Reflections on a European foreign policy in times of austerity

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton (Wikimedia Commons / Munich Security Conference)

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton (Wikimedia Commons / Munich Security Conference)

The Treaty of Lisbon reformed the previous rules applying to EU foreign policy, determining that the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (hereinafter ‘the High Representative’) was both vice-President of the Commission and head of the Council ‘Foreign Affairs’ (one of the multiple configurations of the Council of the EU), in an attempt to give more coherence and visibility to European external action. Moreover, a European External Action Service (EEAS) was to act as a true European diplomacy under the lead of the High Representative. 

Unfortunately, the reality has not been up to the expectations. The President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission also play a role in representing Europe. Thus, we have more a trio than a single voice for EU foreign policy. The European diplomacy is further made inaudible by the incapacity of Member States to quickly agree on common positions when required by the circumstances. Now, as the United States has started a fundamental shift towards Asia, Europeans must change their attitude towards a common foreign and security policy if they want to continue counting on the international stage. This article will first provide a brief description of the problems currently afflicting the European foreign policy and then suggest some ideas of improvement in the short term.

I/ Problems

Among the existing obstacles to the development of a European foreign and security policy, there are notably the difficulties to define EU foreign policy aims and the lack of military power (with no prospect of improvement in a near future).

Defining the aims of the EU foreign policy is complicated. It seems evident that in order to determine a European foreign policy, there must first be an agreement on the purpose, on the objectives of that common policy. This is made difficult in the EU by various factors such as the different sizes of Member States, their different histories and cultures, and the degree of importance given to foreign policy (both in the political and media debate and in the government action). The United Kingdom is the former imperial power par excellence and has kept relatively powerful armed forces, in addition to being a nuclear power. It is known for its closeness to the United States of America. Recently, the Cameron government has also tried to forge tighter links with Commonwealth members, the Commonwealth being an association whose members are nearly all (save rare exceptions) former colonies of the UK. France, the other big European military and nuclear power, has focused its foreign policy on the friendship with Germany (though, from a European point of view, this is an internal matter), aiming at forging a European defence and foreign policy in a bet to reduce American influence on the continent. It is also particularly involved in foreign policy issues regarding its former African colonies (French have invented the word “Françafrique” to describe the relationship that emerged after the independence of the former colonies, characterised by a French tendency to interventionism in African internal matters). Germany, after being defeated in 1945, was prohibited from forming a permanent professional army and converted itself to neutrality and pacifism, which explains its reluctance to intervene in foreign conflicts such as in Libya and, now, in Syria. Finally, to take a last example, Central and Eastern European countries are mainly concerned about avoiding a repetition of history: an aggression coming from the East, i.e., from Russia. Therefore, these countries were very attached to the NATO, which grants them American protection, and were suspicious towards French attempts to set up a “European defence” seen as opposed to the NATO because of French occasional anti-Americanism. With the policy shift taking place in the United States, these countries may reconsider their position as to the means of guaranteeing their homeland security, but the latter will remain their foremost priority. As we can see, there are huge differences to overcome if we are to create an effective European foreign policy.

There is also a problem with the instruments of a potential European foreign policy, in particular the lack of military power (with no improvement in sight). A credible foreign policy requires instruments of power to support it. Member States of the European Union are far from meeting the pledge of spending 2% of their GDP on defence expenditure. Among the big European countries, only France and the UK meet this requirement (despite of current and forecast budget cuts in defence), and Poland is getting closer, being one of the rare countries to have increased its defence spending (see this interesting article by The Economist of August 17th, 2013). This situation was bearable as long as Europe’s security was a priority for the USA, the latter providing the surest protection to the continent during the cold war, but now that America is turning its focus to Asia, Europeans will have to increasingly care for themselves. Moreover, American administrations have already been talking for several years about a fairer “burden-sharing”, especially since they have to face the huge costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A different instrument of foreign policy is economic influence. Here, the European Union seems better armed, being the richest economic area and the biggest trader in the world. The lack of military power and the economic strength led to a distribution of the tasks with the USA: in a conflict, fighting would mainly be done by America, and the EU would mainly take care of the reconstruction and civil assistance efforts. But at least three problems appeared: first, as said above, the USA want a better military burden-sharing; second, the EU ended up paying without having much influence on the initial stages of the settlement a conflict; and third, the EU now has less money to give away because of the permanence of the economic crisis. Therefore, the EU should really start thinking about widening its array of foreign policy tools.

II/ Reflections on the future of the European foreign policy

It follows that an urgent improvement is to intelligently build up military resources. The Economist, in the article referred to above, provides interesting information on Poland. It says that old weapons, many of them still from the Soviet era, are in the course of being replaced. Poland intends to acquire even more modern material, including “unmanned aerial aircrafts” (better known as “drones”). Moreover, the army became professional in 2009, abandoning the former model of an army of conscripts. All this, concludes The Economist, gives the Polish army more flexibility, which is necessary to face the modern threats to security and participate in current foreign operations such as the NATO intervention in Afghanistan.

The Economist stresses another advantage that would result from improving military capacities (the example of Poland can be extrapolated to the whole EU): getting a better “place at the decision-making table”. If the EU pretends to play an international role corresponding to its economic weight, it needs to deserve that role; otherwise, the USA (maybe joined by China, in a near future) will dictate alone when and where a military intervention takes place. And the EU will continue to play its traditional role of providing support to civilians after the war.

The second characteristic of the current situation is that the EU, stuck in the economic crisis, now has little financial resources to provide support. This reduces its leverage on protagonists of crisis. So, for example, Egypt receives more foreign aid from Qatar alone than from the whole EU; therefore, even if the EU had decided to cut its foreign aid to the country, the generals would have been moderately affected from an economic point of view – the political consequences could be more important, with potential damages in terms of image. Another example that is worth mentioning is the case of Ukraine, a country which Russia has threatened with a trade war because of Ukrainian attempts to get closer to the European Union. Of course, the EU cannot and must not grant unjustified financial advantages to countries in order to keep them as allies and influence their internal policies (like Russia does, for example). But it could try to use short-term economic arguments to face Russia’s ones, e.g., facilitating the import of some Ukrainian products to offset potential Russian trade sanctions. Therefore, the EU should protect foreign and development aid in order to keep an economic instrument of foreign policy at its disposal.

This was about the instruments; now, it is time to come back to the other problematic issue outlined in the first part: the definition of the aims of a European foreign policy. Knowing the differences of political and economic interests between the Member States, the common denominator that appears to remain is the shared civic values which form part of the European identity such as human dignity, democracy, individual freedom, and political and economic freedom. It may seem candid to suggest a EU foreign policy relying on noble principles, but in the long run, it is by being true to its own principles that the EU will build a moral force able to promote its values across the world. As stated in a previous article giving news about the Egyptian crisis, “European leaders should understand that each time they keep a close eye on a violation of the principles they advocate and want to promote worldwide it will get more difficult to spread these same values in other areas (e.g., Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, etc.) where opponents to democracy and individual freedom remain strong”. Therefore, a violation of a fundamental value such as human dignity (e.g., the use of chemical weapons in Syria) calls for a strong answer. The Economist addressed the same message to Barack Obama in an article from the edition of August 24th, 2013: an intervention in the Syrian conflict entails significant risks, but it is also a matter of principle and credibility.

As a conclusion, basing our foreign policy on our shared values may have political and/or economic short-term costs, and it is probably insufficient when dealing with the complexity of some foreign issues, but it could represent a starting point for a nearly inexistent European foreign policy, it is the best way to stay coherent when speaking to different foreign partners, and moral force is cheaper than subsidies and corruption.

Pierre-Antoine KLETHI

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