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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Aegean Crisis Bolsters Critics of EU

PARIS -- American efforts to defuse the latest confrontation in the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey have raised troubling questions about the European Union's continuing failure to resolve security crises in its own back yard.


Even as Europe ponders why it could not stop the war in Bosnia until the United States became engaged, the fact that Greece and Turkey turned to Washington for help in staving off a military conflict over an islet populated by a few goats demonstrated for some analysts here the futility of achieving a common foreign policy for the EU's 15 members.


"While President Clinton was on the phone with Athens and Ankara, the Europeans were literally sleeping through the night," Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said in an interview. "You have to wonder why Europe does not seem capable of taking decisive action in its own theater."


Holbrooke and other critics of European inaction say such hesitation and disarray could prove dangerously destabilizing when the Western alliance confronts potential future crises, such as the likely return to power of Communists in Russia and plans to expand the domain of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization up to Russia's doorstep.


Under intense American pressure, Greek and Turkish warships backed away from a looming clash over rival claims to sovereignty over the uninhabited islet in the eastern Aegean. Greece announced Wednesday that it views "with a positive eye" Washington's proposal to resolve the ownership question through the World Court in The Hague.


When the crisis erupted last week, the EU stayed on the sidelines even though Aegean island sovereignty has long been an explosive issue for Greece, an EU member, and Turkey, a candidate for membership. Cyprus, a Mediterranean island divided into Greek and Turkish sectors since Turkish troops landed there in 1974, hopes to enter the EU within three years.


French officials blamed Europe's lack of response on the political vacuum in Italy, which now holds the EU's rotating presidency but is awaiting the formation of a new government. But they acknowledged that Europe lacks a policy toward the area because Greece and Britain have refused to accept the EU's intervention in the Cyprus dispute.


"The Europeans must share in the responsibility for this crisis because they have refused to take any initiative for years," wrote Jose-Alain Fralon in the influential French newspaper Le Monde. "They have to realize that relations between Athens and Ankara will only become normal when a solution is found to the Cyprus problem." With Europe dawdling, Holbrooke declared before the latest crisis that the United States would make Cyprus one of its top foreign policy priorities this year. Clinton has appointed New York lawyer Richard Beattie as his special envoy to Cyprus.


In an interview, Holbrooke said the more aggressive diplomacy adopted by the administration reflected its anxiety about the dangers of a clash between two NATO allies in the southeastern Mediterranean and the painful realization that Europe is not ready to assume greater responsibility for its own security problems.


But the new American activism in Europe also reflects disillusionment with multilateral diplomacy, both with the United Nations and the European Union in light of its failure to mature into a cohesive organization willing to assert leadership in resolving crises on its own continent.


"The lessons of Bosnia are clear for all to see," Holbrooke said. "Unless the United States is prepared to put its political and military muscle behind the quest for solutions to European instability, nothing really gets done."