EU foreign policy: Moving on from Libya

Historically, internal divisions have caused the EU to be flat-footed in responding to foreign policy crises. But by learning from the EU’s successes and failures, it should be possible to plan coordinated approaches for future crises.  

For many observers, the sense of déjà vu at the moment is overwhelming. Member states of the European Union are once again bitterly divided – this time about Libya. As a result, the Brussels institutions, including the ones created with great fanfare by the Lisbon treaty, are  trapped between warring capitals. Some claim that Europe has made no progress whatsoever in becoming a foreign policy actor since the dark days of Bosnia in the early 1990s. 

However, European leaders should not be despondent. Europe can be an effective foreign-policy actor when it wants to be, as the European foreign policy Scorecard 2010, which is released this week by the European Council on Foreign Relations, shows. The study systematically evaluates and grades the performance of Europeans – member states and EU institutions taken together – in their external relations.

Unsurprisingly, the EU performs badly where it is internally divided. The worst grades in the scorecard are for relations with Turkey and Russia, human rights policy, and European action in the G20. On the other hand, however, the EU does have a substantial acquis diplomatique on issues like the Balkans, visa policy, Iran, or climate change. While the scorecard partly confirms the idea that Europe is a “herbivorous” power, in other words one better at issues of “low politics” than “high politics” (for example the EU gets good grades on trade, standards and norms), Europe also gets satisfactory scores on issues of war and peace such as Iran, Somalia or Georgia.

We also found a strong pattern in the results. Europe is doing better in areas where it has been bitterly divided in the past, has failed miserably, but has been forced to put in place adequate tools and to harmonise national positions that were at first very far apart from one another. Good examples include the Balkans, where the EU gets good grades even though all issues are not resolved; its strong and united policy vis-à-vis Iran, which was largely a reaction to the Iraq debacle; its improved strategy for the Cancún climate change meeting after the disastrous Copenhagen one; or its united response to the Liu Xiaobo Nobel peace prize ceremony after the incoherent attitude to the Olympics Games in Beijing. This pattern of failure and humiliation before success, it should be noted, is far from restricted to foreign policy, as was demonstrated in the recent weeks by the comprehensive package found for the euro crisis.

In the Libya case, Europe has failed to speak with one voice. It has little experience dealing politically in a collective way with this region – there is no acquis diplomatique there. It is at the beginning of the learning curve: current events will force Europeans to get their act together as they did in the Balkans. In a few years from now, we may witness a more common policy towards our Southern neighbourhood, which is important for reasons of security, energy and immigration.

The two questions, then, are how Europe can develop a common policy before – rather than after – it becomes a crisis, and, in case this fails regardless, how it can shorten the cycle of humiliation before success. What makes the Libya case different from previous crises is the existence of the Lisbon institutions, which could be put to good use for these two objectives.

First, in order to avoid the phase of bitter division, and try to get the benefits of a crisis without the pain, the EU should put in place a systematic exchange of analysis and evaluations between national diplomats and the new External Action Service. Second, the Service should organise exercises and crisis simulations on the main areas of potential future problems to detect those where European views diverge the most – something the ECFR Scorecard helps mapping with precision.

But when it's too late and the divisions have come out in the open, the EU should adopt mechanisms that enable it to “agree to disagree” while remaining operational – the Kosovo situation, where strong diverging views among member states don't prevent coherent action, is a good example of this. That is where the Lisbon Treaty institutions should offer new solutions for Libya and for future crises. In the short term, however, it is up to the national capitals to quickly narrow their differences over Libya and start building an acquis diplomatique there as well.

This article was first published on Open Democracy's website.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Research Director

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