Events in 2013 severely tested Europe’s ability to manage both fast-moving crises and complex multilateral negotiations. Conflicts in Africa highlighted divisions over military action within the EU, as France intervened in Mali and the CAR with limited support from other member states. France and the UK continued to play a prominent role in diplomacy over Syria at the UN, but were sidelined by the US and Russia during the August–September chemical weapons crisis. EU High Representative Catherine Ashton scored a success with her management of nuclear negotiations with Iran but many other multilateral processes made little headway. There was particular disappointment about the very weak outcome of climate change talks in Warsaw in November. [...]
France was at the centre of arguments over European policies. Having tried to avoid intervening in Mali in 2012, Paris sent in troops on 11 January 2013 to prevent Islamists taking over the south of the country. Although EU member states offered political support, only a small number, most notably Britain, provided significant military assistance. Although the EU deployed a training mission to reform the Malian army and the Netherlands offered attack helicopters and commandos to the parallel UN peacekeeping force, French officials complained about the EU’s caution, and especially Germany’s scepticism. In late 2013, France felt compelled to intervene in CAR, another former colony in chaos. But other EU countries had little interest in CAR, and the UK did not wish to deploy the troops it had on standby as part of the EU Battlegroup system to help quell this crisis.
African governments were more willing to send troops to Mali and CAR, with financial support from the EU, the US, and other Western powers. European donors’ support for African missions – including funds from the African peace facility – remains crucial to security on the continent. However, the need to find money for these new operations in Francophone Africa while continuing to finance the large-scale African Union operation in Somalia created tensions within the EU, especially between France and the UK. Rebel and terrorist attacks in Somalia dampened previous optimism about the country’s future.
Paris was also frustrated by a lack of progress over Syria at the UNSC in 2013, as was Britain (Luxembourg, a temporary member of the UNSC, gained some credit for pressing the humanitarian aspects of the crisis). After the Assad regime’s large-scale use of chemical weapons in August, and the ensuing debate about military action, Paris was infuriated by the Obama administration’s decision to negotiate a solution bilaterally with Moscow. A French effort to involve the ICC in the issue failed. But France would once again take an independent diplomatic line in talks over confidence-building measures with Iran, delaying a deal out of concern that it put insufficient pressure on Tehran.
Some commentators have argued that France’s military and diplomatic assertiveness is meant to offset its lack of leverage in debates inside Europe on the future trajectory of the EU. It is not clear that Germany, which is especially wary of new engagements in Africa, will support French global policies indefinitely. Many smaller EU members are also sceptical. Meanwhile, the UK’s status as a force in both crisis management and multilateral diplomacy was undermined by its parliament’s vote against military action in Syria in September, which suggested that London’s room for manoeuvre in future crises will be reduced. More broadly, the Obama administration’s direct negotiations with Russia over Syria pointed to a long-term decline in Europe’s multilateral leverage. If Washington, London, and Paris engage in further public splits over Syria or Iran, this decline may become more pronounced.
Other European multilateral initiatives were more successful in 2013. Ashton’s orchestration of the nuclear talks with Iran won widespread praise, although secret bilateral discussions between the US and Iran provided the impetus for progress. Britain presided over the G8 competently, forging agreements on financial transparency and taxation (conversely, Russia’s hosting of the G20 summit in St Petersburg was overshadowed by the Syrian crisis). British Prime Minister David Cameron also made a substantial contribution to debates on the future of international development, co-chairing a UN panel on the future of aid targets after the present Millennium Development Goals come to term in 2015. Europeans can also take credit for the agreement of the first UN conventional Arms Trade Treaty, which was completed in April. This document, which was nearly finished in 2012 but put on hold in part to avoid friction with the US gun lobby prior to the American elections, is the product of painstaking diplomacy over many years by EU member states including Bulgaria, the Nordic countries, and the UK.
By contrast, UN climate change talks in Warsaw delivered a vague – yet still contentious – international commitment to table proposals for reducing carbon emissions by 2015. Climate activists criticised the decision to hold the talks in Poland, which, with its coal-heavy economy, is often the back-marker in EU environmental debates. Representatives from developing countries attacked European and other Western negotiators for failing to offer sufficient promises of financial assistance to help tackle climate change. It seems probable that climate diplomacy, once seen as a banner issue for the EU in the global arena, will become even uglier, while time is running out for agreement on curbing carbon emissions.
If climate issues have the potential to upset European multilateral diplomacy, new challenges are also emerging on the crisis management front. Austria withdrew its peacekeepers from the long-running UN operation on the Golan Heights due to threats from Syrian rebels; Ireland had to offer a contingent at short notice to stop the mission falling apart. The Syrian conflict could pose further dilemmas for European peacekeepers in the region, including those in southern Lebanon, in 2014. Meanwhile, European militaries had to watch and wait while the US and Afghan governments negotiated over whether American forces will remain in the country after NATO withdraws in 2014. If US troops do stay on, some European trainers may also remain – even if the EU’s interest in Afghanistan has waned.