- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

DUBLIN — Ireland takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union for six months in January at a big moment in the bloc’s history. On May 1, 10 countries, most of them formerly communist, are to join the Brussels-based club, increasing its membership to 25 states and its population to more than 450 million.

So does Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen feel the weight of history bearing down on him?

“I don’t feel a hand on my shoulder,” said Mr. Cowen, 43, after making a speech to members of the Royal Irish Academy on the “New World Order.”

In his address, Mr. Cowen rejected both the unilateral approach to world affairs favored by Washington, and French President Jacques Chirac’s vision of the globe divided into competing blocs.

“History has taught us that the balance-of-power model — the ‘concert of great powers’ of previous centuries — ends up sooner or later as a funeral march.”

Mr. Cowen, a former solicitor who is tipped as a possible successor to Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, is a passionate believer in the multilateral system. But he also believes the United Nations must undergo a root-and-branch reform to make it more relevant in the 21st century.

“We cannot on the one hand denounce multilateralism and, on the other, refuse to take the action necessary to make the United Nations system a more effective instrument for addressing threats to peace and security,” he said.

During his six months as the EU’s “diplomat-in-chief,” Mr. Cowen intends to push for U.N. reform to make the Security Council “more representative of today’s geopolitical realities.”

The Irish foreign minister, who took up his post three years ago, also aims to work hand-in-hand with Washington to bring an end to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

“At present, the enemies of the peace process are determining the pace of the peace process, which makes it impossible to chart a durable and sustainable solution,” he said. “A political space needs to be made for dialogue to pursue a cease-fire.”

Mr. Cowen is quick to condemn Tel Aviv for building a 450-mile barrier — 96 percent fence and 4 percent wall — between the Israeli and Palestinian communities. The wall “sends all the wrong messages to those who are trying to drive the negotiating process forward,” he said.

However, Mr. Cowen has no use for a recent poll that showed Europeans consider Israel the greatest threat to world peace.

“I don’t think we can draw from this that the EU is anti-Israel,” he said. “For too long, there are elements on both sides of the argument who are trying to push a situation where the United States is regarded as the proxy for the Israeli position and the EU is the proxy for the Palestinian position.”

Ireland has always seen itself as a bridge between the United States and Europe, and Mr. Cowen aims to use his country’s presidency of the European Union to put trans-Atlantic ties on a more stable footing following the bitter divisions over Iraq.

“We can’t keep going on about the Iraq problem,” he said. “The fact is the debate has moved on to how to rebuild Iraq, how to provide security in Iraq and how to move more quickly towards sovereignty for an interim Iraqi administration.”

Mr. Cowen acknowledged that there are “difficulties on the trade side” of the relationship, but he believes they are blown out of proportion.

“Sometimes, if you listen to all this talk of trade wars between the EU and the United States, one would think the whole trade policy was in total disarray,” he said. “The fact is there are differences on steel, on chemicals and other issues, but at the same time, the trade disputes between the EU and the U.S. constitute less than 3 percent of total trade.”

Mr. Cowen, who was at the forefront of the government’s campaign to persuade the Irish public to support enlargement of the European Union, is in no doubt that May’s historic expansion of the bloc will be in Ireland’s interests.

“Every previous enlargement has brought benefits to Ireland in terms of more access to markets, more investment and more jobs at home,” he said. “We live or die by our exports here, and to increase the European market by 150 million people can only be good for us.”

Since Ireland joined the European Union three decades ago, it has gone from being one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. Many smaller Central and Eastern European countries — such as Slovenia and Estonia — hope to follow in the Emerald Isle’s footsteps, but Mr. Cowen warns that this is not an automatic process.

“We are very quick to point out that membership of the EU is not a guarantee of economic success, growth and prosperity, but certainly there is a better chance of realizing those ambitions together than acting alone outside Europe,” he said. “I think the new members will grasp the economic opportunity with both hands, because it has been denied their countries for so long.”

The debate about the rights and wrongs of enlargement is now largely over, but EU leaders continue to haggle over a draft constitution that is meant to bring the Brussels-based bloc closer to its citizens.

So will it succeed in its lofty goal? Mr. Cowen appears to think so.

“We need to show citizens that the EU has a role to play with dealing with illegal immigration, trans-national crime and other issues which affect all citizens,” he said. “Politics at the end of the day is seen as relevant to its citizens when it produces results.”

Mr. Cowen, who prides himself on being a political pragmatist rather than a visionary, also dismisses tabloid claims that the European Union’s first-ever constitution will result in a United States of Europe.

“The fact of the matter is that we are not going to have a federal super-state in Europe,” he said. “It’s a union of states and citizens.”

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