At her confirmation hearing, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, said that she wants to make EU foreign policy more ‘strategic’. She called for a ‘strategic rethink’ and asked for 100 days to review the External Action Service (EEAS), the EU’s diplomatic arm that she now leads. What steps should she take?
Mogherini heads a service that struggles to live up to expectations. Four years after the creation of the EEAS, European foreign policy remains disjointed, overly technocratic and too slow in response to political crises. There have been a few successes, including the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo, the diplomatic détente with Iran and political reform in Myanmar. But too often, member-states pursue narrow national agendas while EU institutions lack the political clout to push for a common European agenda. The result has been a European foreign policy that punches below its weight.
A stronger, more robust European foreign policy is needed. Europe’s security environment is more volatile and unpredictable than at any time since the end of the Cold War. From North Africa to Eastern Europe, business-as-usual no longer suffices to promote a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.
On this, many agree. But Europe’s default mode has been to favour the status quo. In European capitals there is a sense that there is little to gain and much to lose in the current international environment. At the turn of the century, Europe was affluent, dynamic and an aspirational global power. But those certainties have faded after years of financial crisis, the sobering experience of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, rising euroscepticism and a range of security crises on Europe’s doorstep. European publics have become inward-looking, sceptical of military force and suspicious of European projects. This creates a tendency to respond to events, rather than to shape them. But the EU cannot sit back and wait. To misquote the old nobleman in Lampedusa’s The Leopard, if the EU wants everything to stay the same, everything must change.
The EEAS, of course, is not solely responsible for Europe’s foreign policy ailments. After all, it depends on the political consensus of the 28 member-states before it can act. But the EEAS, with its staff of 3,600 personnel, was created to develop and co-ordinate common foreign policy positions, and it must be an essential component of any stronger European voice in foreign affairs.
If only it could act strategically. That term has come to mean many things. Here, ‘strategic’ means the concerted use of all the means at the disposal of the EU and its member-states ‒ including trade, development, diplomatic and military tools ‒ in pursuit of strengthening Europe’s geopolitical position and protecting its interests. To increase the EU’s ability to act strategically, Mogherini should take the following four steps.
Firstly, to act strategically, the EU needs a strategy. The existing European Security Strategy, a document approved in 2003, is out-dated. It takes no account of the deteriorating security in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, the effects of the financial crisis or the structural changes in global geopolitics as a result of the rise of China. Without a coherent and updated overarching framework, European foreign policy action is bound to be fragmented and driven by ad-hoc responses to events. On October 6th, Mogherini suggested that she wanted to midwife such a new document, and this week the process starts.
To ensure that EU external action has a firm strategic footing Mogherini should appoint a Chief Strategy Officer (CSO). He or she should have two roles: lead the drafting of a security strategy; and assisting the High Representative with putting the strategy into practice. The EEAS leadership will need to respond to unexpected and diverse security crises; within this, the CSO should guard the overall strategic direction of EU foreign policy. The EEAS already has a ‘strategic planning division’ but it lacks influence at the highest level of policy-making. The current division is headed by a mid-career diplomat, yet the CSO should be a senior official with the political and bureaucratic gravitas to push for strategic initiatives, selected and mandated to challenge traditional thinking inside the EEAS. The ‘strategy czar’ should work closely with the High Representative, provide senior EEAS leadership with strategic analysis and inject strategic input into the policy-making process. Crucially he or she should be a member of the EEAS corporate board. Instead of being distracted by the day-to-day humdrum of EU diplomacy, this officer’s team – drawn from the current strategic planning division – should monitor long term security trends and assess how they impact the Union. The division should draw on the traditional diplomatic reporting from EU delegations and the policy planning documents of EU member-states, and leverage ties with counterparts within the member-states, the EU’s ‘strategic partners’ and the intelligence, research and think-tank communities. Thus, the CSO would help Mogherini offer a common picture of longer-term trends in the security environment, and develop policy responses.
Secondly, with a new security strategy and a CSO, Mogherini should push for greater European unity of effort. The decision to move her office to the Commission building should increase the coherence of European external action and increase geopolitical awareness of those directorates-general of the Commission working on development aid, energy and trade. But she must do more and attempt to manage the foreign policy cleavages that run through the EU. A well-known schism lies between Europe’s south and east. Proximity to a threat shapes policy priorities. So Italy is more worried about immigration flows across the Mediterranean, and Poland about a resurgent Russia. But neither Warsaw nor Rome can deal with these issues alone. Mogherini will not be able to overcome strong national reflexes in foreign policy but, more than her predecessor, she should be visible in European capitals making the case for European strategic solidarity.
Moreover, she must address security free-riding within the Union. Some states take the deterioration in Europe’s security environment more seriously than others, and are willing to commit the necessary resources and political attention. The effectiveness of European foreign policy ultimately depends on the resources and capabilities that back it. Mogherini must argue for a European military ambition commensurate to the EU’s economic weight. She should promote defence co-operation (together with her colleagues at NATO) and push for tangible results on defence spending when European foreign ministers solemnly declare that “geopolitics is back”. But military capabilities have declined since the financial crisis, or even earlier. Fewer resources equate to lower expectations: in the late 1990s the EU discussed creating a 60,000-strong ‘Helsinki headline force’, in the early 2000s the new focus became 1,600-strong Battle Groups. Today, the 300-strong training mission in Mali is considered a large EU mission. European defence ministers applaud marginal progress in defence co-operation, when far-reaching initiatives are called for. Mogherini should initiate a debate about the role of hard power in EU foreign policy.
Thirdly, she should make EU foreign policy more (geo)political. The EU prefers to project externally what brought it peace and stability internally. This means that EU external action often takes on legalistic, not political, overtones. Diplomatic successes are considered those legal agreements that are signed when technocratic checklists are complete. It is a reflection of the EU's origins when the power of trade and institution-building trumped power politics in Western Europe. This system was exported effectively when the EU waved the carrot of membership at its neighbours, making the acquis communautaire one of the most effective European foreign policy instruments over the years. Enlargement, however, appears to have run its course for now. Instead, foreign policy focuses on those states with little chance of joining the EU, but whose political and economic stability is essential to European security. Here, the appeal of the EU’s single market is important but not sufficient to sway key decisions in Europe’s favour. The EU must build its influence through a mix of financial aid, trade incentives, security assistance and diplomacy, based on strong personal relationships with the region’s leaders. The best mix will depend on the country. For instance, Egypt’s autocratic turn has estranged it from the EU, yet it remains a country of strategic importance. Mogherini should pursue a dialogue with Cairo based on security co-operation, which is a shared interest, instead of cutting ties or attempting to curry favours through a trade deal or financial assistance.
EU officials often use the mantra that “the EU does not do geopolitics”. But in the Ukraine crisis, EU sanctions rather than NATO’s military toolkit have squeezed Moscow. This makes the EU – and the EEAS – a geopolitical actor, and to Russian eyes, a geopolitical competitor. Mogherini should push her staff to develop policies that reflect this geopolitical competition. This has consequences for her personnel. As she considers a reshuffle of the EEAS senior management – a new Secretary-General will take office in April, and the post of Chief Operating Officer might disappear – she should scrutinise broader EEAS human resource policies. Not every EU diplomat is, or should be, a good strategist. Career paths at the EEAS should, however, create a space for developing strategists, not only excellent diplomats that can execute policy. In particular she should review the system of EU special representatives: senior diplomats that act as Mogherini’s substitutes on specific regions, but whose effectiveness is harmed by their turf wars, open-ended mandates and unclear ties to the EEAS bureaucracy.
Fourthly, inside the EU, Mogherini should attempt to build a special relationship with the EU’s most important country, Germany. In the Ukraine crisis, German chancellor Angela Merkel has shown herself a leader, rallying other EU capitals in support of sanctions. But it remains to be seen whether this more robust stance will translate into other areas of its foreign policy. For instance, Berlin’s relations with China continue to be trade-focused, and avoid thorny security issues. Even worse – as Hans Kundnani of the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out in a recent article – Germany’s foreign policy interests may not necessarily align with the rest of Europe’s. More than any other large member-state, Germany is uneasy about the utility of force in its international relations; even the recent decision to provide 100 trainers for the Kurdish Peshmerga was politically controversial and Berlin is not involved in the air campaign against the Islamic State terror group. As its political and economic clout in Europe grows, other member-states – particularly its neighbours – increasingly look to Berlin for foreign and security policy guidance. Mogherini was wise to visit Germany in her second week in the job, but she must make it a priority to cajole Germany to commit to an ambitious European foreign policy, even if she faces strong headwinds doing so. As long as Germany under-invests in the tools of foreign policy, Berlin will weaken the EU and provide a convenient excuse for the inaction of others.
These four steps would help Mogherini strengthen Europe’s voice in foreign affairs, even though progress may only be incremental; member-states remain reluctant to give too much influence to someone in Brussels. But given the overwhelming need for a common and credible response to Europe’s increasingly dangerous neighbourhood, she should make it her mission to search for strategic convergence among the 28 sovereign states. Her most strategic work might, after all, not be to find diplomatic consensus with governments outside the Union, but with those within.
Rem Korteweg is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
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