What the European Union needs is an updated external strategy

For the last five years, Europe has been shaken by financial and economic convulsions that have wreaked havoc on many of its citizens’ livelihoods. The good news is that progress is finally being made in redeveloping the European Union’s economic and monetary architecture, which should help to bring about a return to growth. But the focus of European Union leaders on internal problems has caused them largely to neglect external policies, particularly in the area of security. As 2014 begins, economic insecurity is giving way to worries about the European Union’s strategic position.

There were expectations that the European Council’s meeting in December would signal a return to a more outward-looking approach, especially when it comes to security matters. Unfortunately, these hopes were quickly dashed. Indeed, the disparate assortment of initiatives that were agreed at the meeting, although they were interesting, lack the needed breadth and scope, and will have to be integrated within a weak and outdated strategic framework.

The flawed nature of the current European Security Strategy – which was drafted in 2003, with a token revision in 2008 – reflects the circumstances surrounding its conception. The ESS was developed in the aftermath of the Iraq war, amid heated debate over a proposed European constitution, in a hasty and reactive process that was hijacked by those who sought to position Europe as a counterweight – or even a rival power – to the United States.

Making matters worse, the geopolitical environment has changed fundamentally in the decade since the ESS was ratified, owing to economic rebalancing toward Asia, the upheavals in the Arab world, the revival of Russian assertiveness, and the rise of isolationist tendencies in the United States. As a result, the ESS does not capture the reality of today’s world – a fact that is obvious from its opening declaration that “Europe has never been so prosperous.”

To be sure, the ESS’s three basic tenets – development assistance, soft power, and effective multilateralism – remain important. But Europe’s leaders must reconceive these concepts in light of today’s challenges.

In terms of development, Europe must move away from the idea that aid should be used to bolster trade linkages and must acknowledge the importance of foreign investment. In fact, net private capital flows to developing countries now outweigh official development assistance by a factor of nearly ten to one worldwide.

As the world’s second-largest source of foreign direct investment, the European Union wields considerable influence, with European investors bringing credibility to projects and regions, thereby serving to attract further investment. For example, Morocco’s Ouarzazate Solar Power Plant and its Drinking Water Efficiency Program were launched with the equivalent of $50.6 million from the European Union’s Neighborhood Investment Facility; these projects subsequently gained additional funding totaling more than $815 million.

The ESS’s emphasis on soft power is also in urgent need of reassessment. The upsurge of protest across the Arab world raised expectations among Europeans that these countries would, to some extent, emulate Western institutions, values, and norms. But, while that did not occur, European principles certainly have not lost their allure, as recent protests in Ukraine, triggered by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to shun closer ties with Europe, have shown.

Nonetheless, the ESS’s soft-power vision should not be allowed to obscure the security challenges that Europe faces. With the rise of non-traditional threats, Europeans are increasingly overlooking classical security risks such as inter-state warfare, believing that they are no longer relevant – a notion that is reflected in the ESS. But, as China’s increasingly assertive stance in the South and East China Seas starkly demonstrates, this idea is not only wrong; it can be very dangerous.

This brings us to the ESS’s third tenet: advancing “the development of a stronger international society, well-functioning international institutions, and a rule-based international order.” In this case, the problem comes down to a lack of commitment, with the European Union choosing the convenience of informal and ad hoc groupings over the challenge of reforming key institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank, which are essential for effective multilateralism.

Indeed, the European Union is among the leading actors in the current “G” fad, which has culminated most recently in the G-20. And despite being an embodiment of international law, the European Union indulges in soft-law approaches, whether at the recent COP-19 climate-change meeting in Warsaw, or by supporting the “Geneva agreement” that addressed Iran’s nuclear program, which, it is now clear, were nothing more than aspirational declarations linked by a press release.

In developing its new security strategy, Europe must consider America’s role as an essential component of the geopolitical environment, viewing the U.S. not as a foil, but as a nuanced partner. Beyond NATO, which remains important even at a low ebb, the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership offers a potent opportunity to shape a rule-based international order.

The shine may have come off the European Union, but the gripping scenes from Kiev’s Maidan Square are a powerful reminder of the enduring appeal of Europe’s core values. What the European Union needs now is an updated external strategy that capitalizes on this allure to bolster its influence, security and prosperity, thereby halting its slide toward irrelevance.

Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former senior vice president of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate © (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 11, 2014, on page 7.


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