Opinion

A 10-step plan to making the EU a strategic actor

31.03.14 @ 08:30

  1. By Daniel C. Thomas

Leiden - The European Union’s awkward efforts to shape events in Ukraine and to deter Russia from taking actions that threaten the EU’s interests and values there, like the EU’s massive failures in the former Yugoslavia two decades ago, yield one undeniable lesson: the European Union must learn to think and act strategically.

  • "The EU’s tendency to lecture others often undermines its legitimacy" (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Given Russia’s new assertiveness and the inevitability of the United States’ ‘pivot to Asia’ over the next few decades, the urgency of this challenge cannot be overestimated.

Some observers of EU foreign and security policy argue that the EU is condemned to strategic irrelevance as long as it remains a union of states rather than a single state.

There is undoubtedly some truth here: 28 (or more) governments, foreign ministries, defense ministries, and national electorates do not facilitate easy consensus in policy-formation or consistent policy-implementation, not to mention rapid reaction to fast-moving crises.

And treaty change to give the EU a single foreign policy identity is simply not on the agenda for the foreseeable future.

But the Lisbon Treaty and the EU’s External Action Service would enable the Union to be a far more effective strategic actor if its member states were truly committed to this goal. The first step in this direction is being clear about what the EU’s institutions and member states could do, within current treaty conditions, to make the Union a more effective strategic actor.

1. Be far-sighted and realistic about the EU’s interests and values. This requires sustained collective reflection on what principles the EU believes should underlie the world order of the twenty-first century, the concrete international conditions that are necessary to ensure the well-being of European citizens and society in the decades to come, and how tensions between these values and interests are to be managed. This means overcoming the EU’s long-standing reluctance to supplement normative discourse with the language of (collective) self-interest when discussing its role in the world.

2. Don’t confuse foreign policy and enlargement policy. While the lure of accession was for many years the EU’s most successful technique for managing relations with its nearest neighbors, this policy has its limits. Offering membership to additional states may still be advisable in some cases, but most of the EU’s international challenges cannot be addressed this way, either because enlargement often just pushes the problems to the next border or because the problems exist so far beyond Europe that membership is on nobody’s agenda. In addition, whereas public support for further enlargement is wearing thin, there is still considerable public support for using the EU to address major international challenges.

3. Be realistic about the adversaries that the EU faces abroad. It’s an uncertain and often hostile world out there. Despite the EU’s success at creating a non-competitive, post-territorial order among its members, many other states rely on domestic practices that threaten the EU’s values and/or readily pursue commercial and territorial gains that compromise the EU’s interests. Cooperation with these states is often possible, but it must be pursued in a pragmatic spirit focused on the conditional pursuit of overlapping interests, rather than by any idealistic expectation that adversaries can easily be converted into partners.

4. Be realistic about the foreign partners whose cooperation the EU needs to achieve its aims. Even states that share many of the EU’s core values and are not inclined to act in ways that compromise the EU’s core interests make choices based on their own international aims and domestic constraints. As seen in the EU’s weak response to the Bush Administration’s challenge to the International Criminal Court and the EU’s poor preparation for the Obama Administration’s approach to climate change negotiations in Copenhagen, the EU needs to be more strategic in its approach to even its closest partners.

5. Don’t over-estimate Europe’s appeal abroad. European governments and EU officials are rightfully impressed by the accomplishments of European integration, but leaders and publics elsewhere in the world are keenly aware of the EU’s institutional shortcomings and policy contradictions, and thus respond pragmatically to its declarations, offers and threats. The more the EU assumes that everybody admires Europe, or even wants to remake their region in its image, the less effective its foreign policy will be.

6. Be pragmatic about the EU’s resources and capabilities. The EU cannot be effective abroad if it is weak at home: restoring economic growth and competitiveness is essential to the EU’s international authority and to mustering the resources needed for international effectiveness. In addition, the EU must stop wasting scarce resources on unnecessary duplication in military hardware and impeding greater efficiency in its defence industry, as seen in Germany’s veto of the proposed BAE-EADS merger.

7. Be less didactic in the application of EU power. Strategic action requires more than taking (what the EU considers) a moral stance and then encouraging others to follow suit. The EU’s tendency to lecture others often undermines its legitimacy and distracts the Union from making the hard choices needed for effective action. Moral suasion has its place, but the EU must be far more willing to make costly investments of diplomatic, economic and occasionally military resources in pursuit of its aims, even when doing so compromises narrow commercial interests or contradicts the preferences of one or several member states.

8. Minimize dependencies that limit the EU’s freedom of action, particularly dependencies on states that are not trustworthy partners. The EU’s current dependence on Russian energy supplies has constrained the EU’s choices in the Ukraine crisis and previously in responding to Putin’s crackdown on protesters and NGOs, and it could be an even more unwelcome factor if Russia’s territorial ambitions extend beyond Crimea. Reducing and diversifying the EU’s dependency on foreign energy supplies is therefore an urgent priority. But a similar point could be made about dependence on US military assets: the link to NATO remains essential, but as long as European states depend on the US for transport aircraft and advanced munitions, to cite just two examples evident in recent conflicts, the EU will never be able to make its own decisions about where and when military force is needed to protect its interests and values.

9. Avoid self-inflicted injuries. The EU must be vigilant to ensure that its internal decision-making processes and policy trade-offs not undermine its ability to act strategically abroad. For example, the EU’s decision to accept Cyprus as a member state after it rejected the UN’s Annan Plan for reunification of the island was a major strategic blunder, contradicting the EU’s commitment that candidate states must resolve their border disputes before accession and complicating the EU’s relationship with Turkey, an essential regional partner and candidate state. The British government’s continued flirtation with exiting the Union, which would be bad for the EU and even worse for the UK, threatens another major self-inflicted injury.

10. Be pro-active about building and maintaining internal support for EU action abroad. As was done during the Cold War, Europe’s leaders must work tirelessly to ensure that voters, political parties and opinion leaders understand the importance of strategic action at the EU level and support the resource allocations and policy compromises that this requires. Failing to invest in public support for EU action while taking national credit for EU successes and blaming Brussels for EU failures is simply unsustainable. This is just as true in foreign policy as we now know it to be true with regard to the single market and common currency

The writer is Professor of International Relations at Leiden University and editor of Making EU Foreign Policy (Palgrave Macmillan). d.c.thomas@fsw.leidenuniv.nl