Sunday, 25 September 2011

Palestinian UN bid divides Europe

I'm at JFK about to fly back to Brussels, and all around the airport you can see signs of this week's general assembly at the United Nations. I saw several pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrations scattered around the city over the past few days, mostly outside hotels where I assume diplomats and leaders were staying.

Despite the best efforts of the United States and her allies to convince him not to, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went ahead on Friday with his request to have the UN recognise Palestine as a 'non-voting observer' member. The machinations around this have been described as a slow-motion "diplomatic car crash" by diplomats. Coming as it does in the middle of the 'Arab spring', the United States knows it will look bad if they use their veto in the security council to deny the request. On the other hand, their close alliance with Israel means that the US government believes it has no choice but to veto the move.

But will the US be the only one to issue the veto? And which US allies will support the bid in a full assembly vote? Europe is showing characteristic disunity on the issue. France, which also holds veto power on the security council, is supporting the Palestinian bid. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg have joined France with their support.

On the other side of the debate stands the UK, America's closest ally in Europe and another veto-holder. The UK has been working hard to convince the Palestinians not to go ahead with their bid but instead return to direct negotiations with Israel. It is still not clear whether they would also veto the bid, but they will most likely abstain from the vote and let the US take the heat for the veto.

Italy, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have fallen in line with the UK (although it is not clear whether Czech President Vaclav Klaus was speaking for the Czech government when he backed a US veto in his speech to the general assembly this weekend). Several key states such as Germany have yet to indicate their position on the issue. Given its general foreign policy, it seems likely Germany will support Israel

The differing positions are another painful reminder that the EU that it has yet to develop any effective apparatus to enable it to speak with one coordinated voice on foreign policy. This problem was supposed to be solved by the creation of the EU External Action Service (EEAS) and its high representative Catherine Ashton. The idea is that big foreign policy issues like this are supposed to be coordinated.

But Ashton is nowhere to be seen in this debate. Given that a US veto is guaranteed, the specific opinions of each member state could be seen as being rather irrelevant in this particular debate. To that extent, perhaps coordinated foreign policy isn't needed in this instance. But if EU member states can be so far apart on an issue like this, it seems fair to assume that if a very consequential foreign policy issue came up in the future where Europe being united would make a real difference to the outcome, there would be a similar result. If Europe can't unite on the small questions, how will it unite on the large ones?

There will be quite a diplomatic tango playing out over the coming weeks here in New York. As this continues, it will be interesting to see if the EEAS is able to get Europe speaking with a more united voice on the issue.

No comments: