Dr Björn Fägersten photo UI


As European leaders soon gather in Brussels for discussions on EU’s security and defense policy, they shouldn’t forget that their foreign policy is determined by other factors than battle groups and common representation. A clear idea of the EU’s global role would be more helpful than technical projects developed in a strategic vacuum.
By Björn Fägersten. Published 17 December 2013.

The story of US foreign minister Henry Kissinger, supposedly asking for a number by which he could reach ‘Europe’, is as worn out as it is old. Yet the idea continues to haunt European efforts to sharpen its foreign and security policy and still marks discussions of Europe’s role in the world. As long as the EU is benchmarked against the state centric, one-stop foreign policy shop that Kissinger stereotyped, the Union will underplay its hand and lose out on its potential global influence.

As European leaders thus reflect on military and diplomatic capabilities and institutions, they need to reinvent the EU as a global actor and update its policies to new geopolitical realities. The upcoming European Council would be a good starting point for such a debate. 

Supposedly, European security policy is currently functioning under a security strategy dating back to 2003. However, since its creation, facts have changed on the ground: 13 new members have been accepted to the EU, the continent has just survived a lengthy financial crisis and the political appetite for an ever closer union is muted. Beyond Europe, neighboring societies from the Maghreb to Murmansk are transforming in their quest for more equitable and just conditions of life.

But perhaps most importantly, the nature of international politics has changed: power has continued to be diffused, from states in the west towards states in the south and east but also away from states towards individuals, regions, cities and commercial entities that today form the dense web of truly global politics. Structures of global governance – be it the UN, the G-clubs or the Bretton Woods institutions – have not kept pace with these developments and are struggling to offer solutions to the mounting numbers of transnational challenges affecting our lives around the world. 

Clearly, the European Union is in need of a new guiding strategy in its dealings with this novel geopolitical landscape. The fact that resources are scarse both in Brussels and in member states makes a more thorough prioritization even more important. Considering the nature of the EU as an international actor as well as the conditions in which it will have to conduct its policies, the following qualities should preferably be guiding such a document: 

Holistic rather than comprehensive

The ambition to let aid, diplomacy and crisis management efforts work in tandem – the comprehensive approach – has been both the aim and the comparative advantage of the EU as an international security actor for years. Still, the focus on these traditional foreign policy elements as well as the idea of writing a new more narrow security strategy goes against the realities of modern global politics. Foreign policy as a whole cannot be separated from what the Union does at the inside, for example in living up to the values it tries to spread abroad.

There are also other aspects of Europe’s internal integration such as energy policy, migration and the structure of the internal market, which directly impact on neighboring societies. While a single strategy cannot deal with all individual areas it will have to rest on the premise that Europe’s global role is as dependent on what we do at home as what we do abroad. A new strategy thus needs a holistic rather than a comprehensive outlook.  

A focus on the long term

In its ambition to reconcile its values and interests, the European Union needs to identify its long-term priorities. With a longer time perspective, tensions between values and interests are relaxed as are tensions between common European interests and national interests. Stability by democracy in Europe’s broader neighborhood is, for example, in line with both our long term interests and with our values. A long-term strategy will also help the Union to make necessary priorities regarding the development of civil and military capabilities and in planning its presence in third countries. Having a long-term strategy in place does not mean it always will or should be followed but at least it allows for strategic debate in cases where common long-term interests are traded for short-term gains. 

Societal rather than state-centric

International politics – despite its name – is less and less about relations among nations. A wide range of non-state actors are involved in shaping and practicing foreign policy. While this might be threatening for traditional foreign and security policy actors (those with one army, one foreign minister and one telephone number) it speaks to the benefit of the EU, which is a multilayered network actor.  A new strategy must recognize this and stake out EU priorities that complement and leverage the every-day foreign policy action of European cities, NGOs, companies and regions.

Equally important, EU policy must increasingly be directed towards individuals and non-state actors in third countries by the way of exchange programs, visa liberalizations and support programs for the NGO-sector. This shift should also inform the EU’s reform agenda of international institutions where more engagement with the business and NGO sector would be helpful both in managing global challenges and in establishing broader contacts with non-democratic regimes.      

European rather than Brussels focused

The political realities of today will not produce an ‘ever closer union’ any time soon, at least not in the field foreign policy. At the same time, the trends outlined above suggest that modelling the EU’s foreign policy on those of its member states would be of little value. Rather than striving towards becoming a unitary actor, a new strategy must allow for flexible action between member states, institutions and other actors within a broad common policy agreement.

The measure of success of European foreign and security policy must be whether European states effectively pursue common objectives, not whether they follow specific legal mechanisms of cooperation. Some aspects and tasks are clearly done best in a centralized fashion while other areas benefit from Europe’s diverse and multiple voices and actors. Designing and implementing such a policy can never be an exclusive Brussels affairs as the political will to work through the EU constitutes the single most important factor in common foreign and security policy. 

In conclusion, the time is ripe for Europeans to think hard about its foreign and security policy role and the way it connects to the most basic EU principles such as peace, well-being and shared values. At a time when European integration is challenged and the US is lightening its European footprint such a vision would form a powerful narrative at home and abroad. So when European leaders now meet up to discuss air-to-air refueling or tactical airlift capabilities they would be well advised to save some time for more elementary yet still unanswered questions of what role military power should play for the Union and how it links up to Europe’s overarching global ambitions. 

Dr Björn Fägersten is a research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and co-author of the European Global Strategy Report (http://www.europeanglobalstrategy.eu/)