EU Foreign Policy Needs a Reset
AP Photo
EU Foreign Policy Needs a Reset
AP Photo
Story Stream
recent articles

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is a skilled negotiator; the recent Serbia-Kosovo breakthrough will probably secure her a place in the history books. It is rather unlikely, though, that 2009 - the year EU leaders chose Ashton as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy - will be remembered by future generations as the point of departure of a new European foreign policy, establishing the EU as a powerful actor on the world stage.

Four years after the Lisbon treaty came into force, one of its key provisions, a new definition of the position of the High Representative and the creation of a diplomatic service (called the European External Action Service, or EEAS), does not look like a success to many observers. Europeans "have no organized foreign policy to speak of," Washington foreign policy commentator David Rothkopf observed recently. Is he right?

The EU's neighborhood policy, often cited by Ashton as a key priority, indeed presents a rather depressing picture. The bloc's transformational power seems to have had its day. Only in the western Balkans does its old magic still work; here EU membership remains a desired, and achievable, goal, capable of moving societies forward and even forcing them to make hard choices. But in other regions skepticism, reluctance, and distrust from both sides have effectively shut the door to the EU, at least for a while. Enlargement fatigue has pervaded the Union. And with the EU's massive internal troubles, the attraction to join the bloc has decreased.

In addition, what has not worked yet is the idea of "enlargement light" as formalized in the "neighborhood policy," that is, gradually bringing countries closer to the EU by offering them a deepened relationship. The incentives are much too low for countries to change course, especially when other powerful players with regional interests are ready to be much more flexible and much less demanding.

True, the EU has a certain degree of leverage over neighboring countries such as Morocco, Tunisia or Moldova. But these are the easy cases: small, economically weak and in need of a powerful patron. By contrast, regional powers like Egypt, Turkey or Ukraine are increasingly disinterested in aligning themselves to EU policies. Instead they are looking for their own, distinct path into the future, increasingly dismissive of advice coming from Brussels. They still want trade and aid, and visa-free travel, but they appear to be less and less inclined to compromise on issues of internal governance.

The Arab Spring seemed to offer a new chance for a new partnership between Arab countries and the EU. But an inward-looking Europe missed that opportunity and did not act forcefully, decisively, or in unison. After some initial interest in helping to shape the future of the region (giving them incentives to move toward liberal democracy and market economy) EU countries lost interest, especially when it became clear that emerging out of these countries was not a liberal and democratic opposition, but a hard-edged political Islam.

In principle, the EU has more leverage in the east than in the south, as the path to EU membership for eastern Europeans is still a theoretical option. But it is here where the EU competes more and more with an assertive Russia. President Vladimir Putin is trying hard to pull Russia's "near abroad" back into the Kremlin's orbit. EU countries, while feeling uncomfortable about it, have not yet mustered the political will to start a counteroffensive by putting big incentives on the table and by offering clear perspectives for closer ties. They sometimes enter into the geopolitical game, but then shy back again. In other words, the EU has no strategy for dealing with the east.

The relationship with world powers is usually cited as a second priority for a common EU foreign policy. Here we also see little progress since 2009. European capitals are keen to keep control of their special relationships with the US, Russia, and China. Instead of gaining more leverage by acting in concert, they often compete for contracts and attention, inviting Moscow and Beijing to use a divide-and-rule strategy.

That German Chancellor Angela Merkel now has openly and publicly sided with Beijing against Brussels in the trade dispute with China is not a surprise. The short-term interests of big companies are trumping the longer-term interests of building leverage through common EU action. The relationship of European powers with China is purely commercial, ignoring the fact that Europe has a huge interest in making China a responsible stakeholder in the liberal world system, and in finding peaceful solutions to conflicts with its neighbors. Beijing is playing a smart strategic game, using carrots and sticks, in order to gain leverage over Europe. Europeans are failing to respond in a concerted manner.