EC's goal of unity is hurt by competing interests

January 28, 1991|By Diana Jean Schemo | Diana Jean Schemo,Paris Bureau of The Sun

PARIS -- The European Community's steps to create a political identity for itself have been seriously hindered as the euphoria over the Cold War's end gives way to a more complex landscape of competing interests among the EC's 12 members, according to diplomatic observers and analysts here.

The most dramatic -- and recent-- display of how national interests are undermining the drive to forge a common foreign policy came as the Jan. 15 United Nations deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait approached.

EC foreign ministers, meeting in Brussels, Belgium, decided against sending a delegation to meet Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, after U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar returned from there saying there was no "room for a diplomatic initiative."

A few hours after the EC declaration, French Foreign Minister Roland Dumas, who had not attended the Brussels meeting, unveiled a French initiative to try to persuade Mr. Hussein to leave Kuwait.

The breakaway French plan left the door open for a visit to Baghdad by Mr. Dumas. It won instant German, Belgian, Italian and Spanish backing, effectively splitting the EC consensus almost as soon as it had been reached.

"It shows once again that Europe can agree on the price of butter, but as soon as it comes to the great issues of the day, that it's just not there," said Pierre Hassner of the Center for the Study of International Relations in Paris.

The French plan helped convince public opinion here that President Francois Mitterrand had done all he could to avoid war. Policy-makers here also hoped the moves would show the French to be reluctant adversaries in the conflict, preserving France's traditional interests in the Middle East.

In addition, the drive for European political unity must compete at times with the country's independent stance in foreign-policy matters, the legacy of Charles de Gaulle.

For all the benefits France aimed to gain, little has been realized. Crowds of Algerian and Tunisian youths demonstrating in favor of Saddam Hussein shouted "Bush Assassin" and "Mitterrand Assassin" in pretty much the same breath, and French interests and citizens were threatened along with the Americans.

The damage to relations with Britain has also been great. British Prime Minister John Major visited the Elysee Palace for his first lunch with the French president just a few hours before the French peace initiative was announced. Mr. Mitterrand did not breathe a word of the plan to him.

Last week, Mr. Major cited the uneven and uncoordinated contributions of EC members in the gulf war as fueling further doubts.

Proponents of European unity argue that it is bound to stumble through its first tentative steps. But deciding that the 12 should aim for one direction where possible is already an accomplishment.

Analysts agree that it was the disappearance of the Iron Curtain, more than any other single event, that most propelled notions of European political unity forward.

A year ago, political unity was seen as a way of keeping Germany, as it ended its division, anchored in Western Europe. It was also Europe's attempt to counterbalance U.S. power as the Soviets backed off the international stage.

The only problem with European unity is that its staunchest proponents -- the French and the Germans -- seem to find it the most difficult to live with.

The common policy's strength lies in each country's voice being louder when it joins 11 others, but observers note that the French, Germans and British do not appear reconciled to muting their own voices to blend in.

It was Bonn that gave former Chancellor Willy Brandt its best wishes on his hostage rescue mission to Baghdad last fall, just a few days after the 12 declared that they would discourage private visits.

And it was a French parliamentarian and close confidant of President Mitterrand, Michel Vauzelle, who spent 4 1/2 hours talking to Mr. Hussein in a vague attempt to discern his conditions for leaving Kuwait -- at the same time the EC was trying to present a cohesive front to the Iraqi leader.

"I think Mitterrand is pro-European, but the moment a crisis comes, he tries to go off in his own direction," Mr. Hassner said.

France and Germany are also the two countries angling the hardest to lead the other 10. On the eve of the last summit, they issued a joint proposal for common security and foreign policy, when the 12 were ostensibly to discuss the matter together.

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