international analysis and commentary

Reconnecting Europe’s world to the real world


Three events took place in January which reflect Europe’s international standing. One was central to the ability of Europeans to influence world events critical to their interests, and the other two demonstrated the vulnerability of Europe to events even in its own backyard. 

The first event was the agreement by the European Council for a budget of some €464 million for the EU’s External Action Service (EEAS). With 3,360 diplomats under the leadership of Baroness Ashton, the Union finally has a tool in place to begin to play the influence game. And yet, as if to remind Europeans of their decline, the other events demonstrated eloquently how far Europeans have to go to rebuild shattered influence, where Europe must exert critical influence and the essential self-defeating paradox of Europe’s foreign and security policy.

The January 19th Washington summit between President Obama and China’s Hu Jintao marked the new age of international relations into which a now decidedly multi-polar world has entered.  For Europeans the message could not have been clearer; after five hundred years of being the epicenter of world politics and deciding the fate of millions if not billions of persons, Europeans will now be at the mercy of decisions taken elsewhere, many of them in Asia.

The January popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt were equally compelling reminders of change and challenge and should have provided a real wake up call for Europe’s leaders and diplomats.  The upheavals were not as Neville Chamberlain once described as “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing”. Rather they took place in large Muslim states on Europe’s doorstep in pursuit of European values of liberty and democracy with the uncertain outcome of which has profound consequences for Europe’s security, be it the possible emergence of states hostile to Europe or new partners in Europe’s democratizing mission. Now is the moment for Europe to exert influence over events.

And yet, Europe, be it in the guise of the Union or individual member-states, has been notable for a wholesale lack of influence, or indeed presence. The US and Saudi Arabia drove the external influence campaign and will continue so to do. Doubtless, China will take an increasing interest in such places and its peoples. However, any influence campaign must first and foremost be established on unity of effort and purpose and in this regard the European effort is weak bordering on pathetic.

On the face of it, Europeans are superbly placed to exert influence. The EU has 135 missions worldwide, with EU member-states deploying some 40,000 diplomats worldwide. The EU provides 50% of all development aid with some €72 billion being disbursed over the 2012-2014 period. 

Unfortunately, the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, which aims to create a more coherent foreign and security policy, has only partially worked. One only has to look at the structure of the EEAS to see that its structure is more organiscramble than organigram – which is the very antithesis of crisis decision-making. Indeed, although ostensibly designed to improve European conflict prevention and early warning, the ever-present demand for EEAS representation by the member-states and the Byzantine relationship between the Council and Commission has created such a complex system that any implied crisis management has more to do with internal bureaucracy than strategy.

The problem is a structural weakness of the EU as a whole compounded by the behavior of individual member-states. Too many of them are in denial about the catastrophic loss of influence they have suffered over the past decade. With the partial exception of Germany, the combination of financial meltdown, strategic irresolution and political division has left even the biggest of Europe’s powers small by world standards. Sadly, as they have become weaker their attachment to outmoded concepts of sovereignty has only served to accelerate a precipitous retreat from world influence. 

However, perhaps the biggest lacuna has been Baroness Ashton herself. No one denies the challenge of her position but she has singularly failed to realize that influence at top tables is as much about personality and chemistry as power. She has become adept at excuses to justify her absence from key meetings demonstrating the extent to which, however policy-rich the Union may be, it is a strategy desert. Strategy is the key to influence. The bottom line is this; in this moment of change and crisis in the world, Europeans must finally end the old CFSP – the crisis-ridden Common Foreign and Security Policy and Baroness Ashton must show the leadership and vision hitherto lacking to seize the opportunity that has been given to her.

Fail and Europe will not only lose the influence game but it will not even be invited to play and that will be a disaster not just for Europe but for the world.