syria protest

This week the leaders of the EU gathered to discuss the events in Syria, specifically the various embargoes the EU erected at the start of the conflict. Though a compromise was reached, and the EU have been able to reach a united position on paper, that is, an end to the embargo on arms sales, the truth betrays a union still completely unable to present a unified continent wide policy.

The 14 hour discussions between the 27 member states’ foreign ministers was more a victory for French and British brinkmanship than European cooperation. It has been reported that William Hague, the British foreign minister, had to wield the UK’s veto to push through the lifting of the embargo, yet another occasion where the UK has forsaken relations with its closest allies for its own interests.

25 of the 27 member states were not comfortable with the idea of arming rebels, many of whom belong to jihadist militias, such as al Nusra, who have openly declared support for Al-Qaeda, and thus the decision reached has left many unhappy with the EU’s stance. The biggest opponents to the Entente Cordial were Sweden, the Czech Republic and most vocally, Austria. Michael Spindelegger, the Austrian defence minister who was present at the summit later said: “The EU should hold the line. We are a peace movement and not a war movement.”.

It hasn’t only been words levelled by Austria either. Currently the UN mission in the Golan Heights, the strategic significant border zone between Israel and Syria, is made up of 300 Austrian soldiers and the Austrian government has threatened to pull out these soldiers if arms make it into the hands of extremist rebel groups. Thus this apparent agreement in the EU’s policy could have drastic affects on the Syrian conflict and threatens an entire UN mission. It could potentially create a vacuum in the area that would inevitably be filled by the IDF. Israel could thus be dragged further into a conflict that has slowly been spreading throughout the entire region with violence flaring up in Lebanon and Iraq as a result of this. Thus the consequences of this disunited front risks worsening the situation on the ground and intensifying the regional nature of the conflict.

Many others have been quick to criticise the decision. Oxfam voiced their concerns, fearing an increase of weapons can only equate to a greater loss of live, and will only worsen the situation on the ground. They also fear this could smother the small but resilient diplomatic process that has been nurtured over the past few months. This is a similar stance to many other groups, including Israel and Russia, who were quick to counter the EU’s decision by sending Assad’s government advanced anti-air missiles, as a move to deter any deeper intervention from the west.

How is it then that the EU can have such difficulties in creating a unified foreign policy? This certainly isn’t the first time the union has faced difficulty in putting forward a single policy. In the 1990s the EU was completely hamstrung by its own inability to act in the Balkans as Yugoslavia shattered into its consummate nation-states amidst an orgy of ethno-nationalist violence, and again with Libya, European countries acted through NATO rather than through the EU.

The truth is that there remains a significant ideological split between France, the UK and to a lesser extent, Italy and Poland, and the wider continent between pro-military interventionism, and countries who hold their neutrality as a sacrosanct pillar of their states operations.

France and the UK are the continents biggest military spenders. They are the only members of the EU to have a nuclear deterrent, and both possess a blue water navy, that is a navy that can project its forces globally, with the USA as the only other country that possess one. It is no surprise then that the Entente Cordial have always been the most in favour of pushing an interventionist approach in internal state conflicts around the world. Both played a huge role in the military intervention in Libya, the UK has thrown itself fully into various civil conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Serbia, and France has a long history of intervention in Africa, most recently in Mali. Both countries, as well as Europe’s other big military spenders Italy and Poland, thus see intervention as a viable and morally justifiable foreign policy ideology, that can help end conflicts quickly and with the best possible outcome.

The problem is for the rest of Europe, particularly Scandinavia and central Europe, their own histories of occupation and aggression, as well as the fact that throughout history, interventions by the West in the Middle East rarely end well, even if they are done so with the best of intentions.

The EU then faces a constant uphill challenge when it comes to trying to put forward its own union wide policy for an international crisis. Though some efforts have been made to strengthen the unions ability to do this, such as the creation of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the power in this respect, like in much of the EU, lies with ministers from national governments and thus, the EU is crippled in its ability to make a decision by national interests and national agendas using the EU as an extension of this.

By: Jack Briggs