Last week, European leaders did one of the things they do best: look hesitant over how to handle a pressing foreign policy question. As the European Union’s leaders gathered for a summit in Brussels, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande declared the bloc should end its arms embargo on Syria, enabling them to send weapons to the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad. But their counterparts appeared convinced that this would only exacerbate the conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel seemed especially unfavorable toward the proposal, observing that “the fact that two have changed their minds” didn’t oblige the other 25 EU members to follow suit.
Merkel indicated that she had not definitively made up her mind on the issue, and EU foreign ministers will debate it again in Dublin later this week. Yet the chancellor and her skeptical colleagues have sent a signal to London and Paris about the limits of their influence over EU foreign policy. France and Britain may find that they now have to work much harder to define the bloc’s approach to major crises, especially if Germany is prepared to block their initiatives more consistently than in the recent past.
This comes precisely two years after France and Britain won out in the debate over how to handle the Libyan crisis, successfully advocating for military action against Moammar Gadhafi. This involved not only putting pressure on the initially wary Obama administration but also facing down widespread resistance within the EU. Although the German decision in March 2011 to abstain on the Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force in Libya is particularly widely remembered, many EU members shared Berlin’s qualms over the military option. “The eastern and southeastern Europeans,” German journalist Andreas Rinke noted “were appalled at how ruthlessly France and Great Britain attempted to push through their policies.”