The time is right for better EU relations with non-Western strategic partners

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Federica Mogherini needs "a flexible and more muscular policy tool capable of dealing with unexpected global political issues". [European Parliament]

Brussels needs to change the way it works with its foreign delegations in order to build closer relations with the strategic partners of tomorrow, write Jan Melissen and Wouter Zweers.

Jan Melissen is a senior research fellow at the Netherlands Institute of International Relations, Clingendael, in The Hague, and a professor of diplomacy at the University of Antwerp, Belgium. Wouter Zweers is a research fellow at the Clingendael Institute. The authors recently contributed a research article on the EU Partnership Instrument to European Foreign Affairs Review 22:2 (2017).

EU officials have stated confidently for years that the United States was the “only real EU strategic partner”. No more. This summer may see Brussels recover from its state of psychological shock over transatlantic relations during the first half of 2017, but it is still missing the mind-set or appropriate mechanisms to invest in relationships with non-usual suspects. It is notoriously hard for the EU to develop a close relationship with non-Western strategic partners – not just China, but also the likes of India, South Korea and others that matter in tomorrow’s world.

The qualities of current EU global relationships as well as the apparatus to make them work are in need of repair. These key issues receive insufficient attention in the 2017 Mid-Term Review of the so-called EU Partnership Instrument, which is a typically project management-oriented Brussels exercise failing to assess the aggregated and sustained impact of EU programmes beyond their direct individual output.

The European Commission will soon produce a mid-term review report on all external financing instruments. The Partnership Instrument is a special case. However small (one billion euros over seven years), it is a unique policy tool that gives the EU the financial means to promote its external identity through on-the-ground actions outside Europe. Think of the economic ‘gateway to Asia’ programme, the support to post-COP21 climate change action in Latin America, or cooperation on resource efficiency with India. These projects are no luxury. The reality is that the further one is removed from Europe, the less people and government elites know about what the EU is and does.

The 2017 Partnership Instrument Review is unlikely to produce what EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was promised and needs: a flexible and more muscular policy tool capable of dealing with unexpected global political issues. Moving the needle in relations with cautious “graduated countries” – EU-speak for powers that no longer receive development aid – requires patient diplomacy and persuasion of governments outside Europe. This is typically underestimated in centralised policymaking processes in Brussels, but matters for the sake of the centre’s own future relations with the global periphery.

In the years ahead, the European External Action Service (EEAS) needs greater capacity to give feedback to its own embassies. What complicates matters is that the EEAS has difficulties operating in sync with the almost 140 EU Delegations. The programme-driven EU apparatus has never been good at listening to diplomatic voices from the field, whether its own people in EU delegations or tomorrow’s global powers. Now is the time to think “outside–in” and become serious about European diplomacy beyond the comfort zone of the like-minded.

An urgent need exists for the EU to learn how to work as equals with the rest rather than like-minded friends in the West. In Brussels, one only hears sotto voce about the true difficulties of partnering with non-Western powers. Mogherini needs to pay heed to the nuts and bolts of how neglect of the European diplomatic service would impact the effectiveness of EU external relationships. EU external action implies a lot more than grand strategy or designing and implementing sophisticated Commission-driven programmes. And this is not just a matter for the Brussels institutions. Member states should not overlook that successful EU partnerships with non-Western strategic powers contribute to their own future access to such governments. A revamped EU Partnership Instrument would be a step in the right direction.

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