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The EU at a crossroad

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Speech given by Marc Otte, Director-General Egmont Institute, on the occasion of the Opening Day of the School for Young leaders in Ohrid.

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


The EU at a crossroad

Ohrid August 2015

A few days ago, I stood watching the big world map on the wall at the entrance of the Maritime Museum in Lisbon, which displays the routes of the explorers from the Iberian peninsula around the globe in the 15th and 16th centuries. It reminded me that this period of our history had been the initial experience of globalization and that this experience was a European one. This is one of the origins of a Western-designed world order that would last until today, but one that is now increasingly challenged by emerging powers and a number of non-state actors.

In our day and age, the more recent construction of a European order, the European Union, is under stress, as the engine of integration seems to be running out of fuel and the common policies engineered by the member states and the institutions appear to be losing their traction and even their legitimacy in the eyes of European citizens and those of outsiders.

First among them is a stalled economic system and the repeated crises of the Eurozone, sluggish growth and persistent unemployment, increasing opposition to austerity and probably more worrisome, lack of convergence in basic economic and social choices by individual member states, destructive for solidarity and the principle of ever closer union. That leads to the second issue, ie the lack of punch in the design of common policies such as economic modernization, energy and immigration (including calls to come back on fundamental acquis such as free movement of people). Thirdly, enlargement policy, a fundamental and unique feature of the success the European project, is handicapped by an enlargement fatigue anchored in the euro-sceptic mood among increasing segments of the European public. Fourthly, the policies designed to keep the rest of the world friendly to the EU and preserve its fundamental interests are being weakened by their growing inadequacy to the nature of change in the world and the increasing challenge to the values that sustained them all along. This is the lot of the Neighbourhood Policy, the CFSP and the CSDP. One particular reason for their lack of credibility is that the EU and its member states did not do what they said they would do.

In the meantime, the world is becoming increasingly complex and unstable. We have to get used to live in a state of permanent crisis for the years to come, with the rules of the game changing as non- state actors have become strategic players alongside states, failing state are creating growing areas where rule of law is absent, depriving entire populations of the basic means of living and of their basic human rights, increasing the pressure to emigrate to safer and more prosperous places. Europe is the favourite destination, which increases the burden on entire regions already experiencing fragility and economic distress. This comes on top and aggravates the impact of global phenomena such as climate change and demographic explosion as well as pressure on natural resources.

Projections to 2030 indicate that the global population will increase from 7.1 to 8 billion people, with urbanization growing to more or less 67 percent. Demand for food will increase by 35 percent and for energy by 50 percent. Nearly one half of the global population will live in areas with severe water shortages. One billion workers from developing countries will be added to the global labor pool in search for employment, while ageing population in developed countries constitute a threat of economic decline. Asia will surpass North America and Europe in economic power. Air pollution leads to an estimated premature death of 3.7 million people annually. Deaths from non-communicable diseases continue to increase. Water use across the world has increased at more than twice the rate of population growth. Global temperatures will increase beyond the limit of 2° if nothing drastic is done to reverse the trend: there is a lot of skepticism about the Paris conference next December delivering the expected policies.

Conflicts are taking new turns. Recently the world was shaken by two seemingly unrelated events.

The first was the irruption of the murderous and nihilist endeavours of DAESH or ISIL in the Levant and of Boko Haram in Nigeria and its neighbours.

The second was the forceful intervention of Russia in Ukraine after a popular uprising in Kiev removed president Yuvshenko from power and the subsequent annexation of the Crimea by Moscow.

These events have underlined the existence of an arc of crisis that stretches all the way from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the confines of Afghanistan and Pakistan and from the Sahel to Central Africa and the Red Sea. They broadcast systemic crises within a broader, global systemic crisis, that of the vanishing post-Cold War order and its concept of cooperative security and the institutionalisation of security regimes at least in the Euro-Atlantic space.

The challenge by emerging powers to the Western-designed world order that prevailed since the end of WW2 heralds the return to a system of balance of power akin to the one that preceded the two world conflicts of the 20th century. The rhetoric of Poutine is more reminiscent of Catherine the Great than that of its communist predecessors. At the same time these emerging powers do not seem to have much more of a common agenda than to be against the old order. They regularly use raw power to impose their agenda in what they see as their sphere of influence. (Russia in its near abroad or in the Middle East, China in the South China Sea for example).

This movement backwards constitutes a major obstacle to the establishment of a system of world governance that is urgently needed to face the challenges of globalization, whether one thinks about the economy, climate change, management of natural resources, including energy, demography and migrations, new technological challenges such as cyberwar, all potential or actual sources of conflict and instability.

The UN system is paralysed and cannot exercise its role as guarantor of world peace as well as leading agency for equitable and sustainable development.

There seems to be no available alternative to alliances of circumstances in function of concrete situation and convergence of interests on a case-by-case basis. One good example of this is the world powers’ negotiations with Iran on the latter’s nuclear programme.

The United States, still by far the only the dominant military power, is wary of more foreign entanglements and restrained by American public opinion’s reluctance toward new military adventures and seems to be retreating and to focus on domestic concerns as well as to turn its sights on Asia and the Pacific. But this inclination for retrenchment does not prevent it to be sucked into the quagmire of the Middle East, as the indispensable power capable of facing effectively the regional disorder and to preserve its security guarantees to its long term allies in that region.

In this context, the confident statement of the European Security Strategy of 2003 that Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free, probably needs revisiting. Not hopefully in a pessimistic mood, but with the resolve to restore the confidence of Europe, not so much as a geographic notion (although geography matters) but as an idea, or as Count Coudenhove-Karlergi said at the Congress of Europe in the Hague in May 1948, “Europe is a means and no end”. This insight of one of the founding fathers has been forgotten by many Europeans of late, as for them the means has become the end.

The eminent political scientist Thimoty Garton Ash wrote in one of his essays that a common memory is essential to move a country or a group of countries to accept that they share a common destiny. A nation without memory is not a nation, he says, and a “Europe without a memory will no longer remain Europe. What Europe was like sixty years ago remains one of the strongest arguments-perhaps the strongest altogether- for continuing to build a European Union”. As the younger generations are facing a difficult world and look for a stronger compass for the future, refreshing memories about what made the previous ones chose the path of the European project and what constitutes its unique value. The single stronger claim to a moral foundation for European power is that the EU remains the most accomplished model for peaceful international conflict resolution, based on cooperation and integration. It is a perfect example also of soft power and continues in spite of its current problems to exercise a strong influence on neighbours and more distant partners. People at Maidan square in Kiev, were waving European flags, as the expression of their political aspirations. One wonders when the same is likely to happen in any capital of the European Union itself!

The founding fathers of the European project were guided by the ‘never again’ motto of ending the centuries of war and death that plagued the European continent. At the end of WWII, that was the guiding principle. At the start of the Cold War, European integration became the economic dimension of the defence of the free world against Soviet imperial design, while Nato was its military leg. After the end of the Cold War, it morphed again into the engine of reconstruction of a Europe ‘whole and free’ and served as a magnet for the peoples of the Balkans to end their civil and ethnic wars. It was an essential part of the system of interlocking institutions in the Euro-Atlantic area, a system of international institutions based on the principle of cooperative security. In the post-post-Cold War world, its main mission is to promote once again its model of integration and cooperation, its know-how in building complex systems of governance in and between states in search for a a new world governance indispensable to confront the challenges of globalization with its threats and opportunities alike.

This will not be easy in the current mood of euro-pessimism. The best argument against defeatism is of course what would happen if nothing was done. The cost of the “non-Europe” is the most effective argument but it has not been used very efficiently in the recent past, as the discourse of re-nationalisation of policies is being used effectively to win votes in national elections. This touches on one of the fundamental flaws of European policy currently: the lack of leadership akin to what was present in the early days and at crucial moments of European post WWII history. Encouraged by the ‘instant vote’ of social media, European leaders, like others, tend to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it. They react to raw and immediate information without sufficient reflection about their long term significance. As Henry Kissinger writes in ‘World Order’, “the motives of the principal groups, their capacity for concerted leadership, the underlying strategic and political factors in the country, and their relation to other strategic priorities are treated as secondary to the overriding imperative of endorsing a mood of the moment.” Instead real leadership should articulate a long term vision for Europe including the future shape of a community of nations and peoples where a hard core of ever closer union can be complemented with wider circles of members who do not want or cannot integrate further at the moment. The idea of “concentric circles” as suggested by Jacques Delors should be revisited.

Should leadership become less of a rare commodity, the priority of a renaissance should be on fixing the economy as the economy is for good of for bad the foundation of power. The Europeans have huge assets in that respect. But it will not happen if they do not integrate further and accept a form of European economic government for the able and willing. In support of economic revival, adopt a strong energy policy, a smart immigration policy and a forward looking climate policy, including in each case, making use of these policies to develop technological innovation and employment opportunities.

Revisit the enlargement policy to make it more attractive to candidates and less threatening for insiders.

Review fundamentally the ENP to make it more case specific and more attractive if one intends to demand conditionality.

Make the Strategic Partnerships of the EU, real, result oriented partnerships, not just occasional meetings with lots of words.

Encourage the emergence of a real European diplomacy, building on past success such as the negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme.

Use the tools available for an effective crisis management, leveraging to the full extent the capacity of the EU for a comprehensive approach to crises.

Adopt a new security strategy with the intention to implement it. The High Representative for CFSP has recently put forward proposals for such a document. It is called “The EU in a changing global environment: a more connected, contested and complex world. ”

No doubt a perceptive and political approach to the problems of the community of nations in the 21st century and a promising outlook for European debate. The 3”C’s” have to be complemented with the “3Ds”: a world more divided, more dangerous and more disoriented, as the presentation of the HR clearly underlines. And the strategy itself will have to detail the resources and the political will needed to meet the ambition.

In that respect, allow me to conclude on what I see as pragmatic prescriptions based on my experience in the EU CFSP.

The new version of the European strategy should start by underlining the achievements of CFSP. Not everything is negative, as some analysts and critics (too often Europeans) currently seem to imply. EU CSFP has made the difference in a number of areas and dossiers since its inception. Third parties are willing to recognize that and many urge for more. A strong case needs to be made to improve our communication about that. Public diplomacy has to be enhanced and better strategized, under the guidance of the HR.

A big strength of the EU’s external action is that it acts as a normative power. This is a crucial added value in a world undergoing a shift in the parameters of international relations. One of the main tasks in the transition to a new world order is to face the challenges to the values of liberal democracy and the economic model that goes with it. The first order of business in that context is for the EU and its member states to work at restoring the strength of its model and to keep believing in it. One area of concern is the alternatives to the multilateral framework designed after WWII now being proposed by some (see the Chinese proposal of the creation of an Asian infrastructure bank).

The collapse of the post-Cold War order demands an active endeavor to design a new one that is friendly to our values and our interests. That would have to include a governance system for global issues that still lack one: climate change, migrations, energy, natural resources to name a few outstanding ones. The EU can boast of a unique experience and know-how in that context and should have its voice heard among the main players.

Maybe it would be wise to focus less on grand architecture than on concrete targets at first. I think in that respect of major UN sponsored conferences, such as the one that just concluded in Sendai about coping with natural disasters and going forward, the UN conference in September on the new SDG’s, the meeting last July in Addis about financing infrastructures for development and the climate conference in Paris next December. And of course when it comes to transatlantic trade and investment,TTIP.

On the other hand, in view of the multiple and complex crises affecting our near abroad and beyond, it is urgent to improve capabilities for crisis management, accepting the principle of composite and differentiated international responses. Early action about what we already know, better anticipation and conflict prevention are key. The UNDP Arab Human Development reports have been telling us what was happening in Arab societies since the beginning of the century. In order to move to another stage of readiness and strategic foresight, we have to make a much bigger effort at improving our knowledge of other societies and to be better students of the law of unintended consequences as the case of Libya is teaching us now. In each regional crisis we have to encourage and facilitate regionally-owned solutions.

Finally, it would be smart to find a way to consult the candidate countries during the process of drafting the new strategy.

CFSP being what it is, ie a ‘common’ policy, not a single one, there will continue to be for the foreseeable future a tension between the need to think and to act European and the necessity to act quickly, possibly without a clear consensus among all member states, in a more restricted group of the willing and able. The central role of the HR in that respect is to widen and accelerate the field of possible consensus as well as to get a clear mandate for implementation when there is consensus at 28. On the one end, the Lisbon treaty allows the principle of ‘permanent structured cooperation’ or pioneer groups. On the other hand, member states who take singular initiatives in diplomacy and crisis management are aware of the need for legitimacy and more often than not, they know that the EU is the fulcrum of this legitimacy (ex the German/ French mediation with Russia in Minsk. Merkel and Hollande reported first to the EU council).

At the same time the HR and her team must work at strengthening her ‘right of initiative’ akin to the prerogatives of the Commission in the so-called ‘first pillar’. It will never be exclusive but it could become gradually indispensable.

The operational conclusions of all this is that first, the HR must surround herself with a close team of advisors who have strong connections with and high-level access in their respective capitals (that is national diplomats and civil servants, not Commission or Secretariat fonctionnaires) and are able to explain the national tropisms and the dynamics of decision making, including offering views on possible trade-offs (akin to the original ‘policy unit’ under Solana). Secondly, she must build an efficient machine for early warning and 24/7 alert mechanisms for detecting emerging problems and crises. Thirdly, she must have regular access to specialists from the whole membership and even outside, who are ready to offer independent advice and concrete contributions  in their realm of competence. The goal should be to know more and more quickly than the simple sum of member states apparatuses. Fourthly, she must review the structure and functioning of the EEAS, in order to introduce more flexible structures able to deal with the complexity of current strategic issues and be an engine of quick decision making and action, including the prerogative to call on specific competences across the EU institutions and member states (one does not deal with Ebola or natural disasters, the way one deals with traditional diplomatic challenges or open conflicts). It would be a good idea to establish a roster of experts available on short notice, in the fashion of the UN SBT. The system of EUSR’s should be used to a fuller extent, as federators of this notion of flexibility and of a focused and comprehensive approach in each specific area of policy. They should be deputies to the HR for implementation of policy and directly answerable to her.