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Has Europe learned the lesson of Iraq?

11 March 2008

Brussels – In 2003, the most important foreign policy decision for Europe was not taken in Berlin, Paris or Brussels, but in Washington.

That was the brutal reality of the US-led war in Iraq, which divided the European Union into hostile camps and poisoned diplomatic relations across the continent.

"The Iraq war taught Europe the same lesson as the Bosnian war of the 1990s: when the EU is divided, it’s counterproductive, because the issues will be decided by other means and other players," Piotr Kaczynski, research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The EU has since tried to put its painful experience to good account in other conflicts such as Kosovo, but experts say that it is still far from overcoming the weaknesses the Iraq war revealed.

The row over the US’ war plans pitted a handful of traditional US allies such as Britain against most of the EU’s then members, including its biggest states, France and Germany.

But at the height of the row, almost all the EU’s Eastern European candidate members threw their weight behind the US, in a move which laid bare Europe’s weakness in dealing as a bloc with the world’s great powers.

"We couldn’t afford to annoy the US or the major European countries, but we had to choose between them. It was a lousy situation," political scientist Nils Muiznieks, who was a member of the Latvian government at the time of the decision, recalled.

Those countries were also joined by the then conservative administrations of Italy and Spain. Analysts agree that the seismic split cost the EU a great part of its international influence.

"Because Europe was divided, there was no way the Europeans could influence what was happening in Iraq. … The agenda was shaped by the US, and not even the joint position of France, Germany and (non- EU member) Russia had an impact," Kaczynski said.

But since the Eastern European states became full members of the bloc in 2004 and 2007, and the political leadership in Britain, France and Germany changed hands between 2005 and 2007, the EU’s new leaders have tried hard to digest the unpalatable lesson of Iraq.

"Europe has learned a lot from Iraq. … They have come to the conclusion that (such divisions) are damaging for the EU’s image outside and for being effective on the ground," Kaczynski said.

EU accession has changed the shape of Latvian diplomacy, because "the amount of coordination with the EU on most issues is very important. Even if you disagree with an EU policy, you look for other members who disagree as well," Muiznieks added.

The EU’s recent split over Kosovo highlights both the strengths and the limitations of that new attitude. On the one hand, EU member states failed utterly to find a common stance on recognizing the breakaway Serbian province.

On the other, they agreed unanimously to send the bloc’s largest-ever peacetime mission to Kosovo in order to train its fledgling justice services. Even EU member states who refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence contributed to the force.

"Kosovo was an attempt to draw the lessons from Iraq: the EU worked really hard not to be split, (and) even when that failed, the EU moved on and stayed robust," Kaczynski said.

But it is important not to overstate the impact of the "Iraq lesson." The EU remains an alliance of 27 states, and when national interests are at stake, unity is notoriously hard to forge.

"On Russia and energy issues, it’s generally very difficult" to find agreement, Muiznieks said.

Above all, though, the EU’s fragmented structure means that even when it takes a decision, it is not always easy to act on it – a point which was rammed home humiliatingly in September, when the EU decided to send a peacekeeping force to Chad, but had to borrow helicopters for the force from Russia and Ukraine.

"The Europeans are weaker than the Americans, not just in the construction of their foreign policy, but in their capacity to act," Kaczysnki said.

"If whoever is the new US president (after elections in November) asks Europe, ‘How can you work with us?’, I’m afraid the Europeans wouldn’t have much to offer," he said.

[Copyright dpa 2008]