New Times, 16 January 1998

The idea that Europe should have a common foreign policy was one of the great dreams of the founders of what has become the European Union – and in one sense their dream has been realised.

The EU simply has to have a common foreign policy as it processes applicants for membership and makes trade deals.

Who is in, who is out: there’s real power here, as any Cypriot or Turk or Czech or Slovak or Windward Islander will tell you.

But beyond the crude mechanisms for deciding membership of the club, the record is scratchy. On the big question of security policy since 1945 – what should we do to stop the Russians invading? – western Europe has never found any answer but to beg the United States provide a “nuclear guarantee”.

Since the end of the cold war the community of west European democracies has failed miserably to rise above the competing interests of its major member states when dealing with crises on its borders.

The west European response to the collapse of Soviet imperialism in 1989-92 was chaotic, determined partly by the perceived interests of the national governments of France, Britain and Germany and partly by the US. German unification almost split the west asunder.

Far worse, the “diplomacy” of the EU as Yugoslavia collapsed – orchestrated by Britain and France – merely encouraged Serbian territorial aggrandisement and genocide.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to be optimistic about the prospects for the EU initiative on Algeria, announced by British foreign secretary Robin Cook earlier this month.

It’s not that Algeria should be left to its own devices. It is clear that its government is running a policy of terrorism against its own people to legitimise its suppression of democracy. The state massacres of recent weeks are the latest in a long line since the generals mounted a coup to annul an Islamist victory in local elections in 1992.

The problem, however, is that the Algerian regime has been allowed to get away with it for so long because it has been backed by France, the old colonial power and still a force in the land, with the acquiescence or support of the rest of the west.

The argument was – and is – that if Algeria were to fall to the Islamists, Morocco and Egypt would not be far behind. In a short time, the whole of north Africa would be in “enemy” hands. The idea that the people of Algeria should be allowed to make their own choices (and their own mistakes) has never been allowed to get a look-in. The same goes for the possibility that the Islamists might just sustain a polity that is more liberal than the current one.

Of course, this anti-democratic paternalism has an immaculate left pedigree. The totalitarian regimes of “actually existing socialism” before 1989 always claimed that “the masses” were too simple, too stupid, too prone to influence by propaganda to be allowed to vote. A similar position is taken by apologists for “socialist” police states in Cuba and North Korea today. It is no accident, as the communists used to say, that many of the leading figures in the regime were once acolytes of Moscow.

But there’s no reason for the EU to adopt their line. Free elections will not stop the slaughter on their own – but nothing will stop the slaughter until there are free elections. If the delegation comes back with a ringing declaration in favour of democracy, and if the governments of the EU back it up with an offer to run the polls, the initiative will at least have made a mark. Anything less will be a very sick joke.

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