The EU’s steady decline as a legitimate external crisis manager

Christian Schweiger

1 September 2016

Using the term crisis in connection with the EU has become an increasingly familiar occurrence in recent years as the Union has been rattled by a series of lingering internal and external challenges, from the systemic crisis in the eurozone to the instability in its wider neighbourhood to the unprecedented migration crisis in 2015. All these challenges have exposed the weakness of the EU to act determinedly and to produce effective collective policy responses. Instead the EU’s crisis management has been patchy and riddled by increasing internal divisions. Since the onset of the eurozone crisis Germany has moved into the position of initially reluctant but ultimately determined leader who has unilaterally determined the cornerstones of the EU’s policy agenda.

The result has been the prioritisation of economic and budgetary policy coordination as part of the wider ambition to restore market confidence in the euro by turning the eurozone into an ordoliberal stability union. The almost exclusive focus on the eurozone resulted in the profound neglect of other strategic policy issues – most of all defence and security but also asylum and migration. Under German leadership the EU has intensified the traditional civilian power approach towards external affairs which prioritises diplomatic conflict resolution and neglects defence and security capabilities. EU member states have consequently cut down on their defence spending and justified this with the need to implement budgetary austerity under economic crisis conditions. Currently only the United Kingdom, Greece, Estonia and Poland spend the expected minimum two per cent of their GDP on defence. The other 24 EU member states remain below this threshold. Germany currently spends only 1.19 per cent of its GDP on defence. The EU’s already weak military operational capabilities will decline further once the UK has left and there are no signs that either Germany or France have the political will to make up for the shortfall by prioritising defence spending. The EU hence remains a weak security actor whose dependence on NATO to resolve military conflicts in its wider neighbourhood remains as obvious today as it was during the Cold War. The three most recent major external challenges, Libya, Ukraine and Syria have shown that the EU is politically unwilling and practically unable to collectively manage security problems in its wider neighbourhood. Over Libya France and the UK took the lead in initiating an UN mandate to implement a no-fly zone to prevent the further escalation of the military confrontation between armed opposition rebels and government forces. Germany abstained in the vote on the UN security resolution 1973 and no attempt was made to put together a collective EU mission to implement the mandate. Instead the operation became essentially a trilateral Anglo-American-French logistic operation.

In Ukraine Germany, France and Poland exercised an early diplomatic intervention in the emerging political standoff between pro-Russian president Yanykovych and the Euromaidan protesters in early 2014. The subsequent military conflict between pro-Russian rebels and government forces in the Eastern part of the country was eventually appeased when German chancellor Merkel and French president Hollande negotiated a ceasefire with Russian president Putin during the September 2014 trilateral negotiations in Minsk. The EU’s High Representative played practically no role in these negotiations, which shows the prevalence of national foreign policy interests over the EU’s institutional external representation. The mounting security concerns of member states in Central-Eastern Europe over what they consider as Russia’s new expansionism under Putin have since been addressed in the context of NATO, with a renewed US security guarantee for particularly the Baltic states under NATO’s new readiness action plan. NATO will deploy four battle groups which consist of between 3,000 to 4,000 troops to the Baltic States and Eastern Poland in an attempt to deter Russia from exercising military aggression against the countries in Central-Eastern Europe. EU member states are involved in the NATO response force but the US will provide the bulk of the troops with 1,000 stationed in Poland. Syria is the latest external crisis which has exposed the EU’s weakness as an external actor. The EU is very active in providing humanitarian aid to civilians in war-torn Syria and is also officially part of the International Syria Support Group. As with Libya and Ukraine the EU has however collectively failed to play any major role in resolving the conflict. Even individually Germany and the other five largest EU member states have left diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict to bilateral negotiations between the US and the Russia.

The EU’s practical non-existence as a diplomatic crisis manager in the Syria conflict matters more in case than it did with any of the external challenges it has been facing in recent years. Syria has not only illustrated the failure of the EU’s normative conditionality approach exercised under the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). The ENP’s original design around the core conception that political reforms towards democratisation and respect for human rights could be instilled trough offering conditional economic and financial benefits has turned out to be illusionary in Syria’s case as it has been for most countries in the ENP Euro-Mediterranean partnership region. The new focus on sustainable democratisation under the revised ENP, which the EU adopted in the wake of the Arab Spring in 2011, poses a major dilemma for external diplomatic efforts in Syria. If EU member states take the principles of the ENP seriously they cannot not accept for president Assad to have any role in a post-conflict political settlement.

Unlike other external crisis Syria has also had a direct effect on the EU’s internal security. The unprecedented wave of migrants which hit the EU in the summer of 2015 predominantly emerged from war-torn Syria. The migration crisis brutally exposed the EU’s lack of internal solidarity in the area of asylum and migration policy. Even more crucially the crisis showed that the EU has failed to establish an effective system of collective external border controls. As a result both the Dublin convention, which determines that asylum seekers should be registered at their first port of entry, and the internal the borderless Schengen agreement remain at least partially suspended. German chancellor Merkel’s attempt to paste over these shortcomings by signing a bilateral refugee agreement with Turkey has had a limited impact on resolving the crisis. Most of all it has enabled the autocratic Turkish president Erdogan to hold the EU to ransom over Turkish demands for visa-free travel and the perspective of swift membership.

The EU’s institutions and policies have in recent years come under the growing scrutiny of an increasingly sceptical public. Citizens in many member states became particularly disillusioned by the failure of EU-level policies to address the adverse social effects which emerged from the eurozone crisis. The deepening link between external affairs and domestic security hence does no longer permit the EU to adopt a passive approach towards crises in its immediate neighbourhood. The European public expects the EU to act as a resolute and efficient crisis manager who helps to protect the internal security of member states. The inevitable need to regroup after Brexit should therefore lead towards a profound overhaul of the policy agenda and  the mechanisms of the EU’s external relations management. After the UK’s exit Germany will need sustained support from the remaining four larger member states France, Poland, Italy and Spain in leading the EU towards the deeper coordination of national foreign and defence policies. Ultimately the EU can no  longer afford to neglect its  external relations and has to work towards achieving swifter, more coherent and in the end more effective management of the unpredictable challenges which arise from its ever more unstable external environment.

About the Author

Christian Schweiger

Christian Schweiger is Visiting Professor at the Chair for Comparative European Governance Systems in the Institute for Political Science at Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany.

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