Decision time for EU foreign policy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The Arab upheavals present a unique opportunity for the EU, if only it can formulate a cohesive foreign policy firmly behind democratic forces, writes Tunne Kelam, an Estonian member of the European Parliament for the centre-right EPP group.

This commentary was authored by Tunne Kelam, an Estonian MEP (European People's Party group) and member of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee.

"By 15 March five days had passed since the adoption of the European Parliament's resolution on Libya, four days since the extraordinary European Council, and three days since the meeting of the Arab states.  All three proclaimed an end to the rule of Libyan dictator [Muammar] Gaddafi, all three supported the people who are trying to get free from his rule and all three insisted on stopping the bloodshed.

But the bloodshed continues even now as Gaddafi’s mercenaries are using modern military equipment, especially airplanes and tanks, in their advance against the opposition.

On 15 March I listened to Maciej Popowski, deputy to Catherine Ashton, explain the steps the EU is taking to help evacuate refugees, provide humanitarian assistance and to monitor the Libyan crisis. All this with the goal of achieving a 'soft landing' along with the creation of 'added value'. At this moment, one sees the yawning gap between reality and the professed goals of the EU's new common foreign policy.

In truth, one cannot blame Mr Popowski. From the viewpoint of a high official he described the situation correctly when he stated that his superior, Baroness Ashton, cannot operate based upon her own understandings but has to take into consideration the wishes and differing opinions of the various EU governments. 'This is the reality which we have to face,' he told members of the European Parliament.

However, one cannot ignore the other reality – the continuation of mass killings of people in Libya. Even the Arab League asked for the enforcement of a 'no fly zone' in Libyan airspace. In a situation in which the United States, for understandable reasons, does not wish to be in the forefront, the EU has a unique opportunity to establish itself in its long self-proclaimed role as a world-level actor, supporting peace and democratic values.

This is what the opposition in Libya is looking for. Last week the European Parliament recommended to start immediate cooperation with the interim national council in Benghazi.

The time factor makes the problem even more dramatic. Seeking a legally perfect justification for international intervention requires the agreement of all international parties, which takes up hundreds of hours, each of which is dripping with blood. 

Lithuanian MEP Vytautas Landsbergis did not hesitate to compare the Libyan uprising with the one in Warsaw in 1944, when intervention was delayed on purpose. The comparison might be inappropriate, but the EU has already taken half a step in the direction of intervention by declaring Gaddafi unfit to rule. The vacuum needs to be filled. And this has to happen before the uprising is drowned in blood and bombed to bits.

The EU's new foreign and security policy leaders are facing their greatest challenge. The traditional  option is pointing to differences of opinion and keeping to the lowest common denominator of agreement. This means making declarations and postponing actions.

But what kind of impression would this kind of policy make on the hundreds of thousands of young Arabs who have stood up for freedom and who are entitled to expect something more than good wishes from the European bulwark of democracy?

The other option is to exercise leadership, using this historic opportunity to promote European values, economic reforms and good governance along with stability in North Africa. After all, it is not necessary to export democracy – the demand for it has grown locally.

Finally we must realise that if the Libyan dictator, against all hopes, succeeds in crushing and liquidating the uprising, this will be a message to all authoritarian regimes in the world.  A clear message that in the future, too, naked brutal force will prevail against citizens demanding reforms.

This generation of young Arabs has proven that they can deal with dictators on their own. The EU, however, has yet to prove that it takes its own core values seriously, just as the European Parliament's resolution of 10 March mandates.

The resolution says 'the EU's positive impact and long-term credibility in the region will depend on its ability to conduct a cohesive common foreign policy that is value-based and clearly sides with the new democratic forces'. 

Only in this way can the EU create the added value of trust in a dramatically changing world."

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