From Syria to Iran, the EU is in demand as a peacekeeper and negotiator. But a recent meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Copenhagen has revealed that divisions remain over a common strategy.
As a union of 27 countries - with potentially huge economic and diplomatic influence - some would expect the European Union to have a tougher stance on conflicts such as that in Syria and the nuclear dispute with Iran. The EU may say it's keen to assist in peacemaking, but it does far less than it could. That's according to some of the bloc's own foreign ministers, who have met for talks at a two-day gathering in Copenhagen.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, wants to see joint efforts intensified, with member states making more use of the European External Action Service (EEAS) - the bloc's foreign ministry and diplomatic corps - for the purposes of conflict resolution.
But many EU states are reluctant to give up their control of foreign policy, which they still consider a national issue.
No snap solutions
At the closing press conference in Copenhagen, Ashton and the chair of the talks, Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal, were repeatedly challenged about the EU's slow reaction to crises such as the ongoing attacks on civilians in Syria.
Sovndal emphasized a need for more patience, saying decisions could not come faster. He said he saw no alternative to painstaking diplomatic work, even despite earlier fears that the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might try to use Saturday's talks in Damascus with UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan to bargain for yet more time.
Other ministers at the Copenhagen meeting said they believed a military solution was out of the question - not even a military defense of a humanitarian aid corridor was on the cards. But the severity of the situation was clear. Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister, warned of the possibility of a "full-scale sectarian civil war" in Syria.
EU governments are planning further sanctions to target Syrian industry - its oil sector and key officials.
"We will take every step we can to strengthen sanctions," said Sovndal.
Ashton, meanwhile, stressed that the EU hoped change would come without chaos.
Elsewhere, ministers expressed cautious opposition to recent Israeli threats to attack Iran as a preemptive measure to stop its development of nuclear technology. But rather than openly criticize Israel, ministers preferred to send an indirect message by praising US President Barack Obama's more restrained attitude to Iran.
Michael Link, a German minister of state for foreign affairs, did attack the EU's record on public relations, saying it had so far failed to explain its use of sanctions to the Iranian people. He said things had to improve to stop allowing the Iranian leadership from claiming it is itself a victim of sanction. Link said the point was not to punish the people, but to stop the leadership from running an arms race.
Dreams of the future
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle expressed concerns that the EU's inner divisions could cause the bloc to lose its political influence on the world stage. Westerwelle cited fractious issues such as the reintroduction of national border controls (as seen temporarily in Denmark), and a debate over the viability of the EU's common currency. He warned that Germany would be the biggest loser if the trend continued.
Westerwelle invited foreign ministers to discuss these and other issues in Berlin later this month, saying the talks should be broader than just focusing on the eurozone’s financial crisis. He also raised the thorny topics of a directly elected EU president and the EU constitution.
“Europe cannot function without a vision,” said Westerwelle, “some people see these things as dreams of the future, but I think we need our dreams now to enable us to construct a future.”
Author: Christoph Hasselbach in Copenhagen / ew
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany