Always turning when the world’s burning: The EU needs to prioritise its effectiveness and unity to earn credibility
September 6, 2018
Guest blog post by Otto Ilveskero, MSc in EU Politics graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a European Affairs writer for Finland’s leading foreign and security policy publication, The Ulkopolitist
With enough external political crises, threats, and conflicts to rewrite Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, the EU’s extinguishing operations – although at times successful – have shown what Europe needs to prioritise if it wants to maintain its position in international politics against the changing global order.
In his 2017 State of the Union, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared that the roof of the “European House” needed to be fixed when the sun was still shining. For an international trade giant that might indeed be a possibility in economic policy, but in the field of foreign policy the political paper tiger has to repair the ship at sea.
Realpolitik has crept back onto the global stage, and the EU has struggled to adapt to the geopolitical landscape increasingly dominated by unpredictability and multipolar power politics. To its detriment, it has continued to juggle international crises and assertive reactionary leaders with one hand tied behind its back – mixing unclear and inconsistent leadership with inflexible and slow structures in its foreign and security policy.
Much of EU foreign policy is summarised in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, which was signed by the EU as well as its largest member states France, Germany, and the UK. This shows both the prominent role of the EU as an international actor on its own right and its dependence on the informal leadership of the EU Three in particular. Equally, it serves as an example of the (larger) member states’ reluctance to subordinate their national policy to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).
Alongside separate national interests that exist parallel to the CFSP, the EU’s foreign policy decision-making has struggled with the unyielding unanimity rule. Although the EU has managed to agree on economic sanctions against Russia, the rigid institutional structures and weak leadership have often only led to collective inaction – in particular when dealing with contentious security matters. The resulting capability–expectations gap remains a hurdle the EU needs to overcome if it wants to increase its credibility.
Therefore, a significant priority for the EU must be to increase its effectiveness and to reduce the time it takes to respond to international events. Yet, since a deep structural overhaul of CFSP decision-making remains an unrealistic target, the Union has turned towards common action by smaller groups of voluntary member states.
For instance, the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) agreement was designed to enhance the EU’s hard power capabilities by encouraging deeper defence cooperation between willing member states. Importantly, all capabilities developed remain under national control, which is hoped to support projects aimed at closing some of the crucial gaps in the EU’s military capacity. PESCO, however, does not guarantee the rapid deployment of forces.
Disappointed by PESCO’s low ambition and lack of high entry criteria, French President Emmanuel Macron launched an alternative plan: the 9-state European Intervention Initiative (EI2). As a project operating outside of the EU Treaties, Macron’s coalition also includes Denmark and the UK – member states unable and unwilling to participate in PESCO, respectively. It remains to be seen how willing the participants are to take on fully-fledged military operations in locations such as Mali.
Yet, while definitely a step towards the right direction, having two potentially competing security structures based on small-group projects will not be sustainable if the EU is serious about becoming a coherent international actor representing the member states as one voice in the future.
Equally, the lack of a shared assessment of external priorities can make it difficult to agree on joint operations. To this end, there is a strong case to be made for strengthening EU leadership to act as a representative and an agenda-setter on the Union’s external relations. The single-President option – an idea also entertained by President Juncker in the speech mentioned earlier – must be genuinely considered during the next Commission for the purpose of clarifying EU leadership. Equally, the EEAS should be incorporated more closely to the Commission to bring the EU’s coordinated responses on both trade and external relations closer together.
Drawn into geopolitical competition by Russia and China in its eastern neighbourhood, while also dealing with the refugee crisis in the South and facing an unstable administration in the West, the EU and its member states would both benefit from a more unified EU among the turning tides of international politics. After all, the EU remains an ideal entity to promote the liberal international order and multilateral diplomacy in this moment of global turmoil, but it cannot do so without sufficient credibility and respect from other significant international actors, which will be increasingly difficult to earn without the strength and unity from leadership and effectiveness.
Thus, without trying to sound too Buddhist, the change must come from the inside. The EU’s foreign policy priorities – from promoting peace and international trade to supporting rules-based multilateralism and conflict prevention – are as strong on paper as they have ever been, but Europe’s image as a political dwarf lacking credibility to deliver on its declarations and statements has endured. If the EU wants to prevent the weakening of its international status, then it must prioritise its effectiveness and leadership to earn credibility as an equal actor on the global stage.