EU egos -- the secret of diplomatic success?

10th November 2008, Comments 0 comments

These days, European leaders are jostling for a position at the upcoming Washington talks.

Brussels -- Arguably, one of the joys of watching the European Union in action is waiting for the moment when high-flown principles of unity collapse under the weight of sheer national ego.

That moment came to Brussels on Friday as EU leaders met to discuss, not just about what the bloc should demand from world powers at a summit in Washington on Nov. 15, but about which member states should do the demanding.

"It's the main thing they're arguing about: If one country gets the invitation, it will open the floodgates," one diplomat who asked to remain anonymous told DPA.

The Washington talks are meant to bring together the "Group of 20" (G-20), to discuss how to reform the world's financial system.

The G-20, created in 1999, includes states ranging from the United States and China to India, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. It has five European members: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and the EU, as represented by the country which holds the bloc's rotating presidency and the European Central Bank.

Ahead of the Washington summit, EU member states vowed that Europe would present a united front to the world.

But as the invitations to the Washington talks began to circulate, that front quickly cracked under the blows of wounded national pride.

First the Czech Republic, which is set to take over the EU presidency in January from the current holder, France, insisted that it should have a seat at the Washington talks.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had recently offended Czech sensibilities by saying that France should run the group of countries which use the euro even when the Czech presidency opens, placated Prague by agreeing to take a Czech official in his delegation.

But Spain, which has long demanded a place at the top global table on the basis of its status as the world's eighth largest economy, then insisted that it, too, be included in the Washington meeting.

Sarkozy said that it was "difficult to explain" why Spain should not be invited but admitted that it would open a "Pandora's box" if it were to come.

And indeed, diplomats at the summit said that the Netherlands, Poland and Sweden were all lobbying for an invitation, although officials from the latter two states denied the claim.

Luxembourg's influential leader (and finance minister) Jean-Claude Juncker, meanwhile, was reportedly offended not to have been invited in his capacity as chairman of the Eurogroup, although he put a brave face on it on Friday.

"Since it's a meeting on prime-ministerial level, not finance ministers ... and I'm the head of a group of finance ministers, my natural place is in bed, not in Washington," he said.

While the EU's scramble for places at the top table is, at the very least, undignified, it paradoxically gives the bloc a rare advantage as the world gears up for what promises to be the most important series of summits since World War II.

The talks which the Washington meeting is due to launch are aimed at nothing less than, in Sarkozy's words, "re-founding capitalism."

They bring together the wounded giant of the financial world, the United States; its rising titan, China; the bastion of liberal capitalism, Britain; and the outspoken anti-capitalist, Brazil -- to name but four of the rivals at the table.

Skeptics say that it will take a diplomatic genius to steer a safe course through the perilous waters of domestic interest, ideological conflict, national pride and simple political ego.

But as the EU demonstrated so graphically on Friday, those are the waters it navigates every day.

In diplomacy, practice might not always make perfect -- but it certainly gives Europe a head start when the stakes are as high as these.

Ben Nimmo /DPA/Expatica

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