Haiti: Europe's tragic opportunity
18 January 2010
However painstakingly planned out in advance, every EU presidency ends up facing an unforeseen crisis that forces it to reshuffle its priorities and puts its crisis response capabilities to the test. Haiti is turning into the first test of the new EU foreign policy institutions’ ability to take coordinated action.
After all the theoretical debates, bureaucratic rumpus and legalistic wrangling that have dogged the discussions in recent months, we have now got a real chance to see how coordination is going to work between the permanent and rotating presidencies. On the one hand, we have Lady Ashton, vice-president of the European Commission and EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, and the Belgian Karel de Gucht, the European commissioner for emergency aid; on the other, Teresa Fernández de la Vega, vice-president of the Spanish government, and Soraya Rodriguez, state secretary for international cooperation.
So far Lady Ashton has been disparaged for her low profile and lack of experience. Though she did a competent job at the confirmation hearing, her auditors were not overly enthusiastic about the pat answers she gave in an effort to steer clear of any controversy. The Spanish government, for its part, has not demonstrated tremendous coordination skills in its handling of recent international crises, and it got off to a turbulent start at the European helm thanks to mismanaged communication efforts. Now the moment of truth is at hand for both presidencies, as every minute lost to political bickering or upstaging tactics, lack of coordination or bureaucratic rivalries will have a real impact on thousands of people.
EU world’s biggest donor
Curiously enough, the crisis in Haiti coincides with an institutional mini-crisis in Europe over the emergency aid portfolio. Whilst all eyes are turned towards Haiti, gauging the efficacy of the international community’s aid efforts, the European Parliament is airing doubts about whether Bulgarian Rumiana Jeleva is a fit commissioner for humanitarian and emergency aid. This is in fact one of the key posts in Brussels, since the EU is the world’s biggest donor of development and emergency aid, way ahead of the US. But Jeleva made two mistakes at the confirmation hearings: for one thing, she gave unsatisfactory answers to the questions about her entrepreneurial activities in Bulgaria; for another, she didn’t seem to take her future responsibilities seriously, seeing as she failed to prep thoroughly for the hearing the way commissioners-designate usually do. The matter is likely to taint Barroso himself, who will have to explain why he would entrust the emergency aid portfolio to someone from the only EU country that doesn’t have an emergency aid office.
This parliamentary grilling is not quite the gridiron once used to flay Saint Lawrence of Rome (after all, times have changed), but even Commission veterans confess to feeling a stifling heat when grilled about the tiniest details of the Community portfolio they have been tapped for. The confirmation hearings, an import from the US, are most definitely demonstrating their efficacy. Indeed, given the oft-mooted ineffectiveness and democratic deficit purportedly plaguing EU institutions, these parliamentary hearings to confirm candidates for top posts cannot but be the envy of many another country.
Unlike the US, the EU is a power of a predominantly civilian nature. Washington has sent an aircraft carrier and 10,000 troops to Haiti. Such is its view of the world, but it should hardly be faulted for that: security is as vital as any other commodity. Ideally, Europe should be capable of providing at least some of what the US so far has been unable to get to this devastated Caribbean country: water, electricity, medical care, education, and institutions that work. Imposing order in the streets doubtless may seem easier to do than helping put a failed state back on its feet; but everyone should be judged according to their abilities and, clearly, Europe’s abilities are different from America’s. So solidarity with Haiti obliges us to put European commissioners and national governments on the (democratic) grill.