Source: ISS (International Institute for Strategic Studies)

The development of a more coherent foreign and security policy is one of the biggest challenges facing Europe in the years ahead. A strong and strategic European presence in international affairs requires the full and active engagement of individual member states, confident in their sovereign roles and fully committed to the collaborations they choose to pursue. While some of the EU’s smaller members remain committed to the CFSP to protect their interests on the international stage, the attitude of others is more ambivalent.

In the meantime, EU institutions will continue to be relegated to the sidelines of world affairs. European states will continue to differ in the details of their sovereign external engagements, particularly with regard to larger powers with deep pockets such as China. More generally, the EU’s description of third parties which are too important to ignore as ‘strategic partners’ loses any meaning when the quality of its relations with such parties varies so widely. The concept covers close partners such as Canada, problematic partners such as Russia and potentially close partners such as Mexico.

If the EU is judged by what it fails to do, its record is doomed forever to disappoint. Too often, the pull of competing national policies and interests drains oxygen from the EU’s rhetoric of strategic intent.

The evidence suggests that forming an EU consensus at the institutional level, even on declaratory statements, is actually becoming more problematic. Member states are increasingly willing to stand alone or play blocking roles.  

It will not be easy for Europe to respond to a world in which multilateralism and multilateral institutions appear increasingly out of favour and unfit for purpose with a full-throated defence of and further investment in such multi­lateralism. Can EU member states continue to use their individual and joint institutions to common purpose even as the winds of populism swirl both within and beyond its borders? Certainly the EU has a role to play in the struggle between liberalism and nationalism that is unfolding internationally, but the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated.

On issues of foreign, security and defence policy, EU institutions are unlikely ever truly to take centre stage. But while the lead actors in any production may get the most attention and may ultimately be responsible for the success or failure of the performance, the stage manager has a crucial supporting role to play. As the EU Global Strategy puts it, ‘EU foreign policy is not a solo performance; it is an orchestra which plays from the same score’. An EU that embraces the budding minilateralism in European foreign and security policy, coordinated through EU institutions and the High Representative/Vice President could play a critical role in co­ordinating member-state approaches and in amplifying their effects, while constraining a more dangerous trend towards unilateralism and fragmentation.

There are periodic explorations of the EU’s willingness to shift to a greater use of QMV as part of this drive to increase the freedom and ability of the Union to act in international affairs and, as importantly, to protect it from attempts by third parties such as Russia and China to blunt EU effectiveness by co-opting individual member states. (Decisions with specifically military and defence implications would continue to be exempt from QMV under Article 31.4 of the TEU.) Were EU member states able to find a formula that allowed them to move comfortably in this direction on issues of foreign-policy consequence, it would signal greater strategic intent on their parts. The challenge of persuading member states is, however, considerable, not least with regard to those whose preferences have already been threatened by QMV on migration. Even should modest progress on QMV in foreign policy prove possible, its use is likely to prove rather conservative, for example if a member state, or a very small grouping, does not so much outright oppose an action as feel mildly unenthusiastic about it. Meanwhile, larger states that do not wish to be overruled on their national foreign policy would not find it too difficult to prevent any undesirable vote from taking place.

For the moment, however, EU strategic influence in foreign affairs is hampered not only by the bureaucratic demands of the CFSP, including the requirement for unanimity, but also by the operational realities of the EEAS. Processes are followed, interests formulated and policies announced, but all too often the follow-through is underwhelming. The constraints here are understandable, perhaps for a few member states even desirable. Moreover, as the EEAS works to minimise the gap between its declaratory policy and implementation, it must depend on an EU toolbox that is outside its immediate control. Meanwhile, the range of tasks for which it bears some responsibility is unusually extensive, incorporating aspects covered not just in the foreign ministries of member states but also in their defence and development ministries.

The EU has consistently strained to make its influence felt on the big strategic challenges, from China to Russia to the stability of the Middle East. There are multiple instances of member states forging ahead with foreign policies they know will meet with resistance from fellow member states, only subsequently to lobby for the EU to fall in behind them.

The US shift from leader to disrupter of established multilateral forums clearly demands a reaction from European states. There are other, equally concerned parties with whom the EU can work as it seeks to mitigate the strategic upheaval. From Canada to South Korea, Australia to Japan, the EU has partners that may be sceptical about the ability of Europe to step up its strategic game, but not about its desirability. Such countries are similarly keen to demonstrate the enduring appeal of effective multilateralism and a rules-based system against the forces of disruption. Europe must consciously reinforce cooperation in areas where transatlantic interests continue to align, even as it engages more seriously in the development of crisis-management capabilities on key strategic issues where the US might choose to stand aside. Strengthening European resilience in the face of the maelstrom of destabilising developments in international affairs is the CFSP’s overarching goal.

That the EU cannot credibly aspire to be a great power able to determine the direction of world affairs does not prevent it from being a stabilising force that works with like-minded powers to protect the credibility of multilateralism, uphold international treaties, project stability in its neighbourhood and pursue a rules-based approach to issues of international concern.

In the next few years, demands on European foreign policy will continue to outstrip capacity. Rather than looking at where the EU struggles to add value, it is more useful to consider those areas where it does not have the luxury of failure without forfeiting any pretension to strategic relevance and endangering its survival. Two key challenges are worth highlighting in this regard.

Migration and conflict in the Sahel and North Africa

Africa’s population is set to more than double by 2050, to 2.6bn, accounting for more than half the global population increase over that period. In the western Sahel region (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger, which together make up the five-nation G5 Sahel), already afflicted by extremes of poverty, unemployment, and food and water insecurity, the population will rise from 78m to 200m by 2050. The need for a comprehensive approach that considers security support and political partnerships alongside other aspects of development policy and stimuli for economic growth has rarely been so obvious.

Only time will tell how successful the EU will be in building African resilience and projecting stability, as well as whether the EU will maintain and develop the commitments it is making. Yet the scale and persistence of the challenge, especially along the northern shores of Africa, means the EU and its member states cannot but engage. Without a serious, co­ordinated approach to foreign, security and defence policy, even the tens of billions of euros on development policy currently being promised will not be able sustainably to stem the flow of people. This is not to deny that Europe has benefitted from migration in the past, nor the increasing need for immigrants in the future. But it is important that the processes for migration are controlled, and are seen to be controlled, while the routes for seeking asylum under international law are protected. 

Balancing in the Balkans

The second unavoidable foreign- and security-policy challenge for the EU lies in its ability collectively to manage what it describes as ‘the heart of Europe’ in the Western Balkans. Failure to maintain security and stability in this neighbourhood – not covered by the CFSP – would be judged by those not preoccupied by such technicalities as a catastrophic strategic failure of EU foreign and security policy.

With a growing number of outside powers including China, Russia, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey manoeuvring to increase their influence in the Balkans, for the EU to lose influence in its own backyard would mean that the Balkans would serve not just as one of the first brutal exposures of the weakness of a common foreign policy, but likely also one of the last. There would be little credibility left to salvage.

The changing imperatives of EU Foreign policy

As the tools and targets of foreign policy evolve, so too will estimates of Europe’s strategic impact, both potential and realised. As traditional geopolitical pressures return to centre stage, the instruments that define a country’s defence and security capabilities and vulnerabilities are diversifying. Europe’s future ability to protect and defend itself will be determined not just by its defence and diplomatic capabilities, but increasingly by other capabilities, including technological ones. Developments in areas such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing will change the nature and even meaning of geopolitical competition and conflict. New dependencies are already being forged. Most of the AI-powered hardware and software solutions needed to run the industries of the future are currently manufactured outside of Europe.

Concerns have been growing about the strategic implications of some foreign investments in Europe since the financial crisis. These tend to focus on China in particular: between 2008 and 2015 Chinese investments in the EU increased from approximately €2bn to €20bn. Such concerns have also been raised by the advent of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its ambitions for a ‘community of common destiny in cyberspace’ and its ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy for transforming the country into a high-tech ‘manufacturing superpower’. The strategic significance of this latter ambition is a useful reminder of the changing nature of great-power competition and influence. Based on the US Industrial Internet Strategy and extensive study of Germany’s ‘Industry 4.0’, which focuses on the efficiency and productivity savings that can come from the combination of advanced technology and the internet, China’s strategy is aimed not just at joining but dominating the market in critical high-tech industries. This includes the pursuit of technology substitution that, if officially espoused rather than unofficially pushed through internal or informal interactions, would violate World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. These state-sponsored policies are having a notable impact on European countries from Germany to Ireland, and the Czech Republic to Hungary. China’s strategy, moreover, does not just include its promotion of foreign acquisitions, but also coercive technology transfer and the promotion of commercial espionage, including cyber espionage. China is using similar methods in the pursuit of its ambitions in AI; the AI strategy developed by the European Commission falls considerably short of the necessary mark in its response.

EU member states are only just starting to consider the scale and nature of the challenge posed by these initiatives. The concerns, at first wrongly seen as evidence of a protectionist backlash, are more strategic, even if they are vulnerable to abuse by protectionist lobbies.

With the apparent waning of enthusiasm for multilateralist approaches on the part of the US, the inadequacy of European foreign policy appears at first glance to be starker than ever. But expectations for the CFSP are, all too often, unrealistic, and the fact that other actors are similarly struggling to get to grips with more complex and multifaceted security issues is often conveniently ignored.  EU foreign policy must be judged, at least in part, by what it is able to effect, rather than what it is not. The challenge is not only to do more with the CFSP and CSDP, it is also to use the resources that the EU has for external action more coherently, linking more effectively the EU’s work on development policy, technical assistance and trade with its objectives for its neighbourhood and for foreign and security policy.

Member states are increasingly unable to deny that effective domestic policies on concerns such as irregular migration are likely to require more active and coordinated foreign policies. Migration agreements and readmission arrangements will not be easily sustained, and will commit EU member states to broader partnerships in key regions that focus not just on development or on good governance but also on the provision of peace and security in these lands. A more coordinated and cooperative network of European foreign and security policies will need to emerge. Such efforts will depend primarily upon individual members, but EU institutions will have an important role to play in corralling and representing these states. Cooperation will come in many forms: multilateral and institutional, bilateral, informal, and sometimes multilateral but based on national legislation. Many of the ambitions for European global strategy and influence will go unfulfilled, and the mechanisms for achieving them unrealised. The limitations and frustrations of European foreign engagement will continue to be easier to cite than the triumphs. But already-established and yet-to-be-imagined formats can lend Europe serious strategic weight in international affairs. The first signs of a European strategic awakening might finally be starting to emerge.


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