Published on June 10th, 2013 |
by Katharina Obermeier
Image © Freedom House
The Limits to Political Union: The EU and Syria
Last week, while several media outlets were still obsessing over whether or not the EU would ban refillable olive oil jugs in restaurants, the Council of the European Union released a declaration renewing its sanctions against Syria for another year. However, the arms embargo previously upheld by EU member states against Syria was not renewed and will expire on 1 August. Although member states have committed not to supply arms to the country at the present, the expiry of the embargo leaves open the option for them to do so at a later stage.
The declaration was the result of a compromise following intensive negotiations among the 27 member state governments. The UK and France blocked the attempts by other member states to renew the arms embargo, arguing that the EU should send a strong signal of support to the Syrian opposition and that member states should be free to provide these groups with weapons should the situation demand it. Other governments fiercely opposed this reasoning, but compromised in the end in order to avoid a collapse in negotiations and maintain the other sanctions related to trade and finances.
This struggle and resulting compromise in the Council of the EU brings up a number of difficult questions, one of which is whether France and the UK were right to insist on dropping the arms embargo. There is no doubt that the conflict in Syria, the actions by the Assad government and the resulting death toll are horrific and intolerable. More difficult to determine is how the international community can help resolve it. While it is natural for those outside the conflict to want to help, history is littered with failed international interventions in intrastate or regional conflicts (Afghanistan and Somalia spring to mind). In several instances, one could argue that careless intervention has in fact created more problems than it solved. Therefore, any type of international intervention must be carefully planned and considered, whether it takes the form of supplying weapons, a direct military campaign or a peacekeeping mission under the auspices of an international organisation, such as the United Nations or the Arab League. Of these options, the provision of arms appears to be the most likely to be abused or result in unintended consequences, particularly considering the notoriously fragmented nature of the opposition in Syria.
Regardless of the merits of this strategy, the issue highlights once again the problems and deep sensitivities surrounding the EU’s approach to foreign and security policy. Since the EU has from the start been a peace-making project, it feels pressure to reflect this mandate in its dealings with non-EU partners as well. In its own “backyard”, it has been involved in innumerable initiatives and negotiations aimed at reducing intra- and interstate hostilities, such as the current peace talks between Kosovo and Serbia. However, when it comes to military intervention, the EU tends to display hesitance and unease. This is partly because direct armed confrontation could be seen as contrary to the EU’s stated mission of fostering peace by developing economic relations and political dialogue. It is also partly because the concept of a truly common security policy among EU member states is still a sensitive subject – for obvious reasons, national defence remains the last bastion of member state power. And as the Council’s disagreement over the best approach in Syria demonstrates, member states often have fundamentally different opinions on this subject.
Unfortunately for Syrian citizens, if talks aimed at finding a political solution to the conflict fail, a concerted international effort may be the only thing that can force the Assad government into submission, through military or other means. In this respect, the Council’s failure to present a unified front to the world, and the debate this has provoked internationally, is not a good sign.
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