Monday, July 27, 2009

Can Europeans share a common security culture?

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

European countries have long declared their ambition to turn the EU into a global player in security – in order to tackle common threats and strengthen their voice on the global stage. But they still cannot agree on the main threats to their security or the best way to tackle them. Their views are so diverse that it is a wonder EU countries have managed to agree on any common action at all. But member-states need to strengthen their efforts to develop a common approach to security if the EU is to become a serious player.

For the past two decades, the EU has been developing a profile in foreign and security policy. It has agreed common security strategies, deployed over 20 peacekeeping and crisis management missions, led negotiations with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme and negotiated a ceasefire to the Russia-Georgia war. However, as was brought into focus at a recent EUISS seminar, EU countries do not always share the same threat perceptions, or agree how these should be tackled.

Some European countries, such as Ireland and Austria, do not believe they face any serious ‘hard’ threats. Others fear for their territorial integrity, including the Baltics, Poland and the Czech Republic. Greeks and Cypriots worry mainly about the prospect of renewed military conflict with Turkey. So while Cyprus is still partly militarily occupied and Greek and Turkish military aircraft tail each other on a daily basis, the Viennese worry mainly about the level of burglaries in their city.

While the UK considers the threat of transnational terrorism as the most pressing threat to Europe as a whole, and a key priority to be tackled at home and abroad, most other countries feel largely unaffected. Russia is seen as a close partner to some countries, including Italy and Germany, while the Baltic states see it as an existential threat. Some member-states believe it is important to have a global outlook on security, in particular France and the UK, while others, such as Malta, believe their main security challenge is managing migration flows.

Different views also exist on how to tackle security threats. For many member-states a UN mandate is essential in order to participate in a military mission abroad, while for others, like the UK, it is only desirable. Some believe the US and NATO are cornerstones of their security (in particular the UK and the eastern countries), while others view NATO with suspicion – and resent the UK for having sided with the US during the war in Iraq. Some EU member-states have long traditions of intervention in conflicts across the world and accept the possibility of casualties within their armed forces, in particular France and the UK. Others are averse to the use of military force, most notably Germany.

Various member-states (Sweden, Austria, Finland and Ireland) have a long history of neutrality and are grappling to make their stance compatible with growing EU co-operation in security and defence (Ireland is finding it the hardest to accept EU defence co-operation. Due to public concern, it will have its military neutrality enshrined in an EU treaty for the first time if the Lisbon treaty comes into force). For their part, the UK and France are insistent on the need to develop expeditionary capabilities to allow the EU to fulfil its ambitions abroad. Some member-states, such as Sweden, have transformed their military forces, but many others have so far resisted.

In light of their very different histories, traditions and cultures, it is no mean achievement that EU countries have agreed to work together to provide peacekeeping and crisis management to conflicts zones in need, and to cooperate on wider security issues such as Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In addition, with time the EU is likely to become further involved in security, by tackling ‘soft’ threats (such as protective measures against cyber attacks), or certain aspects of ‘hard’ threats (such as monitoring the cross-border transfer of dangerous products which could be used in chemical or biological attacks).

But member-states’ different interests and approaches limit the EU’s effectiveness as an external actor, as demonstrated by the difficulties in finding helicopters for the EU’s peacekeeping mission to Chad, the UK’s refusal to send a battlegroup to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008, or the difficulties the EU has in agreeing a common position on Russia or energy security.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the EU is the division between its western and eastern members. While many member-states feel they cannot trust their partners to guarantee their security (within the EU or NATO), it is difficult to talk of a common security culture. If threat perceptions within eastern European countries worsened, their anxieties could define their foreign policies, hampering the EU’s work at home and abroad (and NATO). For the EU and NATO to remain credible security providers to their members, and for the EU to become a serious player in global security, European countries must overcome the current mistrust and strengthen their efforts to develop a stronger common strategic culture.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Carl Bildt and the cost of speaking plainly

by Charles Grant

Carl Bildt is better known throughout the world than most of his fellow EU foreign ministers – and many of the prime ministers, too. That is not only because he has held some senior jobs (prime minister of Sweden, and Balkan envoy for both the United Nations and the EU), but also because he is actively engaged in, and knowledgeable about, a wide range of international issues.

Someone with Bildt’s skills and experience should be the front-runner to become the EU’s new High Representative – in effect its foreign policy chief – if, as is likely, the Lisbon treaty is finally implemented at the end of this year. That treaty would merge the roles currently played by Javier Solana, the current High Representative, and Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the commissioner for external relations, into a single post at the head of a new ‘external action service’ – an embryonic EU foreign ministry.

But Bildt’s chances of being appointed High Representative are slim. This is because he tends to say what he thinks and that is not always wise in politics or diplomacy. His frank and trenchant opinions appeal to think-tankers and journalists but not always to other foreign ministers. Some of them find his confidence and cleverness, and the length of his contact book, irritating. And sometimes he conducts his own solo diplomacy, particularly when Balkan problems hot up, which can be frustrating for the country holding the EU presidency.

I must declare an interest. Carl Bildt sat on the advisory board of the Centre for European Reform until he became Swedish foreign minister in October 2006, and still attends many CER conferences. He is very much a ‘think-tankers’ foreign minister’: he likes to argue and ask questions, and he brims with ideas. He also works very hard at his job: most weekends, this youthful-looking 60-year old is at some conference or other, debating the most pressing foreign policy issues of the day. And if he is not at a conference he is on a diplomatic mission or at a summit.

His critics view Bildt as an arrogant Mr Know-it-all. But in many ways he is modest. He takes the time to speak to people who are not ‘important’, like secretaries and conference organisers, and not all politicians do that. Furthermore, most politicians will only attend a conference if they are given a speaking slot. They go to give their speech and are not particularly interested in hearing what others have to say. But Bildt is not like that. Every six months the CER and other think-tanks organise a roundtable that brings together European and American diplomats and thinkers. Bildt always turns up, even though he seldom has a speaking slot. He sits at the back taking notes, because he is genuinely interested to hear what other experts have to say.

If Bildt was serious about running for the job of High Representative he would have manoeuvred to win the support of France and Germany. But he has not done that, with the result that both Berlin and Paris are likely to block his candidacy. Germany takes the view that the EU should maintain friendly relations with Russia. So in August 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia, the Germans disapproved of Bildt’s comparison of the Russian justification for the attack on Georgia to Adolf Hitler's rationale for invading parts of Central Europe – namely the need to protect a minority. Bildt’s comment was indeed over-the-top and unwise. In fact he has a good network of contacts inside Russia, including some of those in positions of power. Nevertheless as far as several EU governments are concerned, Bildt is simply too confrontational towards Russia.

France is an even bigger problem for Bildt. Just before the recent European elections he gave an interview to Le Figaro in which he contradicted the view of President Nicolas Sarkozy that Turkey is not in Europe. “If we judge Cyprus to be in Europe, although it is as in island along Syria's shores, it is hard not to consider that Turkey is in Europe," Bildt said. That interview made Sarkozy angry and he cancelled a visit to Stockholm. To make matters worse, Bildt does not speak French fluently.

Bildt has also been implicitly critical of Sarkozy’s protectionist rhetoric – he is a true believer in free markets, free trade and the ‘Lisbon agenda’ of economic reform. You know where you are with Bildt – he is a strong backer of human rights in authoritarian countries and he believes that the countries of Eastern Europe should be free to choose their own destinies. He is also an unstinting Atlanticist; if the decision was left to him, Sweden would join NATO. Bildt’s experience in Bosnia has made him passionate about the protection of minorities. At the end of the war in Sri Lanka, when government forces were killing many Tamil civilians, he tried to fly to Colombo to make his point to the country’s leaders. But he was refused a visa.

Many EU foreign ministers would probably prefer a High Representative in the mould of Javier Solana, the incumbent. The Spaniard’s style of operating is the opposite of Bildt’s: he avoids direct confrontations with people, preferring to build a consensus through discreet personal diplomacy. The ideal High Representative would be a figure who combined Bildt’s rigorous thinking and grand strategic vision with Solana’s subtle manner and feline operating skills. But there is probably no such person.

Charles Grant is director of the Cente for European Reform

Friday, July 10, 2009

Iran, elections, and nuclear weapons

by Tomas Valasek

What the future holds for Iran's theocratic regime is hard to read. True, the government has ensured its own survival by suppressing last month's protests there with brutal force. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will remain in power despite a contested election. But the authority of the regime has suffered. The president has lost legitimacy in the eyes of millions of Iranians. The country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who urged force against the protestors, has lost much of his popularity. The events of June 2009 could turn out to be the beginning of a deeper challenge to the Islamic republic: Iran observers point out that the country's 1979 revolution was preceded by a long build up of low-level agitation.

What is clear is that the violence around the presidential election bodes ill for western diplomacy to end Iran's nuclear ambitions, in at least two ways. First, Barack Obama will be under pressure to rethink the offer of 'engagement grounded in mutual respect', which he extended to the government in Iran in April 2009. On the other hand, the US will now find it easier to convince the Europeans to toughen the sanctions regime on Iran, thanks to Tehran's heavy-handiness.

Iran's nuclear programme is run directly by the country's supreme leader, not the president. The recent political turmoil will have had little effect on it. Even if the challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi had won the presidency, Iran would have almost certainly continued to enrich uranium. Mousavi said during the campaign that he would not abandon "Iran's right to nuclear technology". Some Iran watchers have speculated that Mousavi would build enrichment facilities but not nuclear weapons, lest he put Iran in even deeper isolation. In reality, the president's views have little bearing on the nature of the nuclear project.

The West has long been worried that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, or at least acquiring all the necessary ingredients. However the more immediate concern now is the prospect of an Israeli military strike on Iran. US officials say they fear that Israel may try to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities this autumn, before Russia delivers a batch of modern anti-aircraft missiles recently purchased by the Iranian regime.

To prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons – and to keep Israel from attacking – Barack Obama launched a new diplomatic push in April 2009. He has promised to join the European-led talks with the government in Tehran. US negotiators are rumoured to be considering dropping a key western condition for the talks, namely that Iran shut down its enrichment programme before the negotiations start. Obama also recorded a video statement to the Iranian people, in which he has offered a partnership between the US and Iran. The idea was to win the Iranian regime's goodwill by showing it the respect it craves, and to spur the Iranians into pressuring the leadership to pursue a less confrontational line with the US.

The second pillar of the US strategy has worked very well. While most Iranians support the nuclear programme, many of the young ones are increasingly frustrated with the country's pariah status. Mir Hossein Mousavi, surged ahead in the polls after he accused president Ahmadinejad of leading Iran into the 'indignity' of international isolation.

But Mousavi failed to win – or was prevented from winning – and the post-election protests have undermined the overall strategy. Iran cannot negotiate because the government is 'too busy locking people up', said one EU official working on the Iran dossier. If Ahmadinejad and Khamenei do fully consolidate power, this will create another headache for the West: how can Barack Obama speak to a regime which has likely rigged elections and brutally suppressed democratic protests? Obama is already under fire for being "soft" and "naive" regarding Iran. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently urged him to take a harsher line, noting that Iran's nuclear programme was progressing whatever the domestic situation there. Even if Obama starts talks with Tehran, he may feel compelled to satisfy Mullen, and others, by employing tougher rethoric. This would likely cause the talks to collapse prematurely.

If, as is likely, engagement does not generate a generous response from Tehran, the US will want to tighten existing sanctions on Iran. Some governments like the German and Italian ones, have been known to be sceptical about the need for further sanctions; the Italian foreign minister published an article in early June calling for the West to be nice to Iran. But the violence in Tehran has made the doubters more inclined to penalise the Iranian government, EU officials say.

However, fresh UN sanctions may be blocked by Russia, and possibly China. Both are members of the UN Security Council and oppose a harsher line on Iran. If the US and the EU apply unilateral sanctions, these will be less effective. Meanwhile, Israel may decide to attack, or Iran may race to acquire a full nuclear weapon. So the furore over Iran's presidential election – by throwing up new obstacles to diplomacy – has made the job of resolving tensions over its nuclear programme harder. That may prove the deadliest legacy of the events of the last few weeks.

Tomas Valasek is director of foreign policy and defence at the Centre for European Reform.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Russia: A tale of two crises

by Katinka Barysch

Russia’s economy has been hit hard by a triple whammy of capital outflows, collapsing oil prices and falling global demand. In the first three months of the year, output was down by 10 per cent compared with a year earlier. The retail boom that had fuelled growth in recent years has turned into a slump. The output of the manufacturing sector is contracting at a rate of over 20 per cent year on year. Construction is in deep recession. The current-account surplus has melted away.

However, the latest economic indicators suggest that the economic contraction is at least slowing. The oil price has recovered to over $70 a barrel. Surveys show that credit conditions are easing and managers are a bit less gloomy. Capital outflows have slowed. So has inflation, which has allowed the central bank to finally cut rates. International reserves, although down from 2008 peaks, still stand at $410 billion. The government is making plans for recapitalising some of the country’s banks.

Investors still remember the rapid, V-shaped recovery that followed Russia’s last financial crash in 1998. In the following nine years, the Russian economy grew by an average of 7 per cent a year. Will Russia be able to pull out of trouble this quickly again?

On the plus side, Russia’s government finances are in incomparably better shape than they were ten years ago. Back then, it was short-term public borrowing that triggered the crisis, ultimately forcing the government into default. Since then, the budget has shown a healthy surplus, allowing the government to stash away $140 billion in a reserve fund. So although revenue has collapsed (half of it comes from the oil and gas sector), the authorities have room for fiscal manoeuvre. Public spending will also have a bigger impact on the economy, simply because the Russian state is much bigger than it used to be (federal budget revenue was 13 per cent of GDP back in 1998, today it is over 20 per cent, according to Erik BerglÅ‘f from the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development).

Also, in 1998 the Russian economy had only just returned to growth, following years of severe post-transition recession. Now, after ten years of uninterrupted expansion, fewer Russians are living hand to mouth and many should be able to draw on savings to tide them over the most difficult period.

However, there are also reasons to expect the current crisis to be more severe and drawn-out. The 1998 crisis mainly affected emerging markets. This time, the recession is global, which means that no country will be able to export its way out of trouble. (Russia exports mainly raw materials, as well as some metals, timber and heavy industrial goods. But it is the collapse in demand for non-oil exports, such as steel products, that is causing the most trouble since these are often produced in isolated one-industry towns.)

Depressed global demand also means that the rally in oil prices is likely to be short-lived. After 1998, the oil price climbed steadily from around $10 a barrel to a peak of $140 last summer. Many forecasters expect oil prices to linger around $50-60 this year and next – not disastrously low but not enough to fuel a strong Russian recovery either. Moreover, Russia’s economy today is much more dependent on oil and gas sales than it was in 1998. Back then, oil and gas sales accounted for 44 per cent of export revenue, now the share is over two-thirds. Many manufacturing and services industries are directly or indirectly linked to the resource sector.

Perhaps the biggest difference lies in the role of banking and borrowing. Although both crises originated in the financial sector, in 1998 this sector was still so small that its collapse barely affected the wider economy. Then, credit to firms and households stood at 9 per cent of GDP; today it is over 40 per cent.

In recent years, much more of that borrowing came from abroad so the drying up of global liquidity in 2008 hit Russia hard. The World Bank estimates that in 1998-99, the reversal in foreign capital flows amounted to less than 2 per cent of Russian GDP. In 2008-09, it was close to 12 per cent of GDP.

Domestic banks cannot take up the slack because a rising share of bad loans will constrain their ability to start lending again. The health of the banking sector is difficult to assess. Official numbers show that the share of non-performing loans has climbed from 1 per cent at the start of the year to 4 per cent today. Given the sorry state of Russian industries, this is still an implausibly low number. Independent assessments put the share of bad loans at anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent.

As a result of these factors, the Russian economy is likely to take longer to come out if its slump than it did ten years ago. The World Bank predicts a contraction of almost 8 per cent this year, but some forecasters thinks even this is too optimistic and they question whether Russia will be able to make even timid recovery in 2010. Most economists agree that Russia stands little or no chance of returning to the 7-8 per cent growth rate that it enjoyed before the crisis struck

The big question is what the changed growth outlook will mean for Russia’s internal stability and the government’s willingness to implement economic reforms. In 1998 Russians expected very little from their leaders in Moscow. They were positively surprised when the Putin administration after 2000 started to implement some useful reforms, such as simplifying the tax system and cleaning up regulations.

Since then, Putin’s muscular rhetoric, combined with Alexei Kudrin’s sound macro-economic management, have raised expectations. The people that took to the streets in Russian cities in recent weeks and months did not so much protest against government policies as demand government help. The government could react either by getting serious about modernising and diversifying the economy. Or it could resort to economic nationalism and populist spending increases. So far, there is more evidence of the latter than the former. Prime Minister Putin has personally instructed companies to clear wage arrears and criticised shops for overcharging struggling families. On June 29th, he told the managers of Russia’s biggest banks that they should not go on summer holiday before they have significantly increased lending to the corporate sector (he even gave them a numerical target of $16 billion). With this kind of crises response, Russia’s growth prospects could end up being lower not only in the short term, but for many years to come.

Katinka Barysch is deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.