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Reflections on Europe and peace


By Ingrid Magnusson, European Affairs Manager 

Is Europe serious about peace? The European Institute of Peace recently gathered policymakers, thought-leaders, diplomats and commentators from Europe, the Middle East, the US, Latin America and beyond to reflect on and discuss this question.

It is clear that Europe can point to successes. However, it also faces considerable challenges in stepping-up efforts for conflict prevention and resolution. The following points were highlighted by by the participants in the discussion  

Europe is investing heavily in peace, but the public is not aware

Mentions of EU successes in peacemaking are often limited to the Serbia-Kosovo Dialogue and the Iran nuclear deal. This does EU involvement in conflict prevention and resolution a great disservice, as many of the Union’s interventions take place further away from the limelight, yet are no less important. For instance, the successful Aceh CSDP mission, Operation Atalanta, the Trust Fund for Colombia, and ongoing extensive collaboration with the UN across Sub-Saharan Africa. One could also argue that Ukraine’s trade turn towards the West is, regardless of the situation in Donbas and Crimea, a sign that the EU’s values-based, liberal, and trade-focused model of international cooperation is winning in Europe. The EU remains a weighty international player and provides an alternative to the militarily muscular approach currently adopted by other actors making inroads in its neighbourhood.

The general public does not know about this work though, and thus takes no pride in the EU’s role as a peace player. This needs to change if broad political support for this type of work is to increase.

The world order is changing, and Europe must face that

Even if the Trump Administration changes soon, the US is unlikely to step back into its old shoes as “world police officer”. Europe can no longer count on being the soft-powered sidekick to a dominant US that shares its strategic interests and values. However, a return to a bipolar world order – this time between China and the US – is unlikely, and this is not a bad thing. In the emergence of a multipolar world order, the EU can work with a multitude of actors in building alliances in pursuit of its own strategic interests. For example, it can work with China on issues such as climate change, maintain its alliance with the US in areas of military security, whilst finding allies around the world to stand alongside the EU in defending its norms and values.

In fact, it is crucial that the EU does not let a vacuum build in the places where the defenders of the liberal world order have stepped back. Aggressive military interventions of the kind seen in Syria and Libya are only possible when dialogue and alternative diplomatic options have failed, and the space is left empty for other models of behaviour.

There are open spaces for Europe to occupy

In an era of modest EU ambitions and post-Brexit blues, Europe cannot let down those who reject the authoritarian and nationalistic trends around the world, and who call out for leadership on global issues. For example, the EU can work to ensure a norms-driven agenda remains the operative system of the UN. Many like-minded countries, including in Latin America, are hoping that the EU can stand up for those values and principles that the US are now stepping down from defending. The Human Rights agenda, which is under increasing pressure around the world (and inside the EU) needs vehement defending – not as a European value but a universal agenda. This is also central for Europe’s role as a credible actor for peace and security. 

Establish criteria for European priorities and get engaged

Risk aversion currently categorises the mood in European capitals, with an increasingly inward-looking and minimalist agenda. However, Europe is simply too big an actor to shrink back from the world stage. Instead it needs to be more strategic about its choices and dare to defend its priorities – with the risk of getting its hands dirty doing so. Reconstruction of Syria is a good example: a grey area in relation to the political priorities previously set out by the EU, but one where the EU can play a decisive and positive role – as it was never able to in military terms.

One way of weighing where to prioritise engagement is by considering whether the EU will be held accountable for the outcome (notably conflicts inside Europe), or whether doing nothing will have direct adverse consequences on Europe (conflicts in the immediate neighbourhood). Throughout, it’s important not to be tactical about Europe’s interests: fundamental norms are in and of themselves a cornerstone of European identity the EU’s raison d’etre. These norms and values must remain high on the agenda, as the EU cannot prop up undemocratic governments that lack legitimacy for the sake of short-term stability and migration control.

This is not the time for systemic changes – build on existing power

Discussions about the EU’s ability to play a decisive role in peacemaking often involve limitations set around EU foreign policy by the Lisbon Treaty. But given the situation inside Europe, this may not be the time for a treaty change. Nor is it necessarily a good idea to try to push through qualified majority voting (QMV) for issues such as human rights or sanctions in the Council of the EU. It may simply display a more fractioned Europe if member states start using QMV as a mean to opt out of sanctions regimes they do not feel warmly about.

However, if the EU’s capacity to bring its different strengths together behind an integrated approach grows in strength, it will be a global power to be reckoned with. There is no need to develop new instruments if the EU can successfully wield the existing ones: leveraging market access in exchange for progress in peace processes or supporting implementation of peace agreements in an effective and politically intelligent way as was done in Colombia. Another example is that every incremental political improvement in Syria could be linked to financial incentives and reconstruction support from the EU. The list goes on.

Sort out the division of labour between European states and the EU

For the EU to take a more engaged role in preventing and resolving conflict, it will need to invest real political resources in the areas it decides to focus on, and in partnerships with actors that have complementary strengths which will increase its ability to achieve results. This means high-level engagement, both by Brussels and by European national leaders. It also means well-resourced diplomatic presence and other types of peacemaking investment, but it is important that this does not stay at the technical level. Political unity and political investment are paramount in order to display that Europe is serious and not just paying its way out of difficult decisions. There are successful formulas for how to do this, for example former HR/VPs Mogherini’s collaboration with Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto in Sudan in autumn 2019. The new leadership in Brussels should continue along these lines to build strong ownership of a joint EU foreign policy, which is truly anchored in the continents’ capitals. 

There is nothing new in the six points above. The problem in addressing the current issues lies not in a lack of possible solutions, but lack of political will. But in the recent words of HR/VP Borrell: “one cannot proclaim to want a stronger European role in the world without investing in it”.