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Confusion Reigns in EU Response to Gaza War
[Opinion] Sarkozy's success could undermine Czech EU presidency
Timothy James Neale (Two4Tea)     Print Article 
Published 2009-01-08 11:15 (KST)   
As the conflict in Gaza entered its 12th day, some of the diplomatic activity was beginning to pay off. A three-hour cease-fire gave some respite. On Wednesday afternoon it appeared that the French-Egyptian initiative, put together by France's hyperactive president, Nicolas Sarkozy, could lead to a permanent cease-fire.

However, the process has exposed the institutional weaknesses in the European Union that the Lisbon treaty was meant to address.

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The Problems of the Rotating Presidency

Presidency of the Council of the European Union, commonly known as the EU presidency, rotates between the member states of the EU. Each holds the post for six months. The EU presidency should not to be confused with the president of the European Commission, a post currently held by Jose Manuel Barroso.

This arrangement is fine when the presidency is held by one of the larger states, but smaller states can find their diplomatic services overloaded. If this is the case, the previous holder and the next in line help out.

Israel launched its attack on Gaza on Dec. 27. If the attack was intended to come when the EU would be least able to respond, then it could not have been better timed. With the holiday season in full swing, the Schuman quarter of Brussels, home of much of the EU bureaucracy, was all but deserted.

The EU presidency was due to pass from a big pro-EU country, France to the small Eurosceptic Czech Republic on Jan. 1. The Czechs, along with Germany blamed Hamas for the situation in Gaza. France, the UK, Ireland and Luxembourg criticized the "disproportionate" use of force by Israel.

French Action, Czech Blunders

In one of its last acts as president, France called a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Dec. 30. Their call for a cease-fire was ignored by Israel.

Even though the Czechs we due to take over on the New Year, Sarkozy was not yet willing to cede centre stage. French and EU officials felt the Czechs were not up to the job. They were particularly worried about the Czech president, the virulently Eurosceptic Vaclav Klaus. In October France had annoyed the Czechs by suggesting Sarkozy should stay on as a quasi-EU president.

The Czechs seem determine to prove their doubters right. On Jan. 3 they published a statement on behalf of the EU saying the Israeli ground assault was, "more defensive than offensive." The next day changed their position, saying, "Even the undisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians." They blamed the mistake on spokesman Jiri Potuznik.

Lots of Talking, Nothing to Show

The official EU mission led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg arrived in the Middle East at the beginning of this week. This mission is comprised of the French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt, the EU's top diplomat Javier Solana and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

At the same time President Sarkozy travelled to the region on his own mission to Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine.

Tony Blair, the former PM of the UK and now Middle East envoy for the Quartet of the United Nations, EU, United States and Russia, is also in the region adding another EU sponsored voice.

None of these parties could have much leverage with the Israelis -- who have had the unconditional support of the Bush administration -- although Israel has now agreed, "on the principles" of the French-Egyptian proposal.

This confusion is one of the problems which the Lisbon treaty is supposed to address. Under Lisbon, the EU will have a permanent president and foreign minister. Tony Blair is one of those tipped for the job of EU president if Lisbon ever gets ratified. Apart from Ireland, which rejected the treaty in a referendum last summer, the most anti-Lisbon country in the EU is the Czech Republic.

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Should Israel implement a cease-fire in Gaza?  (2009-01-02 ~ 2009-01-26)
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©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Timothy James Neale

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