It may be time to admit that there will never in fact be a common European foreign and security policy. Long before the crisis over Iraq erupted, momentum towards the creation of such a policy was quietly ebbing away. Now the European Union not only is split down the middle on the most important issue of the day but will also, on present form, find itself in the same quandary every time there is a serious possibility of a fundamental breach with the US.

In its own region, the EU will have to go on trying at least to achieve common policies and a stronger role in maintaining security - if only because the US is likely to be less committed to doing so - in the Balkans, the west of the former Soviet Union, the Turkish-Greek-Cypriot imbroglio and the Maghreb.

The EU will almost certainly have to abandon any hope of either confronting, or seriously influencing, the US on any issue that a US administration considers of real importance, including the militarisation of space, nuclear proliferation and, above all, Israel. Successful confrontation would require measures more radical than any yet contemplated by European governments, while Tony Blair has
demonstrated that even support for the US that entails great domestic political risks brings no extra influence in Washing ton over matters of substance.

Note, too, that when it comes to the really important aspect of support for the US over Iraq, no European country has stepped out of line. In the end, the question of whether Germany or Italy agrees or disagrees publicly with the US is largely irrelevant to real US needs. Italy supports US policy but it is not sending troops to the Gulf and the US is not asking for them.

The US needs Europe for its military bases - and, above all, air bases and the odd communications centre such as Fylingdales in Yorkshire. And no European government has yet suggested denying the US the right to use these bases for war with Iraq, let alone closing them altogether.

The same can be said about European policies towards the Middle East peace process. Israel has shown that it is impervious to diplomatic pressure. The US has made clear that economic pressure would be seen by the US as tantamount to a European attack on its own vital interests, something Britain and other countries would implacably resist. So here too, barring an appalling convulsion, EU policy is, in effect, paralysed.

Especially in France, it is being suggested by some commentators that the way forward is to start again from the beginning. In certain crucial areas the original core of the EU would be re-founded: Germany, France and Benelux, with the other members relegated to a variety of outer spheres. This idea, however, cannot stand much serious analysis. The grouping would be economically incoherent, because it would exclude several important members of the including Italy; and it would be militarily feeble, because it would exclude Britain.

Above all, however, this group would be incoherent even over foreign and security policy. Despite opposition to war with Iraq, the German foreign and security elites, unlike the French, are determined to keep the US engaged in Europe. Moreover, for obvious and dreadful historical reasons, the Germans will for the foreseeable future never agree to sanctions against Israel. On vital issues therefore the new inner group would be not much different from the outer one and no more capable of acting effectively on the inter-national stage.

Oddly enough, one thing that could possibly enhance Europe's role, in the Middle East at least, would be the partial consequence of US policy. As a former senior US official declared in my presence, the US has "done everything but slap the German government across the face" in an effort to get the EU to agree to Turkish membership.

That Turkey should join the EU still seems highly unlikely - sharing common borders with Syria, Iraq and Iran would hardly be a boon to European security. But if Turkey ever did join, the EU would then be present in the Middle East and the US and Israel would be unable to deny Europe a role in the region. Washington and Jerusalem would be well and truly hoist with their own Turkish petard.

All this, however, is far in the future. For a long time to come, if the EU is to have a security policy at all, it will have to be modest and, above all, confined to the continent of Europe and its fringes. This may be the most Europe can achieve; it is also the least it should seek.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. His latest book is Ambiguous Neighbours: the EU, Nato and the price of membership, co-edited with Dmitri Trenin.

Originally published in the Financial Times, February 3, 2003