It’s supposed to be the crowning achievement of the decades-long dream that is European integration: Last December, the European Union inaugurated its European External Action Service (EEAS). Intended to implement the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European suprastate, the EEAS hopes to recruit some 5,400 civil servants and operate with an annual budget of over $4 billion. With a secretariat in Brussels and EU embassies around the world, the EEAS would resemble the foreign ministry of a sovereign state and allow for “the progressive framing of a common defense policy that might lead to a common defense.”

That’s the theory anyway. Given all of the internal strife the EU is facing (namely, a debt crisis that has thrown the very future of the eurozone in doubt), the notion that these squabbling 27 nations can come together to implement policies outside the EU’s borders seems more than a bit premature. Nothing better demonstrates this than the continent’s fractious response to the crisis in Libya.

Muammar Qaddafi’s war against his own people has presented the EU foreign policy apparatus with its first major test, a test it has failed. No sooner had Qaddafi opened fire than a rift emerged between two of the EU’s most important members. On one side stood Germany, which opposes Western military intervention. Berlin abstained from the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the enforcement of a no-fly zone, withdrew four ships in the Mediterranean from NATO command, and has publicly criticized the ongoing military campaign. The German development minister went so far as to accuse its traditional Western allies of hypocrisy, stating, “It is notable that exactly those countries which are blithely dropping bombs in Libya are still drawing oil from Libya.”

On the other side of the ledger is France, for whom the war seems to have as much to do with President Nicolas Sarkozy’s election prospects as it does with French national interests. Sarkozy felt the need to save face after his country’s disastrous reaction to the uprising in Tunisia, when he was forced to fire his foreign minister, who had taken a holiday there in the midst of revolutionary unrest and flown on the private jet of a businessman close to the deposed dictator, Zine Ben Ali. Germany’s refusal to join the coalition against Qaddafi has led to intra-European sniping; a French diplomat recently told Le Parisien newspaper that “[Chancellor] Angela Merkel will have to pay for this for a very long time.”

Of course, there are practical reasons why France supported intervention in Libya while Germany demurred. France has a Mediterranean coast and would have borne the brunt of a massive influx of refugees. It’s also a major market for Libyan oil and gas. Germany, on the other hand, does not abut the Mediterranean and receives a substantial amount of its energy supply from Russia (it’s for this reason that Germany has taken a much softer line on Moscow than the EU’s eastern members, which suffered for decades under brutal Soviet occupation).

Such divergences are in fact to be expected and can be found on practically every important foreign policy issue, illustrating why the Common Foreign and Security Policy is inherently flawed. Despite the EU’s pretensions to articulating a foreign policy that rises above the interests of individual states, realpolitik is still very much en vogue on the continent. No less a figure than Catherine Ashton, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, recently allowed that implementing a common foreign policy is akin to “flying an airplane while we are still building the wings and somebody is trying to take the tailfin off at the same time.”

Though a far cry from the destructive wars of old, present-day European bickering over foreign policy is nothing new. It took years of pressure from British prime minister Tony Blair to rise above the objections of his continental counterparts and get NATO intervention in the Balkans; ultimately it was the belated involvement of President Bill Clinton that convinced Europeans they had a responsibility to stop the genocide occurring on their doorstep. The Iraq war brought the contradictions of a common European foreign policy once again to the fore. The United Kingdom, where there has long been a debate about whether London should privilege its “special relationship” with the United States over its ties to the EU, chose to join the United States, while France and Germany led vociferous European opposition to the war. Meanwhile, Eastern European countries, fresh from the bonds of Soviet control, joined the coalition of the willing. Donald Rumsfeld’s use of the term “Old Europe” to distinguish Germany and France from the newly independent states, while perhaps undiplomatic, was not inaccurate.

The foreign policy disagreements among European countries stem from the grim particularities of the continent’s history as well as present-day national interests. In other words, they’re deeply rooted and are hardly diminishing. For obvious historical reasons, Germans are averse to the use of force to settle international disputes, and not just when it’s the United States taking up arms (the Iraq war was nowhere more unpopular in Europe than in Germany). According to Jeffrey Herf, a professor of German history at the University of Maryland, a new “mood” has emerged in German foreign policy circles seeking “the replacement of the primitive nationalisms of the past with multilateral principles of an integrated Europe,” which “assumes that webs of interdependence created by the global economy will make problems solvable through negotiations and dialogue.”

The existence of these formidable obstacles to forging a European consensus have not dissuaded Ashton from pressing forward with the dream of an integrated EU foreign policy. Last month at the Brussels Forum, an annual conference organized by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, I asked her if the dissension within the ranks over Libya threatened the prospects of the Common Foreign and Security Policy. Befitting a woman whose job it is to express the “view” of a 27-member bloc that can barely agree upon tariffs, let alone a war policy, she offered little more than diplomatic mush. “I don’t think you should see [this disagreement] as a negative; I think you should see it as really a positive. That Europe debates, decides, and moves forward together, and that’s what it’s doing.”

At best, what this approach amounts to is a lowest common denominator foreign policy. As long as individual EU members can veto action, the body’s decisions will always be determined by its most hesitant members. In the case of Libya, the EU was left to coordinate the evacuation of its citizens from that country, and little more. Not for nothing did France’s Le Monde editorialize that the body’s reaction to the Libyan crisis “demonstrates the immaturity of European security and defense policy, the poverty of the political debate, and the inadequacy of personnel.” A European diplomat echoed that pessimism, telling the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur that “the Common Foreign and Security Policy died in Libya—we just have to pick a sand dune under which we can bury it.”

None of this is to say that the idea of European integration is a bad thing. At the very least, it has had a damper effect on the more malevolent aspects of European nationalism; the notion of Europeans once again taking up arms against each other is a thankfully unimaginable prospect. And the EU has had an undeniably positive effect in its eastern “neighborhood,” encouraging candidate countries to develop liberal economic reforms, tackle corruption, and work harder to incorporate ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities. But the dream of subsuming the discordant national interests of 27 countries so that a coherent foreign policy can be erected in their place appears to have died in the bloody sands of North Africa.

James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

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