When Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, recently stated that North Korea’s escalating nuclear provocations showed a great sense of unity among the EU member states, one wondered, to what avail?
The Europeans are burdened with a hybrid and cumbersome foreign policy machinery in Brussels, which does not add to the EU’s collective impact within today’s hardening game of global geopolitics. Standing EU naval task forces have yet to permanently patrol East Asian seas. Can anyone imagine the member states reaching consensus over such a mission?
And yet, pursuing a rules-based international order is the EU’s raison d’etre. The union played a substantial role in negotiating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Building on that achievement, the EU may just be expected to cast itself into a mediating role in the North Korean crisis—Mogherini indicated as much in her address on September 15. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also referred to some mediating efforts just before she was elected for a fourth term. But in practice, the EU’s commitment to help sustain stable regional orders—as outlined in its 2016 global strategy—is rhetorical. Put into practice, European involvement in out-of-area policy would be costly, it would mean greater expense of lives (unfortunate, but inevitable), and sustained diplomatic engagement on the ground (shuttle diplomacy, conferences meant to bang heads together).
Indeed, standing between the EU’s aspirations (outlined in the global strategy) and its obvious geopolitical underperformance are the member states. It’s not the European External Action Service but the member states that have been setting EU policies under the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP).
And, more often than not, the national interests, threat perceptions, and strategic cultures of the member states do not align when it comes to out-of-area operations.
This leaves EU policies bereft of strategy, as with regard to Asia (except for trade), and not to mention the general tendency to reach for the lowest common denominator.
No wonder, therefore, that the 22 civilian and military crisis management operations deployed to Africa (17), the Middle East, (3) and Asia (2) since 2002 under the CSDP are mainly noted for achieving an EU presence of sorts.
Beyond that, the missions lack political focus and safely stay within the lower half of the conflict spectrum, where they complement the range of other instruments at the disposal of the EU and its member states within their “comprehensive approach”—diplomacy, development, CSDP.
Yet EU capitals find running these “safe” missions and operations already taxing enough. Clearly, as a measure of European global security engagement, CSDP deployments in their present form do not add up to the strategic engagement that could be expected from the third largest defense spending region in the world.
Then there is the issue of hard power. The willingness unilaterally to use serious military force beyond Europe has been left to the EU’s most capable out-of-area member states: the UK and France. Given Brexit, this role will now essentially be falling to France with its forward military presence in multiple theatres, permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and extensive diplomatic network.
But, as a sign of the times, France did seek EU diplomatic cover and military contributions from the other member states following its interventions in Mali and the Central African Republic during 2013 and 2014, thereby setting a likely precedent for the future. However, France’s military outreach remains subject to constraints imposed by renewed defense cuts. Clearly, more purposeful and robust European military engagement across the globe will require a more compelling European security and defense role that goes beyond the present aims of the CSDP.
On the surface of it, this is precisely the role French President Emmanuel Macron has been calling for in his Europe speech of September 26. The EU and the member states need to assert themselves collectively on the international stage through a common strategic culture, doctrine, and rapid intervention force.
But can France, when articulating Macron’s vision in terms of common defense planning within Europe’s core defense group, cajole a reluctant Germany and Poland into accepting that crisis management in sub-Saharan Africa can be as important as collective defense in Eastern Europe?
Given that most of Europe’s current defense budget increases will end up no more than moderate, can revamped European defense procurement plans accommodate high-end capabilities and agile long-range expeditionary assets at the same time?
Then there is the difficulty in dealing with the (understandably) entrenched preference of European defense establishments to choose NATO and the United States as the safer focus of both their defense policies and their military operations.
That preference certainly applies to the challenging security environments outside of Europe. In Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, EU-NATO cooperation initiated by the 2002 EU-NATO strategic partnership helped to enable substantial European civilian and military engagement. Furthermore, several EU member states have contributed combat forces to the U.S.-led coalition against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. France and the United States pursue less visible but successful military “joint ventures” in Africa.
If followed up, Macron’s global ambitions for Europe may entice the other member states to summon up enough geopolitical courage to take greater responsibility for the EU’s professed vital interest in upholding a rules-based global order.
But in doing so, they will no longer be able to sidestep two imperatives: first, truly “getting strategic” in meeting regional expansionism; and second, working through ways of reconciling Europe’s aspiration to count for something in the world, at the same time as continuing its dependence on U.S. power and leadership. The first imperative implies willingness to make sacrifices, the second hardheaded clear thinking. Without both, EU’s commitment to a rules-based international order will be difficult to pursue.
Marc Bentinck is a senior research fellow at RAND Europe and a former Dutch diplomat.