Van Rompuy: the hidden commander-in-chief?
What does the European Union find more difficult, do you think? Putting down the roots of 'deep democracy' in post-revolutionary Arabic states, or keeping a straight face while doing it? Baroness Catherine Ashton, the Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of Foreign Affairs, has finally broken her silence on the implosion of the Middle East, writing an article in the Guardian. As good as it is to know that know we don't pay her £700,000 a year to do nothing, there's a part of me that wishes we did. After her absence during the crisis itself, I was expecting a bit more for my money. But, rather than making a statement of policy worthy of the second-most powerful executive official in Europe, the only thing that she wanted to talk about was women's rights.
Not that that's not an important subject, of course. There's clearly much work to be done, and, provided it is in our national interest to do so, we should be more than willing to assist any Middle Eastern country that wishes to liberate and enfranchise its female population. But, not only is it outside her remit, it is also trivial compared to geopolitical turmoil on a scale not seen since the early 1990s, and it shouldn't matter a jot to an individual whose primary purpose is to represent five hundred million people on the world stage at a time of such international upheaval. She is supposed to stand up for the interests of the citizens of the European Union, as they now call us; not to complain about the injustices of the misogynistic religious and cultural practices that blight the Arab world. Especially not when she vigorously defended those practices when she assisted New Labour in importing them to Britain.
In that light, an article entitled 'Women Are Essential to Democracy' is probably the weirdest thing that Baroness Catherine Ashton of Upholland could have written. Not because of the hypocrisy of a woman who has held five previous government positions having never faced an election, oh no, that's just standard EU practice. What makes this article strange is its purpose - it's almost as if Catherine Ashton is back as a minor official for some government department, championing women's rights in the workplace. There is very little statement on European foreign policy in it. It is clear that she favours some sort of EU involvement in a post-revolutionary state; technical assistance with legal issues, and anti-discrimination laws. But she offers no information on how that assistance might be rendered, what form it might take, and which countries or departments will be responsible for it. Nothing in her article can be misconstrued as policy. Which leaves me wondering, what exactly does she do? This can't be the only thing that the EU's up to, surely?
But, never fear. Unless you're a Eurosceptic, in which case you have good reason to be worried. Contrary to appearances, Britain's commissioner and her new diplomatic service have actually been rather busy whilst this was going on. They didn't make it public, of course, but there was a very good reason for that. The prospect of the EU deploying military power would make even 'mild Eurosceptics' reconsider their stance. It was quietly concealed in the back pages of the press even when the information was made publically available, but here it is: the first attempt at a deployment for the fledgling European army. The mission, which was dubbed Eurofor Libya (Eurofor = European force, usually a short way of writing European Gendarmerie Force in the EU's Orwellian dialect), was supposed to be largely humanitarian.
It was unanimously agreed at the beginning of the month, as the Guardian article makes quite clear, but it was not revealed in major newspapers until at least the 10th. A brief summary of the proposals appeared here, but with nothing like the detail or scope. Not only does this show that our own government, and those of other European countries, are willing to hide the prospect of military deployments from their citizens, but it also contrasts sharply with the divided front that they were putting on. Why were they telling us, at the end of March, that European nations were bitterly divided, yet on the 2nd they'd apparently came to a unanimous conclusion - and a radical one, at that? Back in February, Ashton herself was denying that the EU would become involved. She publically said so here. So what made her change her mind? What made the other twenty-seven foreign ministers change their minds? And, most importantly, what made the twenty-seven heads of government change their minds? Doesn't have anything to do with this, does it? Van Rompuy's speech made no sense at the time, but, taken alongside the otherwise unexplained shift in opinion across the continent, does it represent a dramatic enhancement of his power, as President of the European Council? I may be grabbing at straws here, but what prompted every state in the European Union to change its mind? Is van Rompuy's reference to 'Europe' as a single military entity merely himself aggrandising his own position? Or is it the truth? Are the nations of Europe actually working together, behind the scenes on this? Or is van Rompuy's speech a coincidence? I don't know.
But I know what the Lisbon Treaty says:
'The common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign and security policy. It shall provide the Union with an operational capacity drawing on civilian and military assets. The Union may use them on missions outside the Union for peace-keeping, conflict prevention and strengthening international security'
As van Rompuy's own position was created as part of the Lisbon Treaty, and he relies on it for his own presidential power, he would have an interest in ensuring that every aspect of the treaty was acted upon. And this is the only part of the treaty which, as yet, Europe hasn't got around to dealing with in any meaningful way. The economics is sorted; new member states have each applied to join the euro, was agreed. But a common security and defence policy still eludes the EU leadership. But can he use the 'common security and defence policy' clause to launch military action? Is the common security and defence policy what they are taking the first steps towards building, now, in Libya? Is there a method in the EU's madness?
As I said, I don't know. I'm merely confused by the apparent lack of direction from a union that likes to think that it is a state - whose chief executive considers it an empire - and am casting around for answers. This one, however, seems more credible than the others, at least it does to me. And if I'm anywhere near correct, the EU is a lot more powerful than we thought.