Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010

Europe Grumbles About Backseat Role in Haiti

Europe went into response mode just hours after the Haiti earthquake struck two weeks ago, scrambling to organize search and rescue teams, making aid pledges and rushing medical units to the stricken island. But even though European countries have pledged $600 million in aid so far and European teams have been involved in some of the more dramatic rescues of survivors trapped beneath the rubble, some leaders grumble that the continent is being forced to take a back seat in the operations — exacerbating the already high anxiety over whether Europe has lost its status as a world power.

The backbiting has begun in earnest. In Brussels and other capitals, officials bemoan the media images suggesting the U.S. is running the show and Europe is playing a marginal role. They've also complained loudly about U.S. heavy-handedness in sending troops to take over Port-au-Prince's shattered airport. "This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," Alain Joyandet, France's International Cooperation Minister, said after U.S authorities diverted a French medical flight to Santo Domingo. And on Sunday, Guido Bertolaso, the head of Italy's disaster relief agency, called the U.S.-led efforts a "pathetic" failure that is turning a tragedy into a "vanity show for the television cameras."

There have also been mutterings within Europe that the supposedly new-and-improved, post-Lisbon-Treaty European Union has not made more of an aggressive effort to "fly the flag." At the European Parliament last week, politicians lined up to lambaste the E.U.'s new foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, for not jumping on a flight to Port-au-Prince when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived there. One parliament member from France, Marielle de Sarnez, told her, "Politics is above all about symbols, and that is why I don't think you should be here, but in Haiti."

Ashton tried to argue that landing space at Port-au-Prince's crowded airport should be reserved for the most needed goods and materials rather than foreign dignitaries, and that her presence would not have improved the relief efforts. But she was even criticized by her fellow European Commissioner, Michel Barnier, who pointed out that when he was France's Foreign Minister, he was "immediately available" on the ground following the Asian tsunami in 2004. Following his experience there, Barnier issued a report in 2006 calling for better E.U. coordination in crises, the creation of a Europe Aid agency and even a common uniform for all staff of the European civil protection force. Last week, he was said to be fuming that his proposals had been ignored.

That many of the gripes over Europe's lack of a leading role in the operation have been French can partly be attributed to history: France was Haiti's former colonial master and still feels a kinship with the island. But the complaining also reflects wider European concerns about the continent's place in a new world order dominated by the U.S. and China. It was only two months ago that the E.U.'s much-delayed Lisbon Treaty came into effect, creating the new E.U. foreign policy chief post to give the bloc a stronger voice in global affairs. Although Ashton still needs to be confirmed by the European Parliament, many expected her to have already started showcasing the E.U.'s revamped institutions.

Europe also felt left out last month at the Copenhagen climate change summit when China and the U.S. hammered out the final deal on their own. Many saw this as a stinging rebuke since Europe had played a major role in putting climate change on the global agenda in the first place. And the continent can't point to any recent successes on the diplomatic front, either. E.U. efforts at resolving the split between the Greek and Turkish halves of Cyprus have yet to bear fruit. And the "E.U.-3" countries — Britain, France and Germany — have been unable to resolve the Iran nuclear problem with or without the help of the U.S. and China, despite five years of talks with Tehran.

"The Haiti disaster comes at a time of great uncertainty about the E.U's new structures and role of Ashton," says Rosa Balfour, a senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Center think tank. But she adds that European leaders should be focusing on more important things in Haiti, not their bruised egos. "The number one priority for Europe should be to identify the best relief coordinator in Haiti, not who should be in the spotlight and getting the international applause."

Officials in Brussels regularly cite the fact that the E.U. provides more development and humanitarian aid than any other country when contributions from all 27 members and the European Commission are added together. And the E.U's past experience in other disaster areas suggests that it will be well placed to deliver the developmental support that Haiti will need over the next decade or so to recover and rebuild. But that might not be enough for some, who feel that Europe deserves more recognition for its efforts now — or at least a guaranteed landing slot at the airport.

Read more in the new TIME book Earthquake Haiti: Tragedy and Hope and support TIME's Haiti relief efforts.