Research Meets Policy Seminar 3 – “Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding: Lessons from Research”

Correspondent: Toby Vogel
Host: Centre for European Policy Studies
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Date: 25 June 2018


Executive Summary

On 25 June 2018, the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels hosted the third and last EU-CIVCAP Research Meets Policy Seminar, under the title “Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding: Lessons from research”. Michael E. Smith, Professor of International Relations at the University of Aberdeen and leader of EU-CIVCAP’s Work Package 7, presented the EU-CIVCAP Catalogue of Lessons Identified and the draft report on best practices, following which comments were given by two discussants and a debate was opened with the audience.

The Research Meets Policy Seminar is a closed-door discussion, by invitation only and under the Chatham House rule, is designed for EU policy-makers and experts to exchange views and identify key research gaps that can feed into EU-CIVCAP’s research agenda.


Full Report

The European Union’s institutions, notably the European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), have devoted considerable attention to learning, lessons and best practices in foreign, security and defence policy, and specifically in conflict prevention and peacebuilding (CPP), which is the central research focus of the EU-CIVCAP project. Learning, lessons and best practices are the focus of Work Package 7, whose preliminary findings – based on research findings from the other EU-CIVCAP Work Packages (WPs) – were presented to policymakers and practitioners at the final Research Meets Policy seminar to take place under the EU-CIVCAP project, at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) in Brussels on 25 June 2018.

The debate during the seminar focused on the online Catalogue of Lessons Identified and a draft paper prepared and presented by Michael E. Smith, Professor of International Relations at the University of Aberdeen, who oversees WP7. Prof Smith began by introducing the online Catalogue. The catalogue of lessons is an online, searchable and living document which gathers all the lessons identified by the project’s Work Packages and published in the project’s Deliverables. To facilitate the searchability of the archive, lessons identified are categorised according to different criteria, including relevant actors/institutions, regions/countries, policy phases, conflict stages, topics and cross-cutting issues. The catalogue is continually updated to reflect the ongoing research findings of the project. The EU-CIVCAP project’s findings are presently articulated into 25 lessons, with 5 more currently under development and another 5 expected by the end of the project. The project aims to achieve changes in three broad areas: i) responsibilities and mandates; ii) rules or procedures and bureaucratic methods; and iii) resources, both physical and ideational (or soft power). Deliverable 7.4 entitled “Institutional Learning and Lessons Identified in EU Civilian Conflict Prevention: A framework for analysis” introduces the key concepts and analytical framework.

The best practices paper summarises a range of potential CPP best practices for consideration by the EU, focusing on the Common Foreign Security Policy (CFSP), the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) and other policy tools. The paper’s structure reflects the debate at this last seminar. It first reviews the general approach to learning and lessons that informs the project’s approach to the problem of learning-driven reform in the CPP realm. It then provides a specific definition of best practices and explains how individual best practices have been identified for the purposes of this report. It proceeds to address the best practices produced by Work Packages 2–4, which focus on the pre- and early stages of conflict: WP2 (Prepare), WP3 (Conflict Prevention) and WP4 (Crisis Response). The next section of the paper turns to the conflict and post-conflict stages addressed by Work Packages 5 and 6: WP5 (Management and Mitigation) and WP6 (Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding). The final section reviews the overall findings regarding best practices and speculates on the future of the EU’s institutional reform efforts in the realm of CPP and beyond. The ultimate aim of this report is to infer lessons from research outputs, that is, to tease out those findings that are most relevant to policy development and to articulate them in a way that makes them useful for ‘end consumers’. The debate was especially helpful for revising the conclusions of Deliverable 7.2, which was redrafted based on the input from the seminar.

There was a widely shared recognition at the seminar of the EU’s shortcomings with regards to learning and best practices. No single institution ‘owns’ peacebuilding and conflict prevention, and this represents a structural obstacle to learning. Learning processes are often implicit and depend on personalities; there is little institutional memory, especially at the level of missions. There is no ‘single-lessons-learned’ culture inside the system. And there is notably a gap between the military and civilian sides of CSDP, with a split chain of command and split financing. (Brussels serves as the operational headquarters for the 10 ongoing civilian missions, while each military mission has its own operational headquarters.) Moreover, whether CSDP missions are civilian or military does not necessarily reflect the demand side – material reality on the ground and the type of activities a mission undertakes – but who backs it and who staffs it; it is a political rather than a functional issue. The massive staff turnover in missions, especially civilian missions, is a further serious problem. Longer rotations would be useful, especially for strategic advisors. There is a need to question the idea of a case-by-case approach to missions as it impedes learning.

Although the EEAS aims to have a single civilian and military learning process in place, coordination of the lessons process for the 10 ongoing CSDP missions at headquarters appears to be under-resourced. Progress in creating a single learning process has been slow, but a new software tool has now been deployed and learning guidelines have been updated, thereby creating a structure that also bridges the institutions. Where learning procedures exist, EU institutions frequently fail to follow them – there is a comprehensive approach to learning and best practices, but it is applied inconsistently. Moreover, there is an issue of different Member State cultures but also of compliance and monitoring.

Another identified shortcoming concerns evaluations. While evaluations are undertaken for each mission, they appear to be largely pro forma, without contributing to continuous learning. One participant suggested that the EU was constantly jumping to the next mission, i.e. focusing its scarce attention on upcoming challenges, and that as a consequence it failed to devote the necessary time and the resources to serious, in-depth evaluations of past missions. Another recommendation discussed was to undertake strategic reviews of several missions simultaneously in order to be able to undertake cross-mission learning.

As a result, every time a decision needs to be taken on CPP, notably with regards to launching or deploying missions, the EU is forced to argue with itself about the modalities. There are too many veto points during the procedure that could lead to a mission being aborted. Learning could, in principle, reduce the political contestation that slows down the EU’s crisis response. The ultimate aim of learning, therefore, should – in addition to meeting more operational goals – be to achieve a political reform of the EU’s institutions. Everything that can be depoliticised should be depoliticised, although keeping in mind, however, that the CSDP is an inherently political tool with a political mandate and a political goal.

The ultimate question over is whether the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy is fit for purpose when it comes to conflict prevention and peacebuilding. Different Member States have different vulnerabilities to security threats. As long as this big difference persists, it will be very difficult to get them on the same page when a crisis hits – to get them to understand shared vulnerabilities and responsibilities. There is a need to think more strategically across institutions and Member States about vulnerabilities and responses such that when a crisis emerges, an established procedure kicks in rather than a political conflict.

In terms of the narrower question of learning, there is a need for a properly resourced, integrated lessons-learning capacity within the EEAS, in the form of a dedicated unit, which would probably need to be located within the Civilian Planning and Conduct Capability (CPCC) in order to have insight into missions. It would have to be closely linked to PRISM, which holds ownership within the EEAS of the EU’s conflict prevention policy and closely coordinates with the European Commission (DG DEVCO and FPI). Creating such a capacity could be framed in terms of cost effectiveness.

The debate also raised questions about the extent to which the findings are specific to CSDP missions or whether they might have broader validity, i.e. highlighting problems that are not specifically related to CSDP.

There has been a great deal of policy development since the EU-CIVCAP project was launched in December 2015, notably in the drafting of the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS), which introduced a number of new concepts while broadening the scope of existing concepts, and in the integrated approach. The Council Conclusions of January 2018 reflect deep conceptual development, and much work has been done recently for example on the concept of stabilisation. The linkages between security, development and governance have also received serious conceptual and operational attention in recent years, for example in the EU deployment in Mali, where the CSDP mission is directly involved in programming. A joint non-paper prepared by the EEAS and the Commission for the Political and Security Committee – the Council Working Group that oversees missions and the CSDP – of May 2018 discussed how to raise the political profile of conflict prevention and how to ensure that early warning is followed by early action.

Taken together, these documents provide far more policy guidance than has been available in the past. There is now a window of opportunity to consolidate these developments as the political debate about the next Multiannual Financial Framework (2021–27) is entering a critical phase. The current Commission proposal is to mainstream all current instruments into one and to increase overall capacity by around 40 staff members compared to current levels.

However, a number of questions were raised about recent policy developments. There was a recognition that good initiatives have been undertaken (for example, the comprehensive approach and work on resilience), but that at each stage there is a lack of evaluation before the next approach is being developed. There is little follow-through and as a result, there is a degree of incoherence both conceptually and in terms of policy implications. Moreover, there was scepticism that policy development trickles down to the operational mission level; in other words, conceptual change does not always lead to different operational approaches. This can also have positive side effects, though: smaller civilian missions, one participant suggested, reflected lessons learned.

Overall, there has also been a decline in the political will within the EU to launch missions, and the emergence of doctrines such as resilience was in part a response to this declining will. There has been a certain revival of CSDP missions in the past three years, but these are focused more on capacity-building than on operations.


People Involved

Michael E. Smith

Michael E. Smith is Professor of International Relations at the University of Aberdeen.


About the Author

Toby Vogel

Toby Vogel is a writer on foreign affairs based in Brussels, where he also works as a research communications officer in the foreign policy unit of CEPS.

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