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May 18, 2005

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Global Europe 2: New Terms of Engagement

Richard Youngs (Ed)

Executive Summary

In December 2004, the European Union confronted the extent of its power. As the Ukraine fractured between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions, even the staunchly neoconservative American commentator Robert Kagan recognised that the EU ‘has become a gigantic political and economic magnet whose greatest strength is the attractive pull it exerts on its neighbours’. But if Europeans were becoming aware of their own strength, their priority was not its projection but its limitation. Two senior commentators warned from London:

The EU should and probably will rethink its longstanding position that Ukraine ‘has as much reason to be in the EU as New Zealand’, in the words of Romano Prodi . . . But now is not the time to make a big noise about Ukraine becoming an EU member.

This note of caution captures a recurrent dilemma for the EU that may come to both characterise and retard its evolution as a strategic actor: how can and should we control the spread of our own influence? As the authors in this volume emphasise, Europe’s power rests on its ability to exploit its ‘attractive pull’ through policies of engagement and conditionality. But in trying to direct and ration access to our resources, we risk being overwhelmed: democratic revolutions and political and economic opportunities will frequently force new temptations and obligations upon us.

The last year has seen this process played out around our periphery. In Georgia and the Ukraine popular uprisings have been fuelled by talk of EU membership. In Kyrgyzstan and the Lebanon, similar protests represented further challenges to back our values with actions. And in Libya and Iran, authoritarian governments have effectively tied concessions on WMD to portfolios of European political and economic incentives.

While many of these developments may be interpreted as proof of European influence – and the potential of conditionality in dealing with proliferation – they have also raised doubts about the viability of our overall strategy. In 2003, both the European Council and Commission had emphasised the need to transform the ‘wider neighbourhood’ into a ‘ring of friends’. In centring on the gradual and formalised reform of states, markets and governments, this approach implied that the EU could assert a high degree of control over such transformative processes. But this is yet to prove the case, and four key flaws in the EU’s strategy may continue to promote volatility in its neighbourhood – and beyond:

1. A lack of political commitment to engagement and conditionality;
2. A fear of ‘European overstretch’;
3. The emergence of strategic competitors for soft power, notably Russia;
4. A defensive approach to engagement by the EU.

Political commitment and overstretch

Criticisms of Europe’s insufficient political commitment to reshaping its neighbours are persistent and persuasive. As Michael Emerson notes in this volume, the Commission’s attitude to the ‘wider neighbourhood’ is vitiated by ‘tokenism’, and key Action Plans are insubstantial: ‘neither the incentives nor the conditions are spelled out’. If European institutions and states are often slow to detail the benefits they can offer, their uses of conditionality can be equally tokenistic – as Karen Smith argues, the EU’s over-cautious approach to reform in the Southern Mediterranean has been a tale of wasted leverage.

Thus, while the EU may pride itself on creating frameworks for engagement, their formulation and realisation are often self-defeating. The credibility of European promises are at risk of being further undermined by concerns over overstretch: a growing sense that the EU may lack the political coherence and democratic mandate to develop better-functioning frameworks in future. While the Commission may have defined the ‘wider neighbourhood’ as stretching from the Maghreb to the former Soviet space, there are well-known tensions among member-states over where along this arc the EU should focus. Whereas as France may look south to its former colonies, Poland and Lithuania were instrumental in turning attention to the Ukraine. Can such priorities be reconciled?

An attractive and intuitive answer is that individual member-states should take the lead on their differing areas of concern. Yet such flexibility risks increasing divergence between ‘first-class’ and ‘second-class’ forms of engagement, with certain member-states able to offer greater incentives to their partners than others. This may be a present reality, but it must compromise Commission policies and run counter to the philosophy of a coherent ‘ring of friends’ treated with relatively consistent conditionality. Beyond our neighbourhood, selectivity and inconsistency may equally undermine the EU’s claims to be a ‘global actor’ rather than a conglomeration of declining post-colonial powers.

Moreover, one crucial symptom of overstretch lies not in differences between European governments, but between governments and their electorates. The development of the EU’s strategic identity has frequently encountered public doubts be they Irish concerns for neutrality at the time of the Nice treaty or widespread fears over enlargement and migration revealed in the current round of referendums. In Karen Smith’s phrase, ‘any actor that seeks to impose conditionality should ensure that its own house is in order’. Public debates over the relative merits of ‘social Europe’ and ‘global Europe’ suggest significant public concerns over our political commitments to others.

Strategic competition and defensive engagement

Yet the need to confront such internal questions should not completely distract from the external ramifications of the EU’s engagement policies. A clear feature of the last year has been a growing recognition that Europe’s ‘soft power’ is drawing it into strategic competition with other global players – most notably Russia. It is a comforting fallacy that soft power does not make enemies. But as one Moscow-based commentator has remarked in The Economist, ‘the Russian leadership has concluded that “the European Union is just a new kind of empire”: one that threatens to expand into Russia’s historic sphere of influence’.

This form of competition – exacerbated by events in Georgia and the Ukraine – should not be a complete surprise. If Europeans see engagement and conditionality as soft power mechanisms, it has been argued that Russia is undergoing its own ‘soft power revival’ in Eurasia, drawing on commerce, migration and (above all) energy resources. In so far as the EU’s wider neighbourhood overlaps with the former Soviet space, ‘soft power competition’ is inevitable. Looking beyond our immediate periphery, the EU must recognise the growing influence of China and regional leaders. In so far as we wish to export our values and build economic links, we must recognise that we will encounter similar competition globally. Many synergies and balances will arise – as will tensions.

In this context, the question of whether our engagement and conditionality strategies are overly defensive is of increasing relevance. As Richard Youngs notes, Mark Leonard has defined the EU’s approach as one of ‘passive aggression’, but this form of attack may often be used as a form of defence. The Commission’s focus on a ‘ring of friends’, combined with the 2003 European Security Strategy’s prioritisation of the ‘near neighbourhood’, has led some to fear that the EU is inclined to use its non-military power to create a buffer zone of stability around it. While this would be no mean strategic goal in itself, it runs counter to the Strategy’s own emphasis on ‘global threats’. But at the global level, as Youngs notes here, the EU is increasingly using conditionality to address security issues without sufficient reference to their political contexts:

One wonders what political capital remains to exert conditionality over longer term political and economic change in third countries, and whether recent gains – the WMD negotiations with Iran, most notably – have been bought at the cost of diminished engagement on issues of internal reform.

Engagement and conditionality must not be allowed to become too parochial and security-focussed, even if more ambitious strategies risk external tensions and domestic disgruntlement. The alternative to defensive engagement is not the sort of cultural and economic offensive launched by Washington against the USSR after 1945. Rather, it can be framed in the ‘post-Westphalian’ terms of values advocated by Richard Whitman in this volume – a process of interpretation between states and cultures that may, over time, reduce competition between them.

Engagement and conditionality: moving forwards

How should we address these flaws in European strategy? The authors in this volume offer elements of a strategic framework resting on greater clarity, consistency and vision in the employment of conditionality and engagement. As Michael Emerson indicates, this should involve not only the reform of our methods and practices, but also of our institutional framework. Richard Whitman suggests that an enhanced framework may require new EU agencies operating beyond its borders. These are deliberately far-reaching proposals. To achieve them, some shorter-term tactical decisions may be necessary.

Recent debates over the European futures of Turkey and the Ukraine, fuelled by referendums on the constitutional treaty, have created an impression that the problem of overstretch has already had a corrosive effect on Europe’s political will. In the course of 2005, the EU must explicitly reaffirm its commitment to these two countries, far apart as they are already are on the road to accession. In October, the Commission will launch a new phase of negotiations with Turkey, while an EU-Ukraine summit will offer a significant platform for a clear statement of intent from the Union – it may be time for a ‘big noise’ on the Ukraine.

A similar act of reassurance may also be required in the Western Balkans, where a committee of experts has recently identified ‘pessimism and dissatisfaction’ undermining reform processes. More generally, European officials should take every opportunity to give concrete demonstrations that engagement is not ‘tokenism’ – yet they must also build on recent efforts to reassure Moscow that the EU’s goal is partnership with Russia, not competition.

Moreover, the European institutions should work with governments to ensure that current debates over the proposed EU ‘Foreign Minister’ and External Action Service should be more than lowest-common-denominator turf wars. In rethinking our institutional frameworks, we should aim not for retrenchment, but a more credible set of tools for employing ‘soft power’ resources. By combining clearer doctrines of engagement and conditionality with the mechanisms required to enforce them, we may begin to take firmer control of our power of attraction – and to use it to greater effect.

Richard Gowan

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