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
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
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
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.