible for everything that has happened there since.

Back then, France and Germany were two of the strongest European opponents of Bush's military engagement. True, there have been changes of government in all three states since then - a shift to the political left in Washington and in France, and to the right in Germany. Nonetheless, for a long time Berlin and Paris continued to be of the opinion that they had no business in Iraq. Until, that is, people started talking about genocide: The Yazidi religious minority was in danger of being eradicated from the map of the Middle East. Finally the Europeans woke up.

Secret services asleep at the wheel?

Yet the situation has been critical for months already. Not only are the jihadists of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" organization (IS) perpetrating unimaginable cruelties, they could also alter the entire power structure in the region. And, as in Syria, they are also recruiting Europeans who at some point will return to Europe, and may carry out attacks there.

Christoph Hasselbach

DW's EU correspondent Christoph Hasselbach

The EU is therefore reacting not just for humanitarian reasons, but also in its own interest. Why the situation took Western governments by surprise is a whole other matter: It seems their secret services are too busy spying on each other to raise the alarm in good time when international security is threatened.

In many EU countries opinion has now changed, almost overnight, and in several respects. For example: Everyone, without exception, is glad that the US has once again intervened militarily in Iraq. France, America's most vocal critic in 2003, is now the first European country to supply weapons to the Kurds to help them push back IS. Germany is also sending armaments to the conflict zone - not the lethal kind, but those may soon follow. All this is now happening at breathtaking speed.

Doubts and inhibitions

What's lacking is a unified European strategy. There is still no common European foreign and security policy. The Union reacts, instead of taking precautions. And when action is taken, it is taken by individual states, not by the EU as a whole. This has to do with individual countries' differing positions and traditions. The French and the British, as former colonial powers in the Middle East, have a greater sense of obligation than other states and, on the whole, fewer problems with military intervention. It is a principle with Sweden, for example, that it does not regard the arming of any side in a conflict as a solution. Meanwhile, Germany, the economic heavyweight, still has inhibitions about taking the lead as others would like it to. Finally, doubts about the military option cannot lightly be dismissed: Modern European weaponry could eventually fall into the hands of the Islamists. Or the Kurds might feel encouraged to found a large independent state of their own, which would mean Turkey would immediately get involved, on account of its Kurdish minority.

Ashton was intended to be weak

Is it possible to create a unified policy from these differences of opinion and the general sense of helplessness? It would already constitute progress if the EU, while allowing member states to take individual action, were at least to demonstrate clearly that it is holding the reins and coordinating matters. But this is precisely what the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, is not doing. The face of the European Union's foreign policy, she is scarcely visible. The European governments who selected her five years ago did so precisely because they knew that Ashton wouldn't steal their thunder. It's a tactic that's backfiring at a time when, with Iraq, Syria and Ukraine, the EU has to find answers for several serious conflicts all at the same time.

Soon it will elect Ashton's successor. Perhaps this crisis will at least help to ensure that the EU chooses a strong personality this time: someone with the ability to turn Europe's economic power into political influence. The EU cannot afford this weakness on the foreign policy front, and the world cannot afford an EU that is weak on foreign policy.