The European Union and North Africa

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, May 2001 | Go to article overview

The European Union and North Africa

Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review

THE European Union, as it develops internally, and externally through enlargement, has constantly to keep under review its relations with the rest of the world. It was clear, from its inception that, unless its members were to make an uncharacteristic gesture of collective renunciation, its economic weight would make it a major player on the world scene, and that is what it is, despite the current poor performance of the euro and a good deal of dithering and equivocation on certain key issues. There are those who doubt its political effectiveness, claiming that there are altogether too many ghosts at the Eurobanquet, and believing it to be a little too pretentious for its own or others' good, prone to muddy the waters rather than clear them. Quite where it fits in, in a world where supranational organisations flourish, unelected and thus unaccountable to anyone but themselves, is a question that occupies the minds of politicians and officials in its member countries and in the Commission. Or so one hopes.

In the meantime it is there. The question of what it should do and how, without duplicating or complicating the work of others, is likely to become more difficult to answer as it grows larger and thus more difficult to harmonise and administer. If former President Clinton's exhortation that it should extend its membership to Russia was meant to be taken seriously its future horizons could extend to the frontiers of Central Asia. Whether it does or does not eventually extend so far, and whatever one may now think of the Colonial experience to which the Second World War effectively brought an end, it is already the case that there is almost no part of the world on which the EU's members have not individually, at one time or another, made an impact, left a cultural tradition (even if only an unhappy parody of the original) and a habit of looking at the world and its inhabitants in a particular way. Even if the lessons they tried to teach appear now to have been parroted, they still affect men's thinking.

What the EU, in its external dimension, tried hard not to be, is a form of neocolonialism, old wine in a new bottle. In the unlikely eventuality that the former colonial powers might try to re-invent themselves in this way, there are enough non-former colonial member states to frustrate them, the Scandinavians and Irish in particular, the latter once themselves colonised. So the EU is, in international terms, a new thing, seeing itself as benevolent, altruistic, impartial, the embodiment of everyman's democratic aspirations, keeper, in a sense, of the European conscience, one purged by the passage of time. It is also rich and disposed, in its fashion, to be reasonably generous, and that, in the eyes of many, counts for more than what they see as the high falutin' and sometimes inconvenient principles it claims to embody.

The EU has two main parts, the Council and the Commission. The Commission has no independent role in foreign affairs. That is the prerogative of the Council, of Foreign Ministers or of Heads of State and Government, the former meeting monthly at Brussels, the latter twice yearly (once during each presidency), bringing inconvenience and a sometimes unwelcome media attention to the citizens of places like Edinburgh or Nice (poor Lord Brougham must have turned in his nearby grave).

The handmaids of these august assemblies are Senor Solana and Mr Patten, the two External Affairs Commissioners. To them is delegated the task of projecting the EU's influence abroad, as directed by the Council. Their remit is wide, as wide as the world itself, and embraces many fields. Working with them is the Development Commissioner. The Council may determine the ends, but it is the Commission that wills the means, or, more accurately, persuades the Council to do so, sees to the nitty-gritty without losing sight of the big picture, which is what, despite themselves, busy ministers and Heads of State sometimes do, being human and easily diverted. …

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