The Libyan air campaign leaves lingering questions as to the relevance of the EUs security and defence ambitions.
“Dispose of the difficult bit in the title; it does less harm there than in the text.” The advice from the master of obfuscation, Sir Humphrey Appleby comes to mind when dealing with the European Union’s ‘Common Security and Defence Policy’. An uncharitable reader would point out that the policy is not common and that it has nothing to do with defence.
In stark contrast to the grandiose titles bestowed on its foreign policy the European Union has over the past decade earned a reputation for sluggish response and token engagement. The gap between what the EU has been talked up to do and what it is actually able to deliver has been on frequent display – most recently in Libya.
The EU was late in responding to changing facts on the ground in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. One got the impression that real-world events are seen an unwelcome distraction by the Brussels bureaucracy. Few were surprised when the EU was never seriously considered as a vehicle for the military campaign in Libya.
The problem is that a humanitarian intervention on Europe’s doorstep exactly the sort of mission the European Union was supposed to be able to handle. Libya is only the most recent in a series of blows to the EUs pretentions to be Europe’s collective voice on the international stage. This raises questions as to the viability of the CSDP, now in its 13th year.
These days Europe is going through a sharp drop in self-confidence. It has come as an unwelcome surprise that the continent that long dominated world affairs may turn out to be multipolarity’s biggest loser. While commentators have focused on the rise of the emerging powers and the relative decline of the United States, less attention has been paid to the plight of Europe’s descending powers.
As the United States take a step down into the great power category, and emerging powers are taking a step up, France and Britain are being relegated. Their voice in the world appears diminished, contradicting the postmodern assumption that power is not a zero-sum game. London and Paris reluctance to part with their great power heirlooms, their seats at the UN high table, has only encouraged the bilateralization of security. The equal membership institutions are being superseded by a colossal ‘spaghetti ball’ of bilateral ties.
Pooling European foreign policies was supposed to counter this development. It was assumed that with an EU foreign policy framework in place national policies would be magnetically drawn to Brussels and merged: out of many, one. The assumption was that a weaker United States would automatically translate into a stronger European Union. Yet the ‘twin-polar West’ envisioned by many has failed to materialise. The EU has not grown to be an eastern gravitas in a two-pillar entity. No European Byzantium to America’s Rome.
The decision to develop a collective EU foreign and security policy sprang from an understanding that Europe would have to speak with one voice should it have any chance of influencing world events. But the leftover geopolitical centrality from the cold war combined with a benign post cold war security climate removed the sense of urgency. The Europeans failed to integrate foreign policies when integration was easy. Now it is hard.
In Europe, unlike America, there is no shared belief in the intrinsic goodness of the body politic. In Europe this sort of sentiments are more often directed towards institutions, notably the UN and the EU. Much the same way as Americans are quick to forgive themselves the unintended consequences of their actions on the global stage, the Europeans are prone to gloss over the foreign policy failures of institutions.
The EU has so far failed to give Europe a stronger – or indeed a unified – voice in world affairs. This is because the EU states agreed to have a foreign policy, but not what is should be about. Without a Raison d’État – a ‘European Interest’ to inform policy the EU has become yet another peddler of generic idealism. No scarce commodity in Europe’s hopelessly over-institutionalized security landscape.
Equally disconcerting, the EU has failed to deliver on capabilities. There was a 45 per cent rise in global defence expenditure in the period 1998–2008. Most of it stems from Brazil, Russia, India, China and the US. European defence spending has remained stationary. As a result Europe is utterly reliant on US force of arms, and America – as this year’s Transatlantic Trends survey underlines – is disengaging. As a result Europe’s security challenges are disproportional to the collective’s ability to live up to them.
The EU failing to deliver in Libya gives an important indicator as to what can be expected in the future. The Union will leave it to others to do the heavy lifting. It will continue its preference for issues engaging selectively on the margins. Thus, European Union enters multipolarity in a state of imbalance. It has the interests and aspirations of a great power, but the capacity and mindset of a mid-level player, a small power. A worrisome gap to be sure.
Asle Toje is the acting Research Director at the Nobel Institute, Oslo and author of The European Union as a small power: after the post-Cold War, (Palgrave-Macmillan, in paperback September 2011)
Publisert i Atlantic Network 14.09-2011