European Council on Foreign Relations

Europe's foreign policy: Resilience meets mediocrity

In the introduction to the first edition of the European Foreign Policy Scorecard, we wrote that in 2010 Europe had been distracted by the euro crisis. In the introduction to the second edition, we wrote that in 2011 Europe had been diminished by the crisis. By the end of 2012, the crisis had become less acute but still not been solved – far from it. The eurozone was to some extent stabilised – in particular through the bold leadership shown by Mario Draghi after he succeeded Jean-Claude Trichet as ECB president at the end of 2011. But the steps taken in 2012 do not yet go far enough to solve the crisis nor is it clear that they are even sustainable. In fact, they may have produced a temporary respite, with further turmoil to come – including a possible British withdrawal from the EU – rather than a lasting solution to the crisis. However, although European leaders continued to devote more time to worrying about financial and institutional questions than geopolitical ones, European foreign policy did not unravel in 2012.

Europe’s foreign-policy resilience

Although Europe’s image and soft power may have continued to fade around the world (though this is difficult to quantify), and member states continued to make cuts in their defence and development budgest, the EU managed to preserve the essence of its acquis diplomatique. In fact, the Scorecard’s granular assessment of European foreign-policy performance in 2012 shows timid signs of stabilisation and resilience. Across the range of issues that the Scorecard assesses, Europeans generally performed better than the previous year. Although the EU had no high-profile successes comparable to the military intervention in Libya in 2011, it put in a respectable performance in its external relations – especially given the deep crisis with which it continued to struggle. In particular, it seemed to perform better when it continued to implement policies for which the foundations had been laid in previous years.

Russia was a case in point. Relations with Moscow deteriorated, but Europe’s unity and the coherence of its policies towards Russia improved. The EU did not depart from its cooperative attitude, having been instrumental in getting Russia into the WTO, which it formally joined in August. But it was more attentive to protecting its interests and norms, and more assertive – threatening, for example, to use the WTO dispute-settlement system when Moscow announced new protectionist measures in late 2012. The European Commission launched an antitrust probe against Gazprom, while continuing to orchestrate efforts at enhancing gas interconnections so as to decrease Europe’s energy dependency on Moscow. Europeans did not shy away from criticising human-rights abuses during the crackdown on demonstrations that accompanied the election season and the re-election of Vladimir Putin as president in March.

There were also signs of modest improvement in relations with China, even though unity among member states continued to be in short supply, thereby undermining European leverage. Germany, which accounts for nearly half of European exports to China, seemed at times to speak for Europe in China. But even if Berlin does not want to replace the EU, its voice is naturally louder than others, and Beijing has become adept at cultivating it. In some respects, Germany was a leader on China in 2012, but Merkel also undermined the European Commission when it launched an anti-dumping case against Chinese solar-panel manufacturers. Still, Europeans in general became more assertive overall in their trade disputes with Beijing and in their criticism of human-rights violations. The panicked approach of 2011, when Europe was both hoping for and fearing massive Chinese investment in the continent to relieve the euro crisis, was replaced by a more restrained and balanced relationship.

Europeans also slightly improved their performance on the United States, especially in their cooperation with Washington on regional and global issues, which helped them further their own goals while having the US respect their red lines – for example, in sanctions on Iran. Finally, the only issue on which Europe performed worse in 2012 than in 2011 was multilateral issues and crisis management. New CSDP missions were launched – something that had not happened in the last two years – and European policy towards Somalia grew more coherent. But the EU was rebuffed by Russia and China in the UNSC with two vetoes on Syria and by the United States on the arms-trade treaty; they failed to make an impact on the UN vote on Palestine; and the G20 was still dominated by the euro crisis as in 2011.

In the eastern neighbourhood, European performance was mixed. Europeans continued to struggle in the Western Balkans in 2012, with political instability and economic difficulties from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Serbia and Montenegro, although the EEAS managed to make good progress on relations between Serbia and Kosovo. The EU also got mixed results in the Eastern Partnership countries. Its results were good in Moldova, and to some extent in Georgia, and it had a firm, coherent approach towards Belarus, but Europeans struggled to pursue a united approach to Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Lastly, Europeans continued to struggle on Turkey, with a muddled situation on bilateral relations and frustrating developments on foreign policy. 

Europe’s southern neighbourhood was dominated by the conflict in Syria. Europeans could not break the frustrating diplomatic gridlock or prevent the bloody tragedy that worsened as the year went on. Europe’s overall performance in the region remained fairly constant. Member states were generally united in their initiatives towards Iran and North Africa but, beset by the economic crisis, they couldn’t move beyond limited programmatic supportto the transitions and struggled to make a positive political impact with governments and to construct collective relations with newly politically engaged parts of society in the region. They were still split on the Israeli–Palestinian issue, though to a lesser degree than in previous years, as demonstrated by the November UNGA vote on upgrading Palestinian membership.

The challenge for the EEAS: technocratic Europe and power Europe

Whether the trend towards the renationalisation of European foreign policy that began with the euro crisis will continue in the years ahead will depend in part on whether the overall machinery of European foreign policy becomes more efficient – in other words, to what extent Europeans are able to apply the various instruments that they have at their disposal. In particular, it was hoped that the Lisbon Treaty and the creation of the EEAS would help Europe become more effective in bringing together in a coherent way the economic, diplomatic, and military resources of the member states on classical foreign-policy issues and the external competences of the European Commission on issues such as trade and aid. Reconciling these two Europes that interact with the world – the “technocratic Europe” and the “power Europe” – is the main challenge for the EEAS. The official review of its development that will be carried out in 2013 will offer an opportunity to test its record in this regard.

As the Scorecard illustrates, the EEAS plays very different roles in different policy areas. It interacts with national diplomacies in various ways, from full responsibility to shared competence or sometimes marginalisation – usually high-level UN diplomacy or military crises such as Libya in 2011 or Syria in 2012. But the EEAS can also support the big member states, for example by directly negotiating with Iranians on the nuclear issue. It can help deliver strong European policies, for example by helping to convince reluctant member states to diversify their energy supplies in preparation for sanctions against Iran or by minimising disagreement in order to avoid paralysis, as in the KosovoSerbia negotiations (five EU member states do not recognise Kosovo). It can powerfully represent Europe’s collective decisions, as it did with the opening of an office in Burma in 2012 – a prelude to the opening of a full-fledged EU delegation in 2013.

In other cases, the EEAS is able to be more assertive in exercising EU leverage, for example in visa policy towards Russia and the Western Balkans. It can also take initiative independently of, but coordinated with, national diplomacies, as it has done in developing policy towards and organising financial support for the transition states in North Africa and coordinating it with the United States. But for all the progress on this front, European foreign policy still functions most effectively when there are engines – often the EU3 or “coalitions of the willing” including other member states such as Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and Poland. The role the EEAS plays is also different in different parts of the world: in Washington, the EU delegation finds itself working with more powerful and often much larger embassies from all 27 member states; in countries where the EU gives out large amounts of aid, the EU delegation is often de facto the most important Western diplomatic representation.

Thus assessing the performance of the EEAS is a complex task. The Scorecard suggests that, after a difficult first two years marked by high expectations, the euro crisis, and the Arab Awakening, the EEAS began to function better in 2012, although it is far from having reached its full potential. It is undoubtedly still preoccupied by organisational problems, Indeed, one of the main objectives that High Representative Catherine Ashton has given herself is to establish a full-fledged and functioning diplomatic corps during the course of her five-year term in office. But the EEAS is structurally slowed down by the fundamental imperative of coordination between the 27 member states, which imposes a heavy constraint on its agility (even when it succeeds). Whether in Brussels or in the major EU delegations, the EEAS is all about coordination, while modern diplomacy in the digital age requires ever-greater responsiveness and velocity.

Within these constraints, the diplomatic culture of the EEAS seems gradually to be changing for the better. Initially, it was mostly staffed by EU civil servants working for the European Commission, with a culture of implementing programmes and managing only certain issues such as trade and the environment. However, the substantial infusion of diplomats from member states has brought a culture of power relations, emergency, and crisis management – in short, a diplomatic culture. As a result, relations with member states, including between EU delegations and embassies across the world, have improved markedly. A positive change in attitudes towards the EEAS in the large machineries of the biggest member states is also taking place as diplomats realise they will have to serve in it at some point in their careers.

The Scorecard suggests that the lack of a consensus among member states does not necessarily prevent the EEAS from playing a useful role on a given issue, even if it means that it must play a different and reduced role than it can when there is consensus. But the danger is that the “technocratic Europe”, largely led by the European Commission, will be increasingly cut off from the “power Europe” of member states. In the Middle East and North Africa, EU task forces were created to help bridge this gap. Unfortunately, a lack of clarity across the EU about the objectives of this policy tool meant that, while they were successful as investment conferences and in developing lines of communication with broader sections of society than classic government-to-government relations allowed, they did not succeed as an EU initiative to support political reform in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

As the EEAS develops and feels more confident that it has the backing of the member states’ diplomatic services, it may begin to innovate more and develop effective mechanisms, diplomatic practices, and policy itself. There were some examples of this in 2012, such as the joint visits by the Bulgarian, Polish, and Swedish foreign ministers to Lebanon and Iraq, and the inclusion of an EEAS representative in the Danish foreign ministry’s team for a visit by a senior Chinese delegation. Spanish diplomats were also housed by the EU delegation in Syria and Yemen after the Spanish embassies were closed and the EEAS represented Bulgarian citizens sentenced to death in Malaysia in October. However, many member states are still expanding their bilateral representation and continue to take the EU presidency very seriously. While the EEAS became a much more significant actor in 2012, member states are a long way from investing in it to the extent that it is able to realise the full potential range of roles that it could play and from reconciling “technocratic Europe” and “power Europe”.

Internal and external challenges

The near horizon is marked by serious challenges – any one of which could undermine the modest recovery in European foreign-policy performance in 2012. There are already indications from key strategic partners that they are beginning to see the euro crisis as the “new normal” – in other words, that they are planning for a future in which European power continues to decrease. Europe’s lack of a collective defence strategy, and its declining investment in its defence capacity, is also a serious obstacle to continuing global influence as a security actor. This makes it even more important that the EEAS is able to bring together CSDP with wider foreign-policy efforts. These matters are daunting enough with the EU’s current structure. But the impact of a British withdrawal from the EU on these and numerous other questions would be potentially huge.

Europe will also have to deal with these challenges at a time when the United States is increasingly becoming what Michael Mandelbaum has called a “frugal superpower” and is “pivoting” towards Asia. In January 2012, President Barack Obama outlined a new defence strategy based on the idea of a “leaner” military and a shift of focus towards Asia. In the future, as this strategic rebalancing becomes a reality, the US presence in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood may become more intermittent and low-cost. As it supplies its own energy needs, it may also have less of an automatic interest in the southern neighbourhood and aim instead to “lead from behind” in the Middle East. Although the US will not leave Europe altogether – in particular, Iran and Syria may continue to pull the US back in 2013 – it is likely to work with others as well as Europeans as part of what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called a “multi-partner” strategy.

This long-term shift in US foreign policy will further increase the pressure on Europeto deal with its own neighbourhood. Although the EU has become more effective towards Russia this year, tensions have, if anything, grown and may continue to do so in 2013. Insecurity in the Sahel, which was already a growing concern in 2012, has in the first month of 2013 led one EU member state to go to war in a region not far off the EU’s doorstep. Europeans are likely to be dealing with the fallout of the attempted takeover of Mali by Islamist rebel groups this time next year and feeling the consequences for years to come. Despite the euro crisis, the EU foreign policymaking machine has continued to function in 2012 and indeed has been moderately successful. But getting by for a second year is unlikely to be enough to deal with the challenges that 2013 looks set to present.

Click here to read ECFR's European Foreign Policy Scorecard 2013 - The Scorecard is also available as a pdf or as an ebook for your e-reader. (epub/mobi)


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