23rd May 2019

EU diplomatic service needs long term vision

  • "The diplomatic service has done pretty well in Yemen" (Photo: Al Jazeera English)

The first anniversary of the European External Action Service - the European Union's new diplomatic corps - finds the continent in its toughest hour since World War II, as Chancellor Angela Merkel recently put it.

As the euro crisis bites deeper and emerging powers such as China and Brazil rapidly gain ground on the international playing field, Europe cannot afford to fall into isolation. In this challenging environment, a foreign policy rooted in unity could put the brakes on Europe’s dangerous decline.

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Europe's recent engagement in Yemen has uncovered some of the major flaws and virtues of its new foreign policy towards people living in extreme poverty and caught up in conflict.

Political turmoil and violence, combined with surging food and fuel prices, have pushed poor Yemenis across the country to the brink. Every night, at least one in three people go to bed hungry and many families rely on a meagre diet of just tea and bread. Young children in parts of the country face some of the world's worst levels of hunger and malnutrition - and the situation looks set to get worse.

Yet, in this context of dire need, many European donors are withholding development and humanitarian aid until the political situation in Yemen improves.

Although pushing for the respect and protection of human rights and democratic standards is vital, if donors decide not to provide funds through the Yemeni government, they should find alternative channels such as UN agencies and NGOs to deliver desperately needed assistance, especially as the UN has doubled its appeal to help the vulnerable. The ongoing political chaos could take months or even years to stabilise and Yemenis do not have the luxury of time.

Fortunately, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton now seems to realise how important it is to continue to provide development and humanitarian aid. For this, the EAAS approach to the crisis in Yemen should be commended and governments should follow Ashton’s lead. The EU Delegation is committed to meeting the most pressing needs of the people, making sure that emergency aid is delivered despite ongoing political turmoil. In the midst of this, the EEAS also deserves to be praised for maintaining many of the EU’s long term development programmes.

Although much criticism has been voiced about the EU’s new diplomatic service, particularly around EU institutional bickering, in the case of Yemen the EEAS has done pretty well in coordinating EU wide action on a political level.

The situation in Yemen and the events of the Arab Spring have brought another equally important reality to light. The EU must now do better in configuring its foreign policy to deal not just with governments, but with people, and civil society. It needs to be credible in the eyes of Yemeni, Egyptian and Tunisian citizens and voters.

For her part, Ashton has recently taken some steps forward, but rhetoric must now be matched with action. In Yemen, the EU needs an inclusive strategy that, among others, brings women into the heart of the political process, starting with meetings of the Friends of Yemen.

The case of Yemen is just the tip of the iceberg. A lot of work needs to be done to build up an effective and credible EU foreign policy that puts poor and vulnerable people first.

On the eve of the EEAS’s second year, and half way through the EU foreign policy chief’s mandate, Ashton must now lay out a vision that pinpoints where the EU wants to be in 2015 and maps out the road to get there. Solid foundations of a diplomatic service must be put down, and put down properly, so that the rest of the frame can go up and stand on stable ground.

It is as much in the interest of Europeans, as it in the interest of the rest of the world, for the EU to overcome this last decade of political squabbling and make some sound resolutions for the New Year.

The writer is Head of Oxfam International’s EU Office

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