Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Europa Europa: European "Soft power"

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Douglas Davis


The European Union presents a virtually seamless front when it comes to censuring Israel. True, there are murmurings of dissent from some of the weaker, newer members which are still emerging from the Soviet shadow, but they are swiftly whipped into line by the more muscular states of “Old Europe”.

Beyond the impressive displays of consensus on Israel, however, there are worrying signs that Europe’s ambition to articulate a single foreign policy, complete with a European foreign minister and European embassies, is destined to remain a distant pipedream.

Israel excepted, the Europeans have a problem keeping their foreign policy in lock-step. Events in Iran last month underscored the point. In the aftermath of the demonstrations that followed the flawed Iranian election, nine locally employed staffers at the British Embassy were arrested.

Surely the Europeans would rise up collectively in their wrath against this targeted assault on a senior partner? Surely they would respond to this act of diplomatic banditry with a powerful and unequivocal act of protest? Well no, and no again.

When Britain called on its European partners to withdraw their ambassadors from Teheran in protest at the seizure of its embassy staff, there was an uncomfortable silence. Eventually the Germans cleared their diplomatic throat and politely declined. So, too, did the Italians.

The casual observer might be permitted a cynical sigh. After all, it could have been no coincidence that of all the 27 member-states of the European Union, the Germans and Italians enjoy the healthiest trade balances with Iran.

But beyond those narrow national self-interests, Britain’s fellow Europeans no doubt considered its proposed response to the detention of its embassy personnel to be “unhelpful” - too extreme for those who prefer to tread the more measured, soft-power paths of conciliation.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, whose country had just assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union, summed it all up nicely for the soft-power aficionados: “We are taking this step by step.”

The first step, it seemed, was to medicate Britain, and never mind its national interests. British diplomacy duly succumbed to the political Prozac: “There is a changing situation on the ground,” declared one chastened diplomat, “so it is right to have a gradual approach with a number of options on the table.”

Not for the first time did the Iranians discover that European soft power is a limp excuse for inaction. Indeed, the Iranians had learned much about the supine nature of European diplomacy over hundreds of hours of negotiating with the foreign ministers of the EU3 – Britain, France and Germany – who were entrusted with the task of tempting the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions.

It was the most formidable challenge that European diplomats had ever been handed – and, perhaps, the most important they will ever confront. In the event, they failed abjectly.

“What can we do?” asked one of the European negotiators wearily at a private gathering I attended in Berlin. “Diplomatic isolation is useless, we cannot afford to impose economic sanctions and we have no military option. I think we’d better start learning to live with the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon.”

He might be right. But it begs the question: if the Europeans can’t act together to support their British partner, and if they can’t persuade the Iranians to abandon their nuclear ambitions – a development that is widely regarded as profoundly negative – what is the point of their aspiration to a unified foreign policy?

Given their experience in negotiating with craven Europe over the nuclear issue, it must have been clear to the Iranians that their attempt to project domestic discontent over the election result onto a European player – the Little Satan, no less – would be a cost-free diplomatic exercise.

But if the Europeans feel squeamish about dealing with Iran’s highly volatile Islamic revolutionary regime, they have no constraints about cutting up rough with a stable, predictable, friendly ally in the region. Less than two weeks after Britain was humiliated in Teheran, it announced that it was cancelling five contracts for components destined for the Israeli navy.

The ostensible reason for the sanctions was, irony of ironies, to protest Israel’s operation against the Iranian-backed Hamas regime in Gaza earlier this year. Foreign Secretary David Miliband told parliament there were “credible” reports that Israel’s Saar-class Corvette vessels had been used in “a naval fire support role”.  All other existing British arms contracts with Israel, he said, will now be reassessed.

The Israeli embassy in London was officially told that the licences were being revoked because the vessels had violated British and European criteria which preclude the sale of military equipment that could be used for “internal repression”. Never mind that Gaza is not “internal” – it is a self-governing entity. And never mind that Israel’s campaign in Gaza was not an act of repression – it was an act of pure self-defence designed to stop the barrage of unprovoked missile attacks on its southern towns and villages.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Israel’s military matériel originates in the United States, and the British decision to revoke five licences is unlikely to substantially affect its deterrence. So who, in the depths of a painful economic recession, was Britain trying to impress by cancelling valuable export orders? And where, precisely, was Britain seeking to win brownie points? Soft-power logic suggests that the answers might be, respectively, the mullahs and Teheran.

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