European Diplomacy’s First Test

BRUSSELS – It took eight years of ill-tempered political wrangling to create the European Union’s new diplomatic service, but its fate – and that of its chief, Catherine Ashton – may well be decided over the next few weeks. The Union’s failure so far to respond adequately to the crisis engulfing the Arab world is sharpening knives in foreign ministries across Europe.

From the EU’s point of view, the turmoil engulfing the Arab world couldn’t have come at a worse time. The European External Action Service (EEAS), which is meant to enable the EU “to speak with one voice,” was launched only at the end of 2010 and many senior positions remain unfilled. But that is a poor excuse for the EU’s inability to put its stamp on the crisis.

Few know better than the Eurocrats of Brussels that the unrest now sweeping across Arab countries was only a matter of time in coming. Back in the 1990’s, EU officials, prompted by Spain, Italy, and France, began to shape a Mediterranean strategy to stimulate trade and investment in the Arab world. Europe already feared that rising youth unemployment in the region would create dangerous instability along Europe’s southern flank.

Known as the “Barcelona process,” this initiative proved weak and ineffective, because much of its funding was diverted to Eastern Europe for the EU’s ambitious enlargement drive. Recently, there have been efforts to revive the strategy by renaming it the Union for the Mediterranean, but still with little concrete achievement.