‘Soft power’: sufficient for the EU to raise its international status?

A conference organised by Friends of Europe focused on the EU’s influence on the international scene. The EU’s potential need of military capabilities to overcome new security challenges also emerged in the debate.

The first part of the debate revolved around the definition of the rationale and key components of the EU ‘soft power.’ According to the Commission, the main justification for this approach lies in the need for the EU to defend the interests of its citizens, while projecting its own political, socio-economic and cultural values on the international scene. For so doing, the EU clearly favours persuasion (e.g. cooperation agreements with third countries) over military might – obviously because it lacks the corresponding capacities. At a wider scale, ‘soft power’ boils down to the promotion of multilateralism and international law to widespread peace, democracy and the respect of human rights all over the world.

The panel unanimously praised enlargement as the most successful ‘soft power’ policy, because it contributed to enhance the EU’s political credibility on the face of the world while also offering “political and financial visibility’ to the new member states. Against this yardstick, speakers pointed at differentiation, comprehensiveness, coherence and dialogue as main factors of success.

The most significant challenge the EU has to live up to was summarized as follows: does ‘soft power’ suffice it for the EU to become a political, economic and cultural global power? On this particular issue, speakers agreed on the necessity for the EU to achieve the right balance between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ instruments – which will imply considerable efforts to improve the EU’s military capabilities.

Eneko Landaburu, EC Director General for External Relations, hinted at the EU’s lack of international clout, saying that "if the EU was a global power, everybody would know." To "turn words into deeds," he calls for realism and urges for "the development of a genuine European security and defence policy," as well as for "complementarity" between this policy and the NATO umbrella, in order for the EU "to be present in all kinds of crisis management worldwide."

Menouar Alem, Ambassador of Morocco to the EU, recommended that the 'soft power' approach that operates within the Barcelona process be reviewed, in order to foster better ownership of the initiative by Mediterranean countries and more coherence between various EU and non-EU cooperation instruments in this region. He also dismissed any prioritisation between 'soft' and 'hard' power, thus arguing in favour of a combination of both – decided within an inclusive dialogue with all countries and stakeholders involved.

Michael McKinley, Deputy Chief of the Mission of the US to the EU, drew an impressive list of EU political commitments abroad in the last two decades, and insisted that "the EU is making a difference in the global diplomatic framework." He also positioned himself against a clear-cut 'soft' vs. 'hard' dichotomy, admitting that even the US government approach "might simply not be the right one" with this respect.

On 25 April 2006, Friends of Europe invited speakers of all organisational and national backgrounds to discuss Europe’s way to have a say in international affairs without displaying military force – an original approach known as 'soft power.'

The concept, described by the American scholar Joseph S. Nye as "the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than through coercion," has had a strong imprint on the EU diplomatic strategy in the recent years. The European Security Strategy (ESS) agreed by the European Council in December 2003, also reflects this approach.

As the so-called EU-three (UK, France and Germany) initiative in Iran is going through hard times, the efficiency of 'soft power' is severely put into question. 

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