Europe’s post-Afghanistan to-do list

The EU’s approach to foreign policy and economic policy needs to account for the fact that, globally, the space between the two areas is increasingly narrow

A view over Camp Qarga and the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, Afghanistan

The NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan has laid bare several urgent challenges for the European Union.

The first of these concerns migration, which has clear domestic political implications. Up to this point, Europeans have been proud to welcome the relatively small number of Afghans who supported Western forces on the ground. But what will Europe do in the next few months, when many more refugees knock at its doors after fleeing Afghanistan to escape poverty and hunger? Even if 90 per cent of these Afghans relocate to neighbouring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, it is unclear whether they will stay there. Given the severe impact of the covid-19 pandemic and widespread economic difficulties in South Asia, the EU would be wise to prepare for a sharp rise in migration to Europe. The union needs to adopt a coherent approach to the region, including Iran, and – above all – it needs to seal the EU migration pact that has so far been elusive. The EU also needs to uphold its international commitments to refugees and asylum seekers, which will require a deliberate effort to engage with EU citizens to explain these responsibilities.

The second challenge concerns values. The EU cannot turn a blind eye to the inherently regressive nature of the Taliban regime, which uses religion, culture, and tradition to try to justify its denial of human rights to half of Afghanistan’s population: women and girls. As one young Afghan woman told me during my visit to Kabul in 2018, it is not about the EU imposing its values on the country; it is simply about ensuring respect for the 1945 UN Charter. That document reaffirms “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women”. This is what a value-based foreign policy is all about. It is important to remember this at a time when the rights of women and girls are being put to the test in many parts of the world, including in some parts of the West. This is what a values-based foreign policy is all about.

I have seen how qualified majority voting on trade creates incentives to forge a consensus, whereas unanimity on foreign policy simply reduces the cost of dissent

The third challenge is geopolitical. This is where Europe’s open strategic autonomy comes into play. Each of these three words – ‘open’, ‘strategic’, and ‘autonomy’ – is important to fully understanding what is required of the EU. The concept is not about autarky or self-sufficiency but rather an ability to act even when this means exercising independent leadership. The EU asserted such leadership on climate issues during the Trump era, for example. Open strategic autonomy also requires EU member states to develop a much closer understanding of their common foreign policy interests: with national vetoes, there is simply no incentive to come to a common understanding that helps bridge countries’ differences. As someone who has experienced both the EU’s trade and foreign policy worlds first-hand, I have seen how qualified majority voting on trade creates incentives to forge a consensus, whereas unanimity on foreign policy simply reduces the cost of dissent.

Discussions on an EU Strategic Compass are a good first step in that direction, but Europe also needs to better integrate its processes for creating economic and foreign policies. The EU’s approach to both areas needs to account for the fact that, globally, the space between foreign policy and economic policy is increasingly narrow. The challenge of connecting policy silos is apparent in many countries across the world. In the EU, this challenge is compounded by the fact that the EU’s common foreign and security policy is in the hands of member states – in contrast to trade and competition, which are community competences.

The challenges European governments faced in independently rescuing their citizens from Kabul were a stark reminder that the EU needs to strengthen its foreign and security policy. In a more power-based world, this is not a choice but a necessity.

The fourth challenge is in applying the lessons of the Afghan conflict to the region that poses the most serious security threat to Europe: the Sahel. There is a growing risk that the Sahel will become a safe haven for terrorists linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group, particularly as they have been emboldened by what they see as a jihadist victory in Afghanistan. The fall of any of the Sahelian states to such a group would create serious security and migration risks for not just southern EU members states but the union as a whole. This would also have a destabilising impact on the region – as seen in the skyrocketing piracy in the Gulf of Guinea in recent months – and eastern Africa, where jihadists are clashing with government forces in places such as Cabo Delgado, in Mozambique. This is why, during my tenure as Spanish foreign minister, I sought to position the Sahel as a European foreign and security priority.

The hard truth is that Europe will need to make a long-term investment in the region, intelligently combining military, civilian, and development interventions in coordination with its G5 Sahel partners. It is not just about winning the ‘war on terror’; it is about winning the peace. This approach may require patience but, in terms of its cost and impact, it is a better solution than a purely military intervention. On the military front, the EU has an opportunity to build a truly common European capacity around the French-led forces deployed in the Sahel, and to strengthen Common Security and Defence Policy missions there, including through operational mentoring for local armies. But military efforts – as important as they are to stabilisation – will be insufficient without serious investment in support for training, mentoring, and equipping local police forces, which have worked well in protecting local populations. The EU should promote the Sahel Alliance as the main platform on which members of the G5 Sahel and their international partners, together with the United Nations, invest in the public services that are essential to maintaining the state’s presence – from water and sanitation to education and healthcare.

Finally, Europe needs to pay much more attention to societal issues in the Sahel. It should do so by fostering local and national dialogues between ethnic groups, to make it more difficult for terrorist and criminal organisations to co-opt or recruit from marginalised communities. Placing people at the centre of policies and plans is the best way to contribute to peace and sustainability.

The path that EU member states should take is clearly outlined. The question now is whether they are ready to show the leadership and political will required to take it.

Arancha González Laya is the former Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, European Union and Cooperation and an ECFR Council Member.

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


Dean, Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po

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