Following our series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states, this week Strategic Europe focuses on the EU itself. We have asked our contributor to give a candid assessment of the union’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 to 5.

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It is not often one gets to write this: a triumph for European foreign policy. But the first semester of 2015 ended with just that. It was also a major achievement for female leadership and what the veteran British foreign policy thinker Robert Cooper calls emotional intelligence as applied to diplomacy, perhaps best practiced by women.

Despite some recent successes, the European Union’s foreign policy lacks ambition. What will it take to shake the EU out of its complacency and bickering?The deal reached on July 14 at Vienna’s sumptuous Palais Coburg at worst applies the brakes to Iran’s nuclear ambitions and at best stops Tehran from getting the bomb. The agreement was crafted in large part by a quartet of women, three of them European: Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy coordinator; Catherine Ashton, her predecessor; Helga Schmid, deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service; and Wendy Sherman from the U.S. State Department.

Angela Merkel in Berlin is the go-to person on Ukraine and on Russian President Vladimir Putin. President François Hollande in Paris is increasingly seen these days as a second-tier escort for the German chancellor. Prime Minister David Cameron has steered Britain into a period of introspective insularity and foreign policy withdrawal.

Despite some recent successes, the European Union’s foreign policy lacks ambition. What will it take to shake the EU out of its complacency and bickering?The men are meek. The women are to the fore. It is an unusually auspicious time in Europe for female diplomacy. But can the same be said of EU foreign policy making as a whole? Of course not. Right now, the EU is struggling to muster 2 out of 5 for its foreign and security policy ambitions. Must try harder.

While the EU role on the Iran breakthrough should not be belittled, the agreement is essentially an attempt at U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, with Europe supplying the staffing, the patience, the mediation, and the fancy hotels. Iran represents a rare moment of hope for traditional diplomacy in an otherwise extraordinarily bleak and dystopian vista of fundamental threats and challenges to the European order, to EU values, to the European weltanschauung.

Getting to grips with Europe’s time of troubles is stretching capacities and exposing frailties. Elected authoritarians on Europe’s frontiers no longer play by EU rules or accept Brussels’s modus operandi. Putin in Moscow and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara are big players dancing to a different tune. Then there are their miniclones in the Western Balkans and Hungary, already in or wanting to be in the EU but bridling at the terms of membership and preferring different models.

Mediterranean migration, unrest in Libya and Syria, Islamic State militants, foreign fighters, homegrown jihadism, crisis in Ukraine, conflict with Russia, propaganda wars, trade talks with the United States—seldom has the EU’s foreign and security policy agenda been so crowded and so menacing. Seldom in the post–World War II era has there been such a mismatch between the threats to the European order and the instruments available for dealing with them.

Mogherini does what she can. She is more accomplished at maneuvering inside the Brussels bubble than was her British predecessor, although Ashton was hobbled by being the first post–Lisbon Treaty high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, with the task of creating an EU diplomatic service from scratch. Ashton was also engaged in nonstop trench warfare with the Eurocrats who jealously guard their soft power foreign policy prerogatives through control of the purse strings on aid, trade, and humanitarianism.

#Mogherini can only operate within the limits of the possible.
 
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But Mogherini can only operate within the limits of the possible when national interests dictate different outcomes, varying coalitions, and contradictory policies. She has been absent on Putin and Ukraine, where Merkel has done all the diplomatic heavy lifting. Merkel is playing a long game with the Russian president. That looks like the only option when the Kremlin is happy to send young Russian men to die in eastern Ukraine and the Europeans will not shed lives in support of Kiev.

The Ukraine crisis shows the failings of EU soft power when confronted with old-fashioned military bludgeoning. The climax of years of negotiations on a free-trade and political association accord with Kiev was the ostensible reason for Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. The EU was integral to the outbreak of the conflict. It is not often that you see people taking to the barricades behind the blue-and-yellow flags of the EU, but such was the scene on Kiev’s Maidan, or Independence Square, in spring 2014.

There have been significant European successes on Russia, the biggest being the maintenance of unity on economic sanctions despite centrifugal tendencies and Moscow’s astute playing on EU divisions.

But the implications of Putin’s bold gamble are dire for Europe. He has rewritten the international rule book and called several bluffs. As a result, the lumbering bureaucratic machine that is modern-day NATO has acquired a new raison d’être, the same as the old one: facing down Russia.

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Yet Europe’s security gaps are a scandal. Suddenly, it is again clear that the world’s wealthiest region won’t spend enough on its own defense and that in an emergency, Washington might need to act as Europe’s security guarantor of last resort.

If Putin embodies the old-fashioned problem of brute military force under an authoritarian regime, then Libya and immigration represent the altogether more modern nightmare of state failure, uncontrollable chaos, gangsterism, transnational crime, and terrorism. All on Europe’s doorstep.

EU leaders charged Mogherini with producing a Common Foreign and Security Policy concept for the Mediterranean refugee emergency. Her chief diplomat, Alain Le Roy, came up with a surprisingly robust proposal that envisaged a phased progression to military intervention—involving air, sea, and land assets, including special forces—to disrupt the trafficking and smuggling networks that cross the Mediterranean.

In an attempt to secure international backing for the proposal, the British drafted the words of a resolution at the UN Security Council in New York, where the whole plan was predictably grounded by Russia’s veto threat. The intervention appeared gung-ho, perhaps in the knowledge that it would never obtain a UN mandate. Instead, the EU launched surveillance operations in the Mediterranean, while national leaders at an EU summit in June yelled at one another until 3:30 in the morning over minimal first steps toward a more equitable distribution of the refugee burden.

The nation-states trumped the EU. The main thrust of policy is to close the borders, close one’s eyes, and hope that the problem goes away—the fingers-crossed school of policymaking and diplomacy.

There are very serious senior people in the EU who believe it is simply a matter of time before there is a game-changing act of terrorism in Europe, more like the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States than the January 2015 shooting at the offices of the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Complacency and bickering may have to give way to a rude awakening.

 

Ian Traynor is the Guardian’s Europe editor.