Ten Recommendations for EU Foreign Policy

The European Union (EU) faces an unprecedented number of crises, from large-scale migration and refugee flows into Europe to a volatile neighbourhood that stretches from Ukraine to Libya.

The EU’s responses to these threats have been piecemeal, and it has struggled to balance short and long-term approaches. Here, Dr Angelos Chryssogelos outlines 10 recommendations for a more coherent European strategic and security outlook in the years to come.

1. The Eastern Neighbourhood should remain a priority for EU foreign policy, but a more nuanced approach is required.

The EU needs to do more to differentiate between its eastern neighbours. The models for partnership with the EU are still largely modelled on the 2004 accession agreements. These templates do not take into account the split between neighbouring states that seek deeper integration with the EU through association agreements and DCFTAs (‘deep and comprehensive free-trade areas’), and those with no current membership aspirations. States should not be forced to make a choice between prioritizing relations with the EU or with Russia, as this would increase stress on their political systems and societies.

The EU must strengthen the security dimensions of the European Neighbourhood Policy and the Eastern Partnership. Ukraine, in particular, has become a test case for Europe’s credibility as a committed foreign policy actor. The potential escalation of security pressures in Ukraine must be met with a credible European strategy. Acknowledging the strategic importance of Ukraine, and of the Eastern Neighbourhood, in the new EU global strategy document would send a strong signal in this regard.

The EU must do more to fight corruption and improve the rule of law. Where possible, it should strengthen relations with parliaments, regional governments and civil society in its Eastern Neighbourhood.

2. The EU must strike a balance between firmness and engagement with Russia.

The EU should maintain sanctions so long as Russia has not fully implemented the Minsk agreements. The EU should not be afraid to challenge Russian influence by condemning Russian aggression, or by building relations with countries more closely aligned with Russia.

Channels for engagement should remain open. The EU can be firm on security and sanctions yet still seek cooperation with Russia where it needs to — for example, on Syria and the Middle East.

A long-term strategic view of relations with Russia is necessary. The Russian economy remains in trouble, and this will affect the country’s political outlook. The EU must prepare for a broad range of future scenarios, from heightened military tensions with Russia to prolonged economic recession in Russia.

3. The EU must adopt a multi-pronged approach towards North Africa. This should take into account security concerns and migration flows, but should also seek to support long-term institution-building.

The EU must redouble its efforts to strengthen democracy in Tunisia, by offering greater economic and security assistance and promoting democratic values and practices.

The EU should continue to engage with, and actively support, civil society organizations in the region as a means of improving democratic accountability and respect for human rights.

The EU should make use of the wide range of policy instruments (development, security, humanitarian and economic) at its disposal, including those of its member states — as it has already done in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

If asked to do so, the EU should consider deploying military assets to protect the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Libya is a crucial test ground for Europe’s security capabilities, particularly in terms of managing migration flows from the country.

4. The EU’s medium-term approach towards the Middle East must go beyond a policy of containment to one of sustained engagement.

The EU should remain involved in high-level diplomacy in the region, building on its successful role as mediator/convener in the Serbia–Kosovo negotiations and in the Iran nuclear talks.

The EU must plan for post-conflict rebuilding in Syria and Iraq by making use of the development funding, loans, trust funds, political pressure, technical expertise and monitoring missions at its disposal. If the EU is unable to take a leading role, it should actively support the US and/or individual EU member states.

EU member states must cooperate more closely to minimize the security risks posed by jihadists with EU citizenship who may return from the Middle East to Europe. Improving intelligence-sharing and strengthening law enforcement will be key to improving communication and burden-sharing between European states.

5. A strong German voice is essential for Europe.

Active German leadership will increase the chances of EU foreign policy being effective. The member states and EU institutions should therefore ensure that Germany has a central role in EU foreign policy-making. One example of success was during the Ukraine crisis, when Chancellor Angela Merkel prioritized European geopolitical concerns over national economic interests and acted as the de facto leader of the EU’s response.

However, Germany does not have the capacity or ambition to lead Europe single-handedly — nor would this be politically acceptable to other member states in many cases. The refugee crisis has shown the limits of Germany’s leadership. The country’s failure to provide sufficient communication and reassurance to fellow member states has alienated many other governments in Europe. A more inclusive and consultative approach is needed in future.

German leadership must be cultivated and shaped in cooperation with EU partners. The UK and France should be more engaged in EU external affairs and more willing to share the burden of policy-making. This would make it easier for Germany to take on a greater role in international affairs.

6. Domestic politics in member states can make EU cooperation on foreign policy more difficult. The EU must do more to demonstrate how foreign engagement is key to the prosperity and security of European citizens.

The eurozone and refugee crises have increased popular distrust of politicians and the political establishment. The Dutch referendum on the EU–Ukraine association treaty showed how concerns about the economy, identity and political representation can hijack a crucial foreign policy issue.

The EU should be more proactive in communicating and promoting its successes (such as on climate change, the Iran talks or the Kosovo–Serbia deal). The EU must show how diplomacy, mediation and multilateralism offer tangible benefits for citizens’ welfare and security.

7. The UK referendum on EU membership will affect the future of EU foreign policy. If the British people vote to leave, the EU will need to devise new mechanisms to keep the UK involved in collective European endeavours.

‘Brexit’ would deal a major blow to the EU’s international standing. If the UK votes to leave the EU, the EU will need to think of new ways of working with the UK so that both can continue to cooperate on foreign policy.

In the event of an ‘out’ vote, British staff will be forced to leave the European External Action Service (EEAS) and other EU institutions. The British contribution to intra-EU debates will also weaken. The EU’s foreign policy capabilities and effectiveness would suffer as a consequence.

There is also the possibility that ‘Brexit’ would encourage other EU member states, or groups of member states, to be bolder in pursuing strategic directions that diverge from those of the EU as a whole. The EU will need to work more flexibly, while at the same time opposing tendencies or initiatives that could lead to internal fragmentation.

8. If the UK chooses to remain in the EU, there will be opportunities for the UK to show more leadership on foreign and security issues.

If the UK votes to remain in the EU, and the margin of victory is significant, the country should use the result as an opportunity to take the lead in promoting a stronger EU foreign policy. However, a close ‘remain’ vote may mean that the UK government has to maintain a more ambivalent approach to foreign policy-making in the EU context.

The UK could play a more confident role in ad hoc coalitions, particularly on security and military affairs. Just as there is an EU core, in the form of the eurozone, when it comes to monetary matters, there could be a similar — though much less formal — core on strategic and security matters, with the UK acting as a leading member. The UK can also provide impetus to new developments in EU foreign policy, for example with regard to cyber diplomacy and security.

9. The EU must make the most of its diversity. Varied leadership and ad hoc groupings could become indicators of a new diversity-in-unity.

Achieving agreement among all 28 member states should always be the EU’s priority. This was the case, for example, with the imposition of sanctions on Russia. Neither complete rupture with Russia nor complete accommodation — both of which options were respectively advocated by some groups of member states — would have been palatable for the EU as a whole.

The challenge is to build effective ad hoc coalitions while maintaining consensus across the EU. The EU is necessary as an arena for fostering consensus and enlisting the diplomatic support of all members. The EU should not expect member states to be involved in all foreign policy endeavours to the same extent, given the limited interests and capacity of some states.

Much can be done to improve how the EU institutions function. There has been evidence of better coordination in the EU’s external policies — for example, in foreign policy and development aid. The EEAS must be further strengthened with top-quality personnel and improve its relations with member states. Budgetary resources must be aligned with targets that have the potential to deliver substantive results in the long term.

Internal diversity is a reality, and EU foreign policy must learn to use this to its benefit. Many member states have particular expertise or relationships in various parts of the world, which could be utilized by giving their governments a greater role in areas of comparative diplomatic strength.

10. Flexibility, pragmatism, effectiveness: principles for a new EU strategy.

EU foreign policy must adopt a long-term perspective, which will require looking beyond immediate crisis management. If not, the EU will continue to face the consequences of a lack of strategic forward thinking, such as in the cases of Ukraine and the refugee crisis.

The EU’s core interests lie in its region. But the scope of this ‘region’ is large, since the roots of security challenges extend to places such as Nigeria and the Gulf. The EU has to be able to engage in its immediate neighbourhood, the wider neighbourhood and the global stage all at once. Tackling regional security threats requires pragmatic global diplomacy.

The dilemma of ‘interests versus values’ is a false one. The situation in the Middle East shows that authoritarianism is not a recipe for long-term stability and security. There are practical benefits to promoting values. At the same time, a foreign policy based on values alone is unsuited to an organization of the EU’s size and breadth of interests and exposure. Europe has to start thinking in power terms again. Here the role of its bigger member states, and of relations between them, will be of crucial importance.

One-size-fits-all approaches are no longer suitable. Europe has to have the mindset and mechanisms to be able to act flexibly and effectively — whether this is to contain a crisis or to analyse and manage long-term trends — in a range of scenarios and circumstances. Different activities can be undertaken by all or some member states, depending on the issue at hand. A more strategic approach is needed today. This should balance the fact that the EU is facing a more connected, contested, complex and dangerous world with the reality of its own diversity.

This article was written by Dr Angelos Chryssogelos and based on four workshops on the external relations of the EU, held between December 2015 and March 2016 and hosted by the London office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) and Chatham House. Speakers included, among others, Carl Bildt and Baroness Catherine Ashton. The workshops were attended by experts from the policy world, academia, politics and journalism.

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