BRUSSELS: Iran’s agreement on Tuesday to accept tougher checks on its nuclear programme and suspend uranium enrichment appeared to be a victory for a controversial new style of European leadership.
With the United States unwilling or unable to talk to Tehran, the big three European Union powers — Britain, France and Germany — stepped in to negotiate a deal offering economic and technological benefits in return for nuclear compliance.
Washington initially opposed the initiative, arguing Iran’s rulers should not be offered any reward, diplomats said. But the Bush administration appears to have accepted assurances from Britain, its closest European ally, that the offer was worthwhile if it halts a suspected secret atomic arms programme.
As on a range of other current policy issues, the Big Three made their move outside the framework of the EU, on the brink of expanding to become a potentially unwieldy 25-nation bloc.
The same governments have been meeting privately to narrow differences on future European defence integration and its impact on Nato. Their interior ministers, along with those of Spain and Italy, now hold regular “big five” meetings on key internal security issues.
The three foreign ministers did not bother to take along their Italian colleague, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, nor EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who is supposed to represent their common foreign policy abroad.
“If it turns out this issue can be solved by negotiation, that would be good for Europe, for Iran and for world peace,” said Solana, who helped prepare the ground by visiting Tehran and maintaining contact with the chief UN nuclear watchdog.
“DIRECTOIRE”?: Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini put a brave face on his exclusion from the Tehran trip in an eve-of-mission letter to his three colleagues, reported by his ministry.
Even though Italy supported the trio’s mission to Tehran, “it did not think it fitting to join given its position as president of the European Union,” Frattini wrote.
Some European officials say the Big Three initiatives are welcome because they unite a broad spectrum of opinion within the EU, bridging the divide between anti-war “Old Europe” and pro-American “New Europe” that surfaced over the Iraq war.
Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Bart Jochems said the Netherlands was not concerned that the EU’s foreign policy was being dominated by its largest members, since smaller countries had “ample opportunity” to influence it.
“When France and Great Britain speak for all of the EU members, then their position is considerably stronger,” he said.
But to some other EU member states, the new leadership pattern smacks of an unwelcome “directoire”, while to others, it is a necessary evil that carries a barely veiled warning.
“The message to the smaller states is clear: if the bigger countries are not given more weight within an enlarged EU in the new constitution, they will simply act outside it,” one Nordic diplomat said.
UNCOMFORTABLE LESSON: That lesson is uncomfortable for small and medium-sized EU states fighting to preserve voting weights disproportionate to their population in EU decision-making, and keep a seat for each country in the European Commission boardroom.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar insists his country will not be relegated to the “children’s table” in EU affairs.
Austria, leery of policy being dictated by the big states, has been vocal in resisting efforts to curb the size of the EU executive and end the six-monthly rotation of the bloc’s presidency among all member states.
“The European idea can only work if no one is dominant over the others,” Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner said at last week’s inconclusive summit on a new EU constitution.
Poland, the biggest of the 10 new member states that join the EU next May, is worried not only by being shut out of a core group of major powers but also, for historical reasons, of being outvoted by Germany or sidelined by a Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis.
“Thank God, Europe today is not only current leaders of Germany and France. It seems partly thanks to Poland the danger of a Nato disintegration has been averted,” the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita said on Tuesday.—Reuters