- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

A leading European Union foreign policy official says the bloc can still be an effective actor on the world stage despite the stinging repudiation of a new EU constitution by voters in France and the Netherlands this week.

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, head of external relations for the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, conceded in an interview that the “no” votes were “a serious setback” for the 25-nation bloc requiring a “period of reflection” for Europe’s political leaders.

“But we are still here. We are still open for business as we have always been. There is no meltdown for Europe,” she said in an interview Wednesday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

Designed to make the enlarged EU function more efficiently, the constitution proposed major changes to the bloc’s foreign policy and security functions.

It would create a single, permanent foreign policy chief and an EU diplomatic corps to represent the bloc around the globe. Both ideas now appear on indefinite hold as EU leaders decide whether they can or should revive the ratification drive.

There has been speculation on both sides of the Atlantic that the constitution’s implosion will usher in a long period of introspection and paralysis, leaving the EU little energy for major foreign policy moves.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met with a delegation of senior EU officials including Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner yesterday, said, “We understand that this has been a difficult period and that there will be some period of reflection” for EU leaders.

“But we continue to hope for an outward-looking Europe, not an inward-looking one,” she added.

In the interview, Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner, a former Austrian foreign minister before she took the EU post last year, pointed to an international gathering the United States and EU will be hosting later this month to assist Iraq’s new government as proof the EU is still functioning.

EU powers Britain, France and Germany have taken the lead on talks to end Iran’s nuclear weapons programs and the EU is a partner with the United States, Russia and the United Nations in a diplomatic push to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The constitution was drafted “so that we could do better and do more, but we are still here, we will go on,” she said.

Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner said EU leaders should not act rashly in the wake of the French and Dutch votes. She said many factors fueled the anti-EU sentiment, from fears of a loss of sovereignty and unchecked immigration to hostility to capitalism and the prospect of Turkey one day joining the bloc.

But she said Europe’s political leaders should remain committed to the idea of deepening and expanding the alliance.

“Clearly in a globalized world, it is important for Europe to speak with one voice,” she said.

“Maybe some of our people have not fully digested the enlargement of the union to 25 states, but it is the duty of good leaders to carry the people along with them,” she added.

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