The EU’s Capabilities for Conflict Prevention

Laura Davis

24 February 2017

The idea of the EU as a peace process is an important strand in the EU’s identity in dealing with the rest of the world, and the European Council has declared that conflict prevention is a primary objective of the EU’s external action. This recent EU-CIVCAP report analyses what that means in practice and recommends ways in which the EU may strengthen its capacity to prevent conflicts worldwide.

Understanding EU conflict prevention

The first observation is that ‘conflict prevention’ is used in different ways by different actors within the EU’s external action machinery. It is used to cover both conflict prevention as a way in which the EU acts in and engages with the rest of the world, and as a set of distinct activities, such as conflict analysis, early warning and mediation. Using the same term to mean different things creates real policy challenges, so greater conceptual clarity could ensure that all actors attach the same meaning to these terms.

To understand conflict prevention, we need to know what kind of conflict is the EU trying to prevent. Within the EU, this is usually presented as a combination of violence and ‘root causes’. Typical root causes include structural conflicts like poverty, marginalisation of particular ethnic or religious groups, violation of human rights. Gender discrimination is not systemically considered a root cause, for the EU, however, as ‘mainstreaming gender equality’ sometimes, but not always, accompanies ‘root causes’ in EU documents. This is important because the ways in which root causes are understood – and looked for – will shape understanding of conflict and responses to it.

Violence may be easier to detect than ‘root causes’ and may be easily understood as ‘negative’ conflict that causes human suffering. But conflict can drive positive social change (e.g. so-called Arab Spring) and not all damaging conflicts are violent (e.g. frozen conflicts). Conflict prevention may contribute to stabilisation, and stabilisation to conflict prevention. But these connections are not automatic: stabilisation can contribute to entrenching autocratic regimes, for example, and perhaps exacerbating the potential for future violence.

There is no politically neutral way of determining whether a conflict is good or bad, and seemingly neutral terms like ‘violent’ do not really help. How one understands conflict – and therefore conflict prevention – is inherently political. It is based on understanding the power relations between different actors and stakeholders in a conflict and on prioritising EU intervention, or not, in relation to the EU’s interests.

Capabilities for conflict prevention

The capacity of the EU to implement conflict prevention, both as a way of acting in the world and as a set of distinct activities, is examined through the lens of component capabilities: the capabilities to engage, capabilities to fund, and the capability to coordinate and cooperate with third parties. These three capabilities contribute to the capability to lead, which in turn feeds the capability to act – that is, to prevent conflict (see Figure 1 below).


Figure 1: Capabilities for conflict prevention
: The presumed likelihood of success is shown in red. [1]

We find that the EU largely has the capabilities to engage. There is considerable pressure on time and personnel, yet the EU has a wide array of policies, institutions and instruments that enable intervention. Some of these, however, such as EU Special Representatives and European Parliament election observation missions, could be used to greater effect, and the EU should also develop its capabilities further for preventive diplomacy. There are additionally the capabilities to fund conflict prevention, with a certain amount of financial resources available in the long and the short term, the issue being whether and how they are used.

The EU also has the capabilities to coordinate and cooperate, particularly with third parties due to the multilateral nature of the EU as an actor. Coordination and cooperation within the EU present perhaps greater challenges that are intimately connected to the question of leadership. The challenges of the EU-28 in agreeing common policy in a given situation are a fact of EU foreign policy, yet it seems that necessary spirit of coordination and cooperation exists across the EU machinery when it comes to conflict prevention. To date, the SECPOL.2 Division[2] of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the B.7 Unit in the Commission’s Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) have played important roles in providing technical assistance for conflict prevention across the EU’s external action and in facilitating coordination and cooperation among different parts of the machinery for conflict prevention.

Political leadership is crucial at each stage of putting conflict prevention into practice. We consider leadership – which can and should happen at any level, not only senior positions – to comprise:

  • establishing priorities among competing needs;
  • prioritising the important as well as the urgent;
  • focusing on prevention, not only on response; and
  • integrating conflict prevention into decision-making at the most strategic levels.

Our findings suggest that the EU has, by and large, the capabilities to engage. The challenge, however, is in ensuring adequate leadership on conflict prevention: that it is situated high up and strategically in the decision-making process, so that prevention receives adequate resourcing and is not overshadowed by response, and adequately resourced in time, technical support and political attention.

To strengthen the EU’s conflict prevention capabilities, we therefore recommend that EEAS and EC Senior Management

  1. Jointly clarify how the EU promotes conflict prevention as a way of acting in the world, how it can support and be supported by stabilisation, and how specific distinct activities (particularly conflict analysis, early warning and mediation) contribute differently to conflict prevention, and the differences and synergies between them.
  2. Mainstream conflict prevention as a matter of policy and practice across the EU external action machinery (the DG for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, DG DEVCO, DG Energy, DG Trade, as well as the EEAS) and prioritise prevention as well as response.
  3. Ensure that the EU’s Global Strategy implementation plans prioritise conflict prevention across all the thematic areas identified, not only for the implementation of the section on “an integrated approach to conflict”, but also in the preparation of the action plan on security and defence, the initiative on public diplomacy and other follow-up actions to the Global Strategy. Implementation and action plans should address these concerns directly and clearly identify resources, including institutional expertise and leadership, for preventing conflict as well as responding to it and addressing the important as well as the urgent.
  4. Ensure that PRISM (EEAS) and DEVCO B.7 continue to provide leadership, technical support and expertise within the EEAS, DG DEVCO and across the EU’s external action machinery; are adequately resourced in terms of personnel, expertise and access to high-level decision-making; continue to work in innovative partnerships in conflict situations worldwide, including with civil society organisations and other external expertise;
  5. Make time available for personnel to generate and implement conflict analysis across the EU’s external action, supported by the technical teams in PRISM and B.7;
  6. Identify and capture previous EU experiences and lessons in conflict zones in an adequate knowledge management system that strengthens the evidence base for future conflict prevention work; and
  7. Develop its capacities for preventive diplomacy in situations at risk of escalating conflict, for example, by reinforcing and tailoring the support provided to EUSRs and heads of delegations in charge of carrying out dialogue in conflict-affected countries (e.g. mediation and analysis training, support staff) and by including conflict expertise in their job descriptions.

[1] Adapted from R.G. Whitman and S. Wolff (eds), The European Union as a Global Conflict Manager (London: Routledge, 2012).

[2] Reorganised since the time of writing to the Prevention of conflicts, Rule of law/
SSR, Integrated approach, Stabilisation and Mediation division (PRISM)

Related Deliverable

dl_3-2DL 3.2: The EU’s Capabilities for Conflict Prevention

Authors: Davis, L., N. Habbida and A. Penfrat
Institution: European Peacebuilding Liaison Office

Published: 30 January 2017

[PDF, ~1MB; click to access]



About the Author

Laura Davis

Laura Davis is a scholar and practitioner specializing in EU foreign policy, transitional justice and peace mediation, including women’s participation in these processes.

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