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Reflections after the No votes: What makes the EU an international actor?

02 November 2005

This note assesses the impact of the political crisis affecting the EU in the wake of the constitutional referenda, specifically with reference to the image and performance of the Union in the wider international world. The basic assumption is that the viability of CFSP and of EC external relations largely depends on the political cohesion of the EU. This is even more the case for a unique, rule-based and supposedly value-driven international actor like the EU. First, the note addresses some of the defining characteristics of the European project, highlights its distinctiveness and explores its shortcomings in a turbulent international environment. Second, the note touches upon the root causes of the rejection of the Constitutional Treaty in the French and Dutch national referenda, in order to explore the political implications of the crisis for the EU's external posture. The note concludes that renewed internal political cohesion is a necessary pre-condition for the Union to stand up to its reputation of global norm-setter and to perform effectively as a strategic international actor in foreign and security policy. The EU: an international actor unlike any other Internal sources of external influence In the words of Jean Monnet, 'The community we have created is not an end in itself. The Community… is only a stage on the way to the organised world of tomorrow.' It is only normal that, in the real world, a gap exists between high-sounding mission statements and practical day-to-day politics. But those statements remain at the core of the very raison d'être of the Union, making it a project unlike any other. From its very beginning, European integration has been directed towards changing the structure and the rules of international relations. The Community/Union has been developing over the decades into a distinctive political entity, whose attractiveness to the outside world grew with the end of the Cold War. The main features of the European model include, broadly-speaking: A concept of shared sovereignty as a response to interdependence: positive sovereignty, the ability to take effective action collectively, as opposed to negative sovereignty, which is merely the absence of superimposed authority. A community of values based on the rule of law, not simply an alliance of interests based on power politics: a Union of states and peoples. An original system of governance including supranational institutions mandated to preserve and promote the general interest in defined policy areas, with an exclusive right of initiative and decisions adopted by majority voting. The promotion of a rule-based, multilateral international system: the solution of international disputes by peaceful means; a comprehensive concept of security; support of global institutions as well as regional integration. A distinctive economic and social model reconciling competitiveness and solidarity within Member States and extending redistributive policies across the Union so as to consolidate economic and social cohesion beyond national borders. No other political entity includes all these key features at once. Likewise, the Union is the only body that has successfully pursued a 'grand strategy' of 'civilisation' and 'domestication' of international politics - taming anarchy through law. At a time when the dividing line between internal and external policies is blurring, that is the only approach which can deliver in the long term. It is often overlooked, however, that the notion of Europe as a 'civilian' and 'civilising' power includes all the factors listed above.[1] The effectiveness of civilian power depends not only on the external promotion of international norms, the allocation of development aid, or the effective execution of the Petersberg tasks, but also and above all on what the Union represents. In short, the international credibility of the EU and its attractiveness depends on what Europe is as much as on what Europe does. Like the 'American way' in the post-war period, so the 'European way' is attractive today because of the values underpinning it: the balanced model of a prosperous and cohesive society, the notion that dialogue and compromise can overcome historical barriers, the voluntary self-restraint of national powers, the emphasis on global public goods and on delivering them more effectively through a joint effort, and the commitment to sustainable development. A civilian power in a turbulent world Following the attacks on the Twin Towers and the proliferation of fragile or failed states, the question of security has taken centre stage in international politics once again. The international system is complex and diverse. According to a by now familiar distinction, one could identify three broad layers: The postmodern order of multilateral governance, global international organizations and regulation, neo-regionalism and networks. The modern, unstable order of power politics among major global players such as the US, Russia, China and India, with a drift towards multi-polar dynamics. The pre-modern disorder of interethnic conflicts, with the collapse of state authority enabling the spread of terrorist and criminal networks. Europe needs to confront these changing circumstances. In a post-modern order, the EU leads the way. In a modern and/or pre-modern world, however, the ability to exercise hard (coercive, not primarily military) power remains an essential component of the notion of an international actor. It follows that the EU needs to both exercise influence through soft power and be able to deploy hard power in a targeted and strategic way, as recognised by the European Security Strategy. The potential of the EU as an agent setting international norms should not be underestimated. International disorder does not necessarily lead to the decline of the value of civilian power. On the contrary, the credibility of an international actor, the capital of reputation, the power of example play an important role when it comes to long-term, comprehensive conflict prevention or post-conflict peace building - two essential dimensions of sustainable development and global stability. The EU has unique assets from this standpoint: this is a necessary condition to acquire global influence in today's world. But it is not sufficient to become a fully-fledged international actor, and be perceived as one. The need for a qualitative step change in the ability of the Union to establish its interests, determine how to fulfil them and act consistently in their pursuit is widely felt. The question is then: what does it take to be an international actor in this international conjuncture, and is the EU a full one? The point to be made here is that the EU needs to accept becoming a more cohesive political actor in its own right first, if it is to be taken seriously as an international actor. Internal stalemate, external dynamism? Fulfilling the potential of the EU, above all in times of lingering and/or acute international crisis, requires that some fairly straightforward conditions be met:

  • Enhanced centralisation of authority: a single, clear line of command
  • Efficient decision-making enabling rapid reaction using all necessary means in a coherent way
  • More systematic channelling of Member States' resources, and pooling of their political clout, through the structures of the Union
  • Legitimacy of action - a 'we' feeling projected on the global stage

The Constitutional Treaty (CT) went some way towards fulfilling these requirements. The CT was an integral part of a wider dynamic of change including, at the conceptual level, the drafting of the European Security Strategy and, at the operational level, the launching of the first ESDP missions. The implications of the rejection of CT and of the political crisis affecting the EU with regard to its position in international relations are serious, but often neglected. The EU cornered: the need to do more and the will to do less The Constitutional Treaty (CT) is not only a set of useful institutional innovations and a consolidation of previous treaties. It is a picture of the current balance of power between EU Member States, the EU and Member States, and EU institutions. It is also an attempt to codify a set of values and principles that define Europe in the eyes of its citizens and of the rest of the world. In short, the CT embodies the 'contract' between citizens, Member States and EU institutions. As such, the CT is an important, although not final and surely perfectible, step towards turning the EU into a political actor. And it was rejected. Reviewing all the explanations accounting for this failure is beyond the scope of this note. In extreme synthesis, while keeping a focus on the international dimension, the core of the matter resides in two widening gaps. First, the discrepancy between supply and demand of global governance. Second, the bifurcation between the need for collective responses to growing interdependence, and a widespread sense of vulnerability to external threats (economic, cultural, environmental and physical), resulting in the defensive and introspective posture of part of EU public opinion. The EU sits uncomfortably between these contradictory trends. Many of the effective solutions to citizens' concerns lie at the EU level, but politics are essentially conducted at the national level, which is where the power lies in the eyes of the public. With a political discourse increasingly leaning towards the apprehension of challenges, with global transformations often perceived as threats, the EU appears to be both intrusive and distant, both constraining the national room for manoeuvre and impotent to address the real issues. In other words, the EU is struggling to acquire the features of a fully-fledged domestic (EU level) political actor. Curiously enough, however, the EU seems to nurture the peculiar pretension of deploying power and influence abroad at a time when its internal political, economic, social and institutional systems are at a stalemate, with regressive tendencies in some Member States. In this context, the brake on institutional reform poses an inescapable problem. The state of play of institutional reform is a useful thermometer for taking the political temperature of the Union. Moreover, the prospect of implementing such innovations as a double-hatted Foreign Minister, an European External Action Service, and structured cooperation now seems much more distant. This determines a mismatch between the EU declared doctrine - the ESS and a new generation of subsequent 'concepts' - and the ability of the Union to both take decisions and act. The EU: loyal to its founding principles? The malaise affecting European politics undermines both the reputation of the Union as a norm setter and its ability to perform as a respected strategic actor on the global stage. If the strongest card of the EU is what it is and represents, the inconsistency in the behaviour of the EU and its Member States cannot but raise doubts as to the credibility of the Union in international relations, notably when security matters are at stake. The rift between (some) large and small Member States, opened during the Convention and the IGC, has not been closed yet. Recurrent rumours of directoires and attempts to establish exclusive clubs cause more damage than good because they are based on a sense of national distinctiveness and not on the original ambition to pool sovereignty for the common good. Sidelining EU institutions affects the core of the European model, at the risk of undermining it. Likewise, the sense that not everybody is equal with respect to European law and 'pacts' is growing, supported by evidence of double talk and double standards within the Union. The state of budgetary negotiations is redolent of zero-sum game power politics and not of multilateralism, let alone supra-nationalism. In the absence of a common vision for Europe, even genuine and sensible efforts to, for example, re-launch growth and employment in Europe do not deliver. The value of mutual trust and of a shared core purpose is often underestimated. The external impact of declining political cohesion is not hard to detect: it suffices to take a look at the dynamics of ongoing trade talks, at the less-than-impressive EU contribution to the reform of the UN or at the predominantly bilateral (and sometimes competitive) way of conducting relationships with the EU's most important partners: the US, Russia and China. If, as many maintain, the EU is no longer about an 'ever closer Union' of states and peoples - with the enormous charge of innovation, hope, and optimism that such a message brought about - then its status in international relations and security matters cannot fail to be called into question. Concluding remarks This notes suggests that a gap is widening between faltering internal political cohesion on the one hand, and the claim of the Union to play a more assertive political role on the world stage on the other. The concrete, sometimes remarkable, achievements of CFSP and above all ESDP will not be sustainable in the long term without a shared sense of purpose for Europe. Claiming that the original vision fuelling European integration has run out of steam and should be relegated to history has become almost mainstream. But such a claim will not fill the gap. On the contrary, it will make it wider in the eyes of disoriented national public opinions, and international partners. A literal application to EU foreign, security and defence policy of the traditional supranational formula for integration is of course neither desirable nor advisable. But the EU should re-acquire the sense of shared destiny and shared responsibility that inspired that model. In this context, it is argued that all the unique features of the European model played a part in making of EU integration the most successful project of the twentieth century. The focus is today on the much-needed reform of the economic and social model at both the European and the national levels. But such reform is pursued with little regard for the other 'pillars' of European integration: shared sovereignty, a community of values, an original framework of governance, and a civilising role in international relations. External influence and power have domestic roots. This principle applies not only to individual countries, but also to the EU. The challenge confronting the Union and its Member States is to define the political and institutional mix that will enable it to play a full part in international relations. -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] It should be clear that the notion of civilian power adopted in this analysis includes the ability and willingness to have recourse to military means as an option of last resort, in support of the values and the interests of the EU. Seen from this perspective, a civilian power is not an international actor unwilling or unable to exert coercion by military (or other) means, but rather an actor who relies primarily on the soft power of example, persuasion and multilateral negotiation, and whose priority is shaping a peaceful, regulated global order based on principles of conduct that are equal for everybody.