A debate has been gathering momentum during the last year on the EU’s approach to conflict resolution. This has occurred separately from events in Ukraine and relates to challenges in places like the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and the Levant. Yet now, that debate must be seen as relevant to the union’s Eastern neighborhood too.

EU leaders’ discussion of defense in December 2013 gave a boost to the high politics of security deliberations. France has called for a common fund to finance EU military operations. Senior German politicians have promised a stronger military commitment. On the heel of missions in Mali, Niger, and Somalia, the EU is deploying a new Common Security and Defense Policy operation to the Central African Republic.

Attention often focuses on the EU’s will and capability to undertake military action. Yet, arguably more significant developments in EU conflict policies have been unfolding off camera and little noticed.

The EU is rolling out a number of new initiatives to improve what is commonly its most important contribution to security: the way it deploys civilian and aid initiatives to build more stable institutions in fragile contexts.

The EU has gradually sought to flesh out its “comprehensive approach” to conflict resolution. In December 2013, the European External Action Service (the EU’s foreign policy arm) and the European Commission (its executive) published an important communication calling for the EU to marry short- and long-term funding initiatives; ensure European counterterrorism and migration policies are consistent with conflict interventions; generate more common crisis analysis across member states; and sharpen the focus on preventive measures.

Several EU member states speak similar language, as enshrined, for instance, in the UK development agency’s “drivers of conflict” template. Proposals for a European Institute of Peace are also advancing.

The EU has introduced several new instruments to give more political leverage to the aid it channels to governments in fragile contexts. One such instrument is a “state-building contract,” which is linked to the EU’s New Deal commitment to strengthen help for fragile states.

The aim of signing state-building contracts with conflict-afflicted countries is to foster all-inclusive dialogue between different sides of local conflicts. This dialogue aims at producing a consensual “compact” to define the use of EU funds. One of the most notable contracts was launched in Mali in mid-2013; in light of postelection instability, the EU’s approach in this country has become notably more political. Another contract operates in Mauritania, while efforts now focus on negotiating one for South Sudan.

In addition, the external action service’s new mediation support team has begun to make a difference. In places such as Yemen, Lebanon, and Myanmar, this unit now works to improve the effectiveness of EU mediation strategies and ensure that conflict analysis is more systematically applied to the use of aid and trade instruments.

A new interagency coordinating committee has also been set up in Brussels to provide security input to the use of development aid. In 2013, a “comprehensive strategy” was drawn up to broaden the approach toward the Syrian conflict—for many observers still a more dangerous geostrategic flash point even than Ukraine.

All these moves represent a notable fine-tuning of EU conflict policies. However, the political components to peace building still require much careful elaboration.

The December communication acknowledges that the EU’s comprehensive approach to crises and conflict is still more aspiration than reality. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, insiders still talk of “firewalls” between different policy areas. The innovative state-building contracts still cover only a very small percentage of commission aid and have not yet unleashed any significant increase in initiatives aimed at boosting societies’ long-term resilience and institutional capacity building.

While the mission in the Central African Republic is accompanied by an extra €80 million ($111 million) in aid from the commission, its remit focuses more on extracting Europeans than on the conflict’s root causes, which lie in governance deficiencies in large parts of the country.

The EU faces big challenges in the way it addresses state fragility. It needs to better respect the principle of local ownership but combine this with a long-term reform and institution-building agenda that regimes often resist. The state-building contracts are an attempt to narrow the gap between these two orientations, but they have not entirely squared the circle. They still need better flanking measures.

While conflict sensitivity has improved, years of supposedly prevention-oriented European aid have in many places been ineffective in dissuading conflict. The EU will need to develop more bespoke engagement in each national context while also addressing the tightening links between different subregional conflict systems.

More priority needs to be attached to shaping more “democratic security governance” in fragile contexts. The nature of counterterrorism cooperation across this arc of instability still sits uncomfortably with these supposedly more sophisticated approaches to peace building. The EU needs to do a lot more to address the most deep-rooted drivers of conflict.

While critics bemoan the demise and failure of liberal peace building, the EU has sought to design more comprehensive policy interventions. Its willingness to use the December communication to take this approach to the next level will be of crucial significance given the range and depth of conflicts that now claim the union’s attention.

This is all highly relevant to the current situation in Ukraine. A stronger connection is required between the EU’s generic conflict tools and the deepening crisis in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. At the same time, the EU must not let the challenge of dealing with Russian President Vladimir Putin distract it from tightening its commitments in other increasingly fractious states—as some diplomats fear is already happening.