Conflict and Fragility


EU's diplomatic machine behind deal with Tehran

25 Nov 2013 - 17:25
Source: European External Actions Service (EEAS)

Maligned and shunned she may have been, but Catherine Ashton, the head of EU foreign policy, achieved in the wee hours of Sunday morning what the bravura and cunning of the Western and Israeli military have spent a decade failing to do.

Neither attacks by computer virus, nor threats of bombardment, nor the liquidation of scientists on the streets of Tehran clinched what this inconspicuous lady crafted: a halt in Iran’s nuclear programme, and the prospect of a “final, comprehensive solution” to the stand-off.

Geneva Deal

It is Lady Ashton, alongside the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who guided the discussions in Geneva that ended with a deal that will last the next six months — in effect, offering some seven billion dollars of cash to Iran in return for beefier inspections and paralyzed nuclear reactors. None of this is to say that other big national players did not throw their considerable weight.

US Secretary of State John Kerry had evidently sought a diplomatic jewel for his win-hungry boss, one to go alongside the head of Bin Laden and perhaps more becoming for a Nobel laureate. Foreign ministers from all the other members of the UN Security Council, as well as Germany, were also present and engaged in what was reportedly a whirligig of ministerial clusterings.

The effects of sanctions

The effects of sanctions, chronic Iranian inflation (running at forty percent, with basic foodstuffs spiralling even higher), long years of threats from Washington and Tel Aviv and the felicitous election in June of a moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, must all be computed as background causes for this breakthrough.

Yet it still takes a rather skilled persona to coax the Iranian theocratic establishment — surely no more than an offended text message away from Zarif's smartphone — into compromise. Cuba, after all, has found a perfect way of sustaining itself as a Marxist entity of sorts on the back of a 50-year US embargo. Threats and big sticks have not brought any notable benefit to the denizens in Zimbabwe, Belarus or, least of all, North Korea.

Part of this success must therefore rest with Ashton and her back office, all of them imbued with a sort of anti-charisma that is familiar to any regular visitor to Brussels. The more interesting question, however, is the extent to which the European Union as a diplomatic machine, despite all the derision heaped on it since the creation of the European External Action Service in 2009, might actually be ideally suited to addressing some of the dilemmas and grievances of 21st century geopolitics.

Black Thursday

Just two days before the Geneva turnaround, such a thought might have attracted no more than derisive mirth. “Black Thursday,” as the Ukrainian locals have called it, marked the moment at which Russian President Vladimir Putin decided he had enough of his neighbour's and former Soviet handmaiden's flirtation with the EU, and applied the basic techniques of economic blackmail.

The result was that the government in Kyiv tore up six years of negotiations on the inclusion of EU law in Ukrainian legislation and trade liberalization.

A large majority of Ukrainians seemingly supported the agreement that Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart summarily eliminated. Some of these europhiles manifested their discontent on a rainy Saturday in Kyiv, venting their rage at the way the hopes of reform and liberalism had been brutally sat upon by Slavic fraternities and the escalating price of Russian gas. By Sunday, the crowds had reportedly grown to some 100,000.

Attractions and defects of the EU

Their frustrations brought to mind the vivid words of the late British historian Tony Judt, who explained the attractions and the defects of the EU better than anyone. “For what is ‘Brussels’, after all, if not a renewed attempt to achieve that ideal of efficient, universal administration, shorn of particularisms and driven by rational calculation and the rule of law, which the great 18th-century monarchs — Catherine, Frederick, Maria Theresa, and Joseph II — strove to institute in their ramshackle lands?”

“The very rationality of the European Community ideal has made it appealing to that educated professional intelligentsia which, in east and west alike, sees in ‘Brussels’ an escape from hidebound practices and provincial backwardness.”

EU backlash

As Europe succumbs to its sixth year of economic sloth and austerity, with no magical solutions in sight nor prospect of redemption for the battered southern peoples, the backlash against this original rationalist cause has become unmistakable. Nationalists, xenophobes and euro-sceptics are waxing jubilantly in their respective domains; the far-right parties of France and the Netherlands have together pledged to slay “the monster in Brussels,” whereas Britain teeters gradually toward some measure of separation.

It is painfully clear that neither now nor in the near future will the EU sport a real army, an identifiable spirit of collective sacrifice, a combined intelligence service or a clear opinion on many major global issues — thereby depriving it of all the trappings which have traditionally served to acquire leverage on the higher tables of international affairs.

So as the EU succumbs to fragmentation and to innocuousness, becoming poorer, more divided and more vulnerable to Dutch extremists and Russian patriots, it is salutary to note that some respect is given to its rationalist origins. For it would seem that in a multi-polar world of emerging powers hustling for energy, wealth and power, it is sometimes preferable to sit down with a partner who finds the whole business of nation-building a little bit passé.

And as Kyiv showing, it is still mightily attractive to throw off provincial backwardness, even if the price is the terminal boredom of Brussels.