Just when the European Union needs to act as one to prevent major powers from fomenting division, EU institutions and member states seem to lack the political will to set aside their disagreements and focus on the common interest, write Steven Blockmans, Loes Debuysere and Stefani Weiss.
Steven Blockmans is the head of EU foreign policy and institutional affairs at the Centre for European Political Studies (CEPS). Loes Debuysere is a researcher at CEPS. Stefani Weiss is a senior expert EU governance, foreign and security policy program Europe’s Future at Bertelsmann Stiftung.
Baptism of fire
Ten years on from the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, it is still difficult to find the necessary consensus and support for joint foreign and security policy action to prevent conflicts, manage crises and build sustainable peace.
The Lisbon Treaty’s institutional innovations (notably the cumulation of the posts of High Representative and Commission Vice-President, supported by the European External Action Service) were meant to have created a new dynamic, increased internal coherence and ensured external consistency and effectiveness.
While we have seen a new culture of joining up relevant actors, instruments and budget lines, i.e. an ‘integrated approach’ to external conflict and crisis, forging unity in the Foreign Affairs Council still falls short of expectations.
To be sure, there have been token successes: in the Sahel and further afield (CAR, Myanmar), for instance. But more often than not the EU’s crisis response is ‘too little, too late’.
It is largely absent from Syria and the rest of the Middle East; France and Italy have torpedoed each other’s and the EU’s policies in Libya; and only France and Germany have been dealing with the Russian President in an effort to end the war in Donbas, sometimes on their own.
The Union’s neighbourhood is no longer the proverbial circle of friends but rather a ring of fire, and EU institutions and member states alike have been largely unable to deal with the consequences. As a result, the EU’s influence on the international stage has waned.
Overcoming structural flaws
In response to the deteriorating security situation on its doorstep, the prospect of Brexit and the increasingly conflictual international backdrop of Sino-American rivalry, the EU has made great strides to build up its defensive architecture, notably with the establishment of PESCO and the creation of a European Defence Fund.
While this is a welcome – if long overdue – development, the reasons that have stymied a proactive and coherent European policy response to external conflict and crisis are more structural than due to the lack of military capabilities alone.
They are primarily related to the nature of foreign and security policies as core elements of national sovereignty, differences in the geopolitical outlooks of member states and a lack of solidarity in the pursuit of common interests.
They are also rooted in the fact that the supranational and intergovernmental governance of EU external action are out of step; there is a fragmentation of competences across two treaties (from exclusive powers in trade to shared competences in development and supporting action in defence).
Given the limited influence that even the largest European countries can have on an international stage dominated by a retreating transatlantic ally, an assertive China and a host of other autocratic and unfriendly states, it should be clear that the EU is the only instrument that member states have at their disposal if they wish to punch above their weight and respond to external conflict and crisis.
How can they advance a foreign policy agenda in an integrated fashion, bar treaty change and then major institutional reform? In the given operational framework, which policies, actors and practical instruments can improve the EU’s policy coherence and external effectiveness?
Over the past two decades, the EU has gradually widened and deepened its concept of an ‘integrated approach to external conflict and crisis’. Now a key pillar in the implementation of the EU Global Strategy, the Union commits to addressing global instability and fragility in a holistic way, deploying all relevant policies, players and tools in a well-coordinated manner.
Since March of this year, a new directorate within the EEAS has facilitated the ‘integrated approach for security and peace’. While this directorate has managed to improve the intra- and inter-service coherence of the different strands of EU crisis responses (from humanitarian relief efforts to security stabilisation and the reformulation of trade preferences), it does not integrate the work of the political desks of the EEAS in its activities.
To make sure that an ‘integrated approach’ does not remain empty talk, sufficient political will needs to back up the operationalisation of crisis response at EU headquarters level. The views of member states are also barely reflected in the crisis meetings that the new directorate organises.
This means that, while the EEAS may be paying attention to setting up conflict prevention and mediation mechanisms to tackle a certain crisis, these mechanisms are unlikely to be prioritised if the High Representative or the member states do not put them at the top of the Foreign Affairs Council agenda.
Increased cooperation between the new HRVP Josep Borrell and European Council President Charles Michel is also imperative. They can make up for lost momentum over the last five years.
With Borrell less likely to travel the world than his predecessor, one or more member state foreign affairs ministers could be appointed to take the lead in addressing certain conflict theatres, and then report back to the Foreign Affairs Council.
This formula, which has already been used in the case of Sudan, will increase the ownership that member states feel over the EU’s crisis response.
Finally, the new EU budget also provides opportunities to boost integration and coherence. The Commission’s proposal for a jumbo financial instrument for neighbourhood, development and international cooperation (NDICI), which is currently negotiated in the Council, merges some ‘softer’ conflict, peace and stability actions into one financial instrument.
If this ‘integrated’ instrument is also to contribute to coherent crisis response, its governance will need to be well-balanced between Commission, Council and Parliament. Borrell and the EEAS should claim the coordination of the NDICI in order to facilitate such a balance.
A ‘whole-of-Europe’ approach that backs up coherent inter-institutional responses with sufficient political will by the member states is the only way for the EU to become an effective crisis responder.
Without it, the EU collective will continue to punch below its weight and expose member states and their citizens to the fallout of conflicts on its borders and further afield.
Note: This commentary draws on a report on the EU’s integrated approach written in the framework of the research project “Europe’s coherence gap in external crisis and conflict management: Political rhetoric and institutional practice in the EU and its member states”. In this project, the Bertelsmann Stiftung and Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) joined forces to assess whether, how and with what degree of success whole-of-government approaches (WGAs) are being implemented in the external actions of the EU and its member states. The underlying interest was to find out whether WGAs have, as intended, led to more political coherence.