The EU faces bigger challenges in Africa than in Ireland

Commentary

The "crisis" created by Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty is pretty tame - the EU faces far greater dangers in East Africa. But Lisbon could help solve them.

Last week, Ireland narrowly avoided a crisis that would have given anti-European politicians a major boost and been a severe blow to EU security cooperation.

On reading that statement, you will assume that I have lost my memory or my mind.  For many pundits, the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty has been just such a crisis.

But the fuss over the "no" vote has almost entirely obscured events involving Irish peacekeepers serving with the EU in Chad last Saturday.  The troops came under fire during a rebel assault on a refugee camp. Both Chad's president and a UN spokesman have criticized the EU Force for failing to halt the attack (the UN has since apologized).

Luckily, the Irish did not take casualties.  Had they done so, the tone of debate on Lisbon would have been very different over the last few days.  Pundits might not ask if the Irish had "killed" the Treaty if they had suffered real killing.  Politicians would find it rather harder to muse on Ireland's future in the EU if it had just sacrificed troops for the Union.

More fundamentally, the EU would have been left in external as well as internal disarray.

As it is, the events in Chad act as a useful reminder that while Ireland's vote on Lisbon was certainly problematic, it's a pretty tame sort of crisis by international standards.

By contrast, Saturday's assault on the refugee camp was just part of a long-running and very brutal crisis - one that could suck in the EU because of its 3,000-strong military presence in Chad.

The attack was carried out by rebels backed by Sudan, and Chad's government claims that Sudanese forces have been directly involved in fighting in the east of the country.  For now, it looks like Chad has held off the rebels, but the lull is likely to be temporary. 

Alex de Waal, an expert on the region who was involved in efforts to find a peace deal for Darfur, has concluded that the EU peacekeepers may face an "international war".

That isn't what Ireland and other contributors to the (still largely French) force signed up to.  The mission was primarily meant to provide some security for humanitarian efforts.

That's a noble mission and one that's relatively easy to sell domestically, especially in a country like Ireland with long traditions of neutralism and commitment to peacekeeping.

But it isn't a sufficient response to the crises in East Africa today.  These extend beyond Chad and Sudan to include Ethiopia and Eritrea (which have been close to war over the last year) and Somalia (a worse humanitarian crisis than Darfur, the UN said this week).

There isn't a country in the Horn of Africa that isn't currently experiencing violence or at high risk of it.  Even the one island of stability in the region, the small former French colony of Djibouti, has found itself drawn into border skirmishes with Eritrea - as it's a major base for France and the U.S., the French have been providing logistical back-up.

At a seminar on the European Security Strategy held in Rome at the start of this month, one participant predicted that these African crises could cohere into a regional conflict on a scale that could dwarf the horrors in Darfur.  The participants saw the risk, but their discussions were already overshadowed by doubts about the Lisbon Treaty's viability.

It would be tragic if the Irish vote meant that the EU now took its eye off events in Africa when the risks are so great. There are, of course, a host of other pressing foreign issues - from Kosovo to climate change - that are far higher up the European priority list.

But the news from Chad shows that the East African situation is particularly urgent.  And if it were to result in serious losses or a humiliating retreat for the EU Force in Chad, the political ramifications for future efforts at security cooperation could be very serious.

So if the EU wants to show that it has not been knocked off course, Africa is one place to start.  European leaders know that: when EU foreign ministers met on Monday, they not only discussed the Lisbon Treaty but received a briefing on the situation in East Africa. 

So, military missions aside, what can be done? There is a need for an international drive for a regional security conference that could hammer out a credible framework for resolving border disputes, guaranteeing peace agreements and rehabilitating rebel groups.

The EU could not set this up on its own: the African Union and UN are far better-positioned to take a political lead.  The U.S. (which sees East Africa as a front against terror) and China (which buys its raw materials) must join in.  But the EU could play an essential role in coordinating a conditional financial support to back up the deal-making.

It is in just such a situation that the High Representative and External Action Service proposed by the Lisbon Treaty would be extremely useful coordinators.  While Irish voters rejected the treaty last week, the risks being run by Irish forces in Chad are a potent reminder of why the EU needs new diplomatic tools to deliver effective strategies. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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