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The EU’s foreign policy inertia

Ricardo Migueis

The US keeps on expanding its influence world-wide through its aggressive bilateral commercial strategy. The latest free trade agreement has been with Central America, moreover, talks with Mercosulian member Paraguay and Middle Eastern countries Egypt and United Arab Emirates are hitting the headlines. Meanwhile, the EU’s aim of promoting multilateral development is being hindered by its own internal institutional inertia.

Two more or less assumed strategies in the global framework of political and economic relations have been developed along the last two decades. On the one hand, the United States have been pursuing its international aims mostly through an increasingly aggressive bilateral negotiation strategy with single countries, or trade zones with very weak institutionalisation. This has been the recent case with the signing of CAFTA –the Central American Free Trade Agreement, as excellently exposed by Rodrigo Cintra and Mariana Ricci in today’s article on the subject.

On the other hand, the European Union’s strategy has been focusing on the promotion of a multilateral global framework for political and economic relations, based not solely on bilateral agreements between countries or regions, but on the promotion of peace, democracy, human rights, social justice and trade openness through a delicate balance between all this and diplomatic/political relations. The strongest example of this is the support the EU explicitly gives to the political and economic deepening and openness of the Common Market of the South (Mercosul), commonly (and excessively) called the EU’s sister project.

Ideally, these two strategies should balance each other out of economic extremism or political sleaziness. Thus, an influential EU would be key and the aim should be to work with the US and not against it. Nevertheless, even if the EU has not been working against the US, it also has not been working with it, alas, developments in the joint promotion of the values they share are rare, much to the blame of the political inertia inside the EU institutions, particularly exposed since the Constitutional Treaty has been rejected by the peoples of France and the Netherlands.

Completely indifferent to all this are the United States, which continue to pursue their strategic aims worldwide, in spite of their internal problems. The Bush administration keeps on working towards closer economic ties with the Middle-East, having opened talks with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates this year. Mr. Bush, as part of a broader post-September 11 strategy, in May 2003 proposed a Middle East Free Trade Area “to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region.” This is where the EU should have a strong word to say, not only in joining the US in opening the vast Middle Eastern market, but doing so within a framework of negotiations based on its founding values of peace, democracy and prosperity.

Another objective signal of the US’s continuing aggressive commercial strategy to promote its interests is its attempt to expand them to South America through bilateral agreements. As Cintra and Ricci point out, bilateral talks between the US and Mercosul’s member Paraguay have had a destabilising effect in the southern cone region, particularly in the already fragile political structures of Mercosul, one of the main obstacles to the US project for a hemisphere wide free trade area.

A key characteristic of the US strategy is the absence and non-promotion of trans-national political structures. As the free-trade agreement with the Central American countries shows, this is an effective way of promoting the kind of “democracy” that is particularly profitable for selected financial and economic interests, as well as a good way to legitimise military intervention if perceived by the US as needed.

In sum, the EU’s internal crisis is creating more and more difficulties in developing solutions for the obstacles remaining to strengthen the EU’s relations with the different world actors and, in that way, reducing chances to promote a multilateral world system, successfully develop a strategic partnership with Mercosul or with other regional initiatives in Africa or Asia. There is, therefore, a long and much needed reform in the way the EU’s foreign policy is being pursued, particularly when it is well acknowledged globally that national self-interest is mining the EU capacity to portray itself as one strong, influential single actor.

Ricardo Migueis

Lisbon (Portugal)