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EU foreign policy: destined to fail

A common foreign policy cannot succeed because it is contrary to the EU's inherent identity as an organization of sovereign states. If it is to be realized, member states must, by definition, be deprived of the sovereignty that they would never agree to relinquish.

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It is a pivotal moment in international affairs. The U.S. has begun military operations into Iraq in an effort to depose Saddam Hussein. In addition, the specter of a nuclear North Korea is coming into sharper relief, and incidents of terror continue around the globe. Amidst this turbulence, it is easy to miss the historical political changes taking place in Europe. For as the international community moves loudly from crisis to crisis, the European Union is grinding away quietly at some of the most significant institutional changes in its half-century existence. At the center of the agenda is the negotiation of an EU constitution. Such a document would reflect nothing less than the most basic social, economic, and political rights of EU citizens and (if it is drafted well) would provide the clearest picture yet of the purposes and structures of the club.

Europe's leading luminaries consider the creation of a common EU foreign policy to be a central component of this constitutional undertaking. While the precise contours of the idea have not yet been drawn, the proposal contemplates the transfer of a vast amount of control over diplomacy and defense from individual member states to the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. It is a monumental and unprecedented idea. It is also an idea that, sadly, is destined to fail.

The predecessor of the modern EU was created almost fifty years ago by a small group of countries that believed they could achieve greater things acting together than they could acting alone. Toward that end, they agreed to relinquish a certain amount of their sovereignty to a supranational organization, charging that organization with policy making responsibility in a wide range of areas. Over the years the body's powers have expanded in scope and the group has grown from six to 15 countries. Yet despite its ever deepening integration, it has never been suggested that the EU's members would be anything less than independent, sovereign states. Therein lies the paradox of a common EU foreign policy.

A common foreign policy, in any real sense of the term, cannot succeed because it is contrary to the EU's inherent identity as an organization of sovereign states. There is no more fundamental component of state sovereignty than the authority to decide how to deal with those outside the borders. When a country yields its power to make foreign policy, it therefore surrenders its most elemental sovereignty. Thus if the vision of a common EU foreign policy is to be realized, if the responsibility for conducting diplomatic and military affairs is to be moved to the supranational level, the EU's member states must, by definition, be deprived of the sovereignty that they would never agree to relinquish.

The development of a common EU foreign policy is not only problematic in theory, it is impossible in practice. If the debate over how to deal with Iraq has taught us anything, it is that the countries of Europe will go to great lengths to differentiate themselves in urgent foreign policy matters. While the transatlantic rift gets the most press, it should not go unnoticed that Great Britain, France, Germany, and Spain (to name just a few countries) have all spent considerable political capital asserting their individual national views. This is not at all surprising. In moments of crisis such as this, the countries of Western Europe should be expected to do nothing less than act in the formative traditions of William Pitt, Cardinal de Richelieu, and Otto von Bismarck.

Moreover, these national differences will only grow in coming years, as up to 12 countries in Central and Eastern Europe join the EU. No one should expect these states to unflinchingly adopt any real or imagined EU vision of foreign policy. Countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States - who will be among the first entrants - have vastly different diplomatic and military heritages than the states of Western Europe. They did not survive the will of the Soviet Union for so many decades only to submit entirely to the (albeit kinder) will of the EU, and so the likelihood that they will express independence in foreign policy should not be underestimated.

The EU can be forgiven its more quixotic qualities; as an international organization it has much of which to be proud. In less than half a century it has helped secure peace in Western Europe, enhanced the wealth of its members, and widened the sphere of rights that its citizens enjoy. But half the virtue in doing great things is recognizing those that cannot be done. Foreign policy is one such thing. The EU will not become stronger by attempting the impossible task of assuming responsibility for its member states' foreign relations. To even try would threaten to dilute and possibly unravel many of the Union's impressive achievements. It is not possible, intellectually, for the EU to represent a uniform view of foreign policy for all its sovereign member states. More important, as recent months should now have put beyond doubt, those member states simply will not let it happen.


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