European Affairs

The rationale for trying to work out a strategy was a clear sense of failure in EU foreign policy. Even those sympathetic to the European Union have criticized its foreign policy stance as "speaking softly while carrying a big carrot." The depth of the divisions over Iraq heightened a sense of self-doubt among Europeans and led some commentators to conclude that shaping a credible EU foreign policy was simply impossible.

That conclusion was premature. Nevertheless, Iraq vividly demonstrated that as long as Europeans do not agree on the nature of threats and how to deal with them, EU foreign policy will never succeed. The strategy is therefore a good example of the European Union trying to learn from failure. The real question is whether the strategy document will turn out to be merely fine words, or whether it will make the European Union a more effective actor in global security.

Advocates of an EU security strategy have long argued that the Europeans must develop a common analysis of the nature of the European Union's international environment, leading to a shared assessment of the threats and opportunities it poses and then to the appropriate policy responses. The point of the exercise would be to do so as Europeans rather than as, say, British, French or Germans.

For years this proposal languished in the never-never land of European debates on EU foreign policy. It was something people referred to at conferences - but was kept separate from the realm of practical politics.

Then the Iraq crisis happened. All sides rapidly acknowledged that the absence of a shared threat assessment was a key reason why EU countries ended up so divided. Each country first formed its own national viewpoint, and only then engaged in half-hearted attempts to come to a common stance with its European neighbors.

That is why EU leaders charged Mr. Solana with drawing up an overall strategy. His mandate was to work out a coherent assessment on the nature and urgency of today's most pressing security problems, along with the best ways to respond to them.

For some, the proposed EU strategy was mainly about how Europe should respond to the "new America" and its attempts to mix global pre-eminence with preemptive strikes. For others, the purpose was to get some non-aligned EU countries to take the new threats of strategic terrorism and WMD proliferation more seriously - and to convince them of the need, in some circumstances, to use force.

Yet others stressed that the Europeans had to develop a more robust form of multilateralism. Throughout the drafting period, there were strong debates - with the British and the Germans at the opposite ends of the spectrum - on what language, if any, to use on conditions for the use of force.

To the surprise of many, the document that Mr. Solana presented at the Thessalonica summit meeting in June 2003, entitled "A secure Europe in a better world," was not only an eminently readable but also a very forceful paper. It heralded a desire for a more muscular EU foreign policy. It was hailed as a great success by all 15 EU foreign ministers and those of the 10 candidate countries due to become members in May 2004. U.S. officials, too, welcomed the document, describing it as a "sign of the maturing of the [Transatlantic] relationship."

Many U.S. commentators have seized on the identification of the four threats as proof that Europe is "seeing the light." Such conclusions are understandable. They fail to appreciate, however, that while the Europeans agree with the United States on the nature of today's threats, the policy conclusions that they highlight are distinctly "European." Today's threats, as the document put it, "are more dynamic and more complex…none of the threats is purely military; each requires a mixture of instruments."

The three core aims, described after the identification of the threats, differ to some degree from U.S. policy priorities. The stated EU priorities are extending the zone of peace around Europe, promoting "effective multilateralism" and countering the new security threats.

When describing its call for "effective multilateralism" the strategy underlines that countries that "persistently violate international norms should understand that there is a price to be paid, including in the relationship with the European Union." The European Union will thus continue to champion international law and oppose forcible regime change, but would be prepared to act tougher when states or individuals break the rules.

"If we want international organizations, regimes and treaties to be effective in confronting threats to international peace and security, we should be ready to act when their rules are broken," the strategy paper says. In months and years to come, this concept of effective multilateralism will prove critical. The next time a country is violating its commitments, those EU countries that favor a robust approach can hold those in the softer camp to the agreed standard that rules need enforcement to remain relevant.

The strategy's most important political message is that it puts paid to the traditional view that the European Union believes only in deploying "soft power" tools such as economic aid, trade or diplomatic pressure and enticements. The European Union will not give up on "soft power." But it now accepts that it must use all its instruments - policies on trade, aid and migration - in a politically targeted and conditional manner. EU leaders often stress in their speeches that no other organization has such a diverse "tool kit." That is true in principle, but the weakest link in EU foreign policy has been the poor connection between its wide-ranging instruments and its policy aims.

Encouragingly, the security strategy states explicitly that the European Union must be prepared to use the carrots of financial assistance and the stick of sanctions to encourage political reforms or better standards of governance. That realization is extremely welcome, if long overdue. Europeans like to think of themselves as being good at soft power. But because of a lack of focus, coherence and self-discipline, the European Union has under-performed for years in foreign policy.

It is also an improvement that the final version of the document recognizes, along with the emergence of new threats, that old regional and ethnic-style conflicts still remain. Indeed, "frozen conflicts" - such as over Kashmir, around the African Great Lakes and between Israel and the Palestinians - often fuel the new threats. Europeans are right to emphasize the regional security dimension to proliferation problems, which is often missing in U.S. thinking.

Inevitably, the strategy also has its weaknesses. For instance, there is a lot of emphasis on questions of governance, the rule of law and human rights. But there is hardly any mention of democracy, and none of freedom, as important objectives for the European Union. This confirms the widely held suspicion that Europeans are too focused on stability and managing the status quo.

Democracy and freedom deserve a more prominent place; they are too important to be left to the neoconservatives in Washington. With respect to the Middle East, there is a risk of a Transatlantic Greek tragedy: the United States talks a lot about promoting democracy, but is ill-equipped to bring it about; the Europeans are better-placed to do so, but do not seem to want it badly enough.

The strategy has also gone backward in one important respect: the notion of "preemptive" engagement has been replaced in the final version by the less-threatening term "preventive" engagement. When asked, EU officials claim a linguistic problem, with many European languages lacking a direct translation for preemption. But the political connotations of the term, and its prominent place in U.S. thinking, must have been a greater problem. While its reluctance is understandable, the European Union must grapple with the contentious issue of the conditions for the use of force. A semantic fudge cannot eliminate a category of problems that will not go away.

As with all mission statements or strategies, implementation will be key. The U.S. national security strategy issued in September 2002 was put to the test over Iraq - an experience that exposed its flaws. By common account, Iran will be the test case for the European Union's security strategy. It is incumbent upon EU leaders to prove the skeptics wrong in two critical respects. They must demonstrate that the security strategy is not just composed of well-meaning words but has real consequences, and that a different approach to international affairs can deliver better and more lasting results.

After the dismal failure over Iraq, EU foreign policy is getting better again. The Security Strategy is part of that process. Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt has aptly caught both the significance and the dilemma of the task ahead. "The European Security Strategy" he says, "is a most significant first step. As such it must be welcomed and endorsed. The process of European integration has entered into new territory. We have crossed a Rubicon. The question is where to go from here."

Steven Everts is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London. He is the Director of the CER's transatlantic programme which covers the full range of US-European relations (foreign and security policy, trade issues plus financial and economic cooperation). He has written numerous articles on EU issues for leading European and North American publications, including the Financial Times, the International Herald Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, die Sueddeutsche Zeiting and NRC/Handelsblad.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number I in the Winter of 2004.