EU Is Not a World Power

EU Is Not a World Power

The post-Lisbon European Union can finally establish itself as a serious player in a multipolar world order. It has the potential to develop a foreign policy combining political, economic, and military elements. But will Brussels make the most of Lisbon? In the end, it is still the member states that call the shots on foreign policy.

The European Union has entered a new phase. The Lisbon Treaty enables the Union to take an important step forward in closer cooperation and greater integration. Brussels aims to support its new foreign policy with a wide range of instruments. Whether or not it can make the most of those instruments will determine whether the Union will hold its own on the global stage. At least the means to do so are at long last there.

 Yet the pitfalls of the European Union's Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP) are diverse and treacherous. First of all, many members are unwilling to give up powers in foreign and defense policy in favor of consensual decision-making. Furthermore, there is friction between the EU Council and the European Commission. The Council, which is responsible for the CFSP and thus for crisis management, wants to act quickly, but has limited funds at its disposal. By contrast, the Commission has a large budget, but a longer time frame to agree on economic promotion, neighborhood policy, and foreign aid. So far, attempts to coordinate between the two have not gone smoothly.

A new president, the Belgian Herman van Rompuy, will chair the European Council and represent the European Union externally in matters of foreign policy. The high representative of foreign policy is British baroness Catherine Ashton, who was previously the EU Trade Commissioner. As the Union's "foreign minister"� (a title that has not caught on since it is evocative of statehood), Ashton is vice president of the European Commission and reports to the Council of the European Union, also chairing its sessions on foreign affairs. Her role is to bridge the gap between the Council and the Commission. She will be supported by a European foreign office consisting of representatives of the Council, Commission, and member states. European diplomats will serve alongside national diplomats in foreign countries (or take the place of representatives of smaller countries).

Van Rompuy and Ashton are not big-name foreign policy celebrities, and their work consists mainly of internal coordination. The fact that they are largely unknown in Europe suggests that EU heads of state and government do not want strong leaders to usurp their policymaking authority. Indeed, true power still resides with the member states, not with the Brussels administration. One role of the president and high representative is to be the face of the CFSP in the wider world. But European Commission President Jose-Manuel Barroso will play a similar role. If all three compete in foreign policy, they will merely demonstrate that the European Union's "checks and balances"� impede joint action abroad. However, at least a structure exists that is capable of action, one in which the organizational barriers are easier to overcome. This has gained importance since the European Union now seeks to coordinate its diverse crisis management resources more effectively"”that is, to use political, economic, military, police, and foreign aid instruments to ensure long-term stability in regions. However, when crises occur, other states in the European Union will still first look to Great Britain, France, and Germany, given that, when building consensus in foreign policy, these countries wield greater weight than do the new EU officials.

The European Union also aims to make progress integrating defense policy. If member states are willing and able, they can contribute by participating in "permanent structured cooperation"�"”a variant of "reinforced cooperation."� Even though the European Union has not yet integrated an advance guard of states, there is hope for structured cooperation in defense policy. A number of states are already beginning to jointly develop their armed forces and give the European Union a greater capacity to act militarily.

In addition to the treaty reform process, there have been other developments relevant to EU foreign policy. The European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) has now been relaunched as "ENP Plus,"� including individual action plans for neighboring states and a great deal more money. Nevertheless, this process has not changed the fact that the European Union has dragged its feet on meeting the neighboring states' most important demands"”market access, visa-free travel and, for some, preparations for accession. Efforts to give neighborhood policy a greater regional focus, as reflected in the Mediterranean Union, the Black Sea Cooperation, and the Eastern Partnership, have, in most cases, fallen short of expectations. For the European Union's neighbors, regional integration is less attractive than direct participation in the European market.

Moreover, the Council revised the highly praised European Security Strategy (ESS) and expanded it to include, among other issues, energy security. The 2003 paper calls for a "strategic culture"� of intervention, including the possibility of "robust"� engagement. In fact, the European Union is part of more than 20 operations abroad involving military and police units. However, the ESS has not been able to develop a proactive policy that allows the Union to act as a leading stabilizing force in regions deemed strategically important. Although European observers, conflict managers, troops, and border guards serve in the Western Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East, Brussels"”proud of its "soft power"�"”has not been able to apply much pressure on the most important actors in these crisis regions and has little influence when crises escalate.

Once the instruments of the Lisbon Treaty have been put in place, the European Union must resolve a number of strategic questions in foreign and defense policy. For example, should the European Union admit new members or not? Critics argue that EU enlargement will change its character, impede integration and close cooperation, and even undermine the EU value system. They assert that the potential negative impact is too high a price to pay for the goal of greater influence in Eastern Europe. The European Union's ambivalence on enlargement has damaged its capacity to act on the world stage. For example, the uncertainties surrounding Turkey's accession process and the annoying linkages the Turks and Greeks have attached to it have prevented the necessary dialogue between NATO and the European Union.

The question remains: Is the European Union a global player? Global influence is certainly an ambition of the CFSP. With operations in Afghanistan, Aceh, and Congo, the European Union has long been involved in conflicts outside its borders. The EU battle groups"”highly mobile battalions"”are meant to be deployable up to 6,000 kilometers away from Brussels. Nevertheless, the farther the theater of operations is from European headquarters, the more difficult it is to win support for a resolute foreign policy. An obvious additional criterion for an operation is whether the crisis region lies in a former colonial power's "sphere of responsibility."� This focus on neighboring spheres of interest is legitimate. After all, the European Union is present on various levels in the international arena, like through the UN.

How independent is the European security policy? The European Union currently relies on NATO's planning and leadership capacities for major operations"”based on the "Berlin Plus"� agreement. There is, however, a small EU planning unit that can direct smaller independent operations. The European Union is working to develop greater planning and leadership capacity and to improve the integration of military and civilian leadership. Is the European Union doing so independently of NATO? Or perhaps is it even acting to express a growing confidence now that it is replacing the North Atlantic Alliance as the most important security organization in Europe? This process could well lead to tensions between the European Union and its transatlantic partners, as well as among its members.

Who holds the reins in the CFSP? The Lisbon Treaty has not answered this question. Of course, the new leading officials play a more important role in planning the Council meetings devoted to foreign policy. However, the greatest impetus is once again coming from member states. A general discussion is underway in the European Union on whether the Big Three automatically form a kind of directors board"”and how this can be prevented.

This also affects foreign policy. Whereas the differences between French, British, and German ideas on European policy have prevented one state from assuming the role as leader in integration efforts, the Big Three's indepen­dent actions during the Iran crisis were unsettling to many Europeans (and annoyed the Italians, who felt left out). Nevertheless, a group of leaders can be beneficial if the group does not always consist of the same states. These states can speed up integration in one area or find compromises that serve as models for consensus-building among all 27 EU states in cases where their positions reflect lines of conflict in the European Union. It will be interesting to see whether those states willing to integrate their defense policies in a form of structured cooperation will also play a larger role in managing foreign policy. Chances are this will probably happen, since the larger EU states are themselves candidates for a common defense policy.

Who determines policies toward strategic partners? The European Union has entered into a number of strategic partnerships with the world's major powers, including the United States, Russia, and China. Due to its powers in foreign trade policy, the European Commission is their logical partner in this area. Nevertheless, in most cases the agreements with other large powers are not limited to economics but include security policy, humanitarian issues, and questions of freedom and law. This is why the Commission conducts negotiations on a wide variety of issues"”such as the partnership agreement with Russia"”and allows the member states to remove the last obstacles and approve the agreement. In addition, the larger EU states pursue their own foreign policy toward strategic partners, competing over influence and business. The coexistence of these various levels of interaction in foreign policy can be productive.

The president and the high representative will have their hands full trying to resolve the existing conflicts in the CFSP. At the same time, they will need to fight for a forward-looking EU foreign policy. To this end, it makes sense for the European Union to initially concentrate on neighboring regions, where European interests are directly affected and where important contributions can be made in addressing international issues. This type of policy is already highly developed in the Balkans, combining military presence, economic, and political stabilization, and efforts to introduce states to the European Union. However, the European Union must exert a more powerful, proactive influence on crisis development in other neighboring regions in order to gain credibility as a global player. The European Union can only succeed if its large and medium-sized members push ahead with such a policy.

In the southern Caucasus, the European Union should move from the role of observer to that of a stabilizing force. Although the ESS calls for vigilance in this region, the European Union has been scared off by a potential conflict with Russia. The trick is to win influence in the region without drawing Russia into a confrontation. It must provide more and strategic support for business development and political reform. The European Union should also consider ways to maintain a presence in the rebellious Georgian provinces without officially recognizing the secession.

In the Middle East, the European Union is the most important trading partner of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Although this status does not automatically translate into political influence, the European Union must play an important role in the "quartet"� formed by the United States, Russia, and the UN. More development aid for the Palestinian areas could bring greater influence over time. The approach to act locally, as it is done through the EU border mission in Rafah, should be expanded.

In the years to come, North African countries such as Libya, Egypt, and Algeria may face crises as a result of political transformations, with a new generation taking the helm. With the ENP and the Mediterranean Union, the European Union has regional tools that can be expanded, but it must also give greater priority to bilateral relations with these North African states.

As part of its strategy for Central Asia, the European Union is working to promote the regional integration of five post-Soviet states and to expand energy partnerships. It has had little success so far, since the region's regimes are skeptical about European coordination efforts that do not come with the promise of greater financial aid. But the European Union must remain persistent and not shy away from a potential conflict with Moscow. Better relations with Central Asian states will also help the European Union expand its role in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This focus on neighboring regions alone will result in an ambitious transregional agenda. Conflicts in these crisis-ridden regions can lead to global risks or, as in the Middle East conflict, fan the flames of Islamist radicalism. As part of its regional policy, the European Union should address cross-cutting challenges such as the battle against violent extremism and the diversification of energy sources.

At the moment, the European Union is not an authentic global power. Indeed, most of its members do not want it to be. Brussels will try to expand its global influence over time, but hardly fast enough to be able to compete with China or the United States. Yet action is urgently needed: The Union should step up its efforts in the wider neighborhood, and quickly. Success here would have a global impact. It could also raise the consciousness in the EU states that their security depends on a strong European foreign policy.

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Henning Riecke




German Politics

European Integration

Climate Change

Middle East

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