EU struggles to 'fly the flag' in Haiti

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Pressure is mounting on the European Union to 'fly the flag' in Haiti, with the country seemingly becoming a test case for showcasing the bloc's revamped institutions under the Lisbon Treaty.

EU foreign ministers are gathering in Brussels today for a two-day meeting during which Europe's response to the situation in Haiti will be high on the agenda. 

Herman Van Rompuy, the EU's new permanent president, has asked heads of state and government to discuss the situation at their informal summit on 11 February. 

An extraordinary ministerial meeting last Monday had already committed 92 million euros in humanitarian assistance to the disaster-hit Caribbean country, which came on top of a European Commission commitment of 30 million euros. For early non-humanitarian assistance, notably to restore the government's capabilities, the EU earmarked another 100 million euros. 

This time, ministers will discuss putting in place a 'gendarmerie'-style force under the UN's command. It was not clear before the meeting whether the EU would make use of the European Gendarmerie Force (EGF), based in Italy, or whether individual countries would send gendarmerie troops outside this framework, diplomats said. 

The EFG consists of six member countries – France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Romania. Some countries, like the UK, do not have gendarmerie forces and will not participate in these efforts. 

Television reports have conveyed the impression that American aid is massive and that US forces are replacing Haiti's government in dealing with the disaster. French reporters said that the US army, which has control of the capital's airport, is giving American planes landing priority. 

TV reports quoted citizens of Haiti bitterly complaining that foreign powers, such as the USA, France and Canada, are taking advantage of the disaster to compete for influence and international prestige. 

France apparently nurtures ambitions of a greater presence in Haiti, "a country which suffers in the French language," Jean-Pierre Raffarin, France's special envoy for francophony, recently told journalists in Brussels, noting that the parent language of Creole, the local tongue, is French. 

EU institutional controversy 

In recent days, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton has been criticised for not having travelled to Haiti. 

Although her diplomatic service is still being put in place, the merits of having for the first time an EU foreign affairs chief at the same level as a US Secretary of State is already being questioned. 

Speaking to Brussels-based journalists, an ambassador from one of the large EU member states said the urgency lay in providing assistance to the victims, not in discussing institutional matters. 

"Helping the victims, this is what matters. One should not get lost in theoretical discussions. We are in an emergency," he pleaded. 

Conceding that he understood potential perception problems amongst the public at large about the EU's response to the crisis, the diplomat said time was needed before the new European institutions are fully in place. 

For one, he pointed out that Ashton would not be formally invested with her new functions until a vote of approval on the Barroso II line-up had taken place in the European Parliament on 9 February. 

"This new European Union needs time to put itself into place," he said, adding: "The European External Action Service? It doesn't exist. The draft decision should be adopted, inch' allah, at the end of April. This is an extremely close deadline." 

The diplomat further insisted that the EU's response to crises such as Haiti was a team effort, implying the involvement of ministers from the 27 EU member states as well as that of EU foreign policy chief Ashton. 

"If you want to see the same face everywhere, then clearly the idea behind the Lisbon Treaty is that, in terms of external relations, there is a High Representative who chairs a foreign affairs council and coordinates a team," he said. 

"I fully understand the political viewpoint that the European Union should manifest itself, etc. But, seriously, we are not going [to Haiti] simply for the pleasure of making ourselves seen when the emergency is to land humanitarian aid planes. Let's keep a little decency," the ambassador pleaded. 

"The priority is still not that Mister X or Missus Y goes making themselves seen at Port-au-Prince, damn it," the diplomat concluded colourfully. 

A representative of Ashton's cabinet told journalists on Friday that a visit by Ashton to Haiti was envisaged, but no date had been set yet. 

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