Even before he became the European Union’s new foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, suggested that Europe should speak the "language of power". And German foreign minister Heiko Maas called for a "strong and sovereign Europe", which could be a bigger player on the world stage through a proposed European Security Council.
It is fitting, then, that Europe has spent time in the opening weeks of the new decade talking about war and peace. This past Sunday, there was a summit in Berlin on the Libyan conflict. On Monday, EU foreign ministers discussed Luxembourg's push for European recognition of a Palestinian state.
The EU is good at talking. Asle Toje, a Norwegian foreign policy analyst and member of the Nobel Committee, once made the following claim: “The European Union was born out of an understanding that ‘the great decisions of our day will be made by speeches and majority decisions, not by blood and iron’, to reverse Bismarck’s quip”.
Indeed, speeches and majority decisions could be the essence of the European project and the reason it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. By joining 28 countries in a grand union of values, the EU has brought peace to a once-turbulent continent. But what of its role beyond its own borders? How successful has Europe been as a peacemaker? Has it even tried, and having tried, succeeded?
Its record is mixed. From the Balkan wars of the 1990s, through the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Darfur crisis, as well as ongoing conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Europe has suffered from its lack of cohesiveness. EU “actorness” – to use the choice phrase of European scholars – has been hamstrung by its semi-supranational, semi-intergovernmental character. It could be argued the bloc has not lived up to expectations that it would act as a great power.
When the EU has notched up limited foreign policy successes in the last decade, such as co-ordination of sanctions on Russia after the annexation of Crimea and putting together the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, they were premised on support from the Obama administration. The exception is the so-called Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, facilitated between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo. The talks began three years after the latter’s declaration of independence in 2008. In 2013, the EU managed to broker a limited normalisation of bilateral relations. Though the deal was seen at the time as ground-breaking, it failed to achieve the broader objective of resolving Kosovo’s status. The EU had leverage – both parties want to join the bloc as independent states. But overall the situation is complicated by the reality of EU incoherence on recognition of Kosovo’s independence. Mr Borrell’s home country Spain, and four other EU members don’t recognise Kosovo as a state.
Further afield, the prospects for EU-led peacemaking have hardly been more encouraging. On Syria, there has been little European coherence – or effort – beyond robust expressions of support for the UN-led intra-Syrian dialogue in Geneva. When Donald Trump pulled back American troops from north-eastern Syria in October, effectively green-lighting the Turkish invasion of Syrian Kurdish-controlled territory, the EU cried foul, but not with one voice. And there was little take-up of German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s suggestion that an international force, with a substantial German military contribution, be deployed to establish a security zone on the ground.
In Iraq and Lebanon, both rocked by popular protest, the EU has limited itself to calling for peace. There are European boots on the ground in Iraq – roughly 3,000 soldiers from 19 EU states, plus another 200 under Nato command – but the EU has been wary of doing much more than criticising the heavy-handedness of Iraqi security forces.
In Libya, the EU’s positioning has been weakened by divisions between the north African nation’s former colonial powers, Italy and France, but it has been scrambling lately to regain the diplomatic initiative from Ankara and Moscow. This largely explains the holding of the Berlin conference, and Mr Borrell’s bullish cheerleading for a more determined European role.
As for Venezuela, the EU, US and dozens of other nations recognise opposition leader Juan Guaido, rather than its president Nicolas Maduro, as the rightful head of state. On Monday, Mr Borrell said he would meet Mr Guaido in Brussels and there are whispers that the Dutch, among others, are seeking a harder EU stance against the Maduro regime. But Mr Maduro has already dismissed the threat of European sanctions and travel bans, saying: “I don’t care even a little bit about what Europe does”.
Israel shares a similar disregard to the EU, particularly in discussions on Palestinian statehood. In 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to recognise Palestinian statehood in principle. But Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has exploited a lack of European consensus to act decisively on the issue. “We Europeans have been suffering internal divisions, and we have not been united enough,” Mr Borrell recently lamented.
EU peacemaking is a distinct quantity compared to some of its constituent parts. Norway, perhaps the biggest peacemaker of the bloc, facilitated the Oslo Accords and Colombia’s peace agreement. It has sought to involve itself in many other intractable conflicts, including Haiti, Cyprus, the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. France has traditionally tried to lead Europe on Middle East matters, including peace initiatives. From 1958, Ireland has been the only country to have a continuous presence on UN peacekeeping missions.
So, why is the EU not anywhere near the sum total of its member states’ weight in foreign affairs? One explanation, by Christopher Hill, a British expert on European politics, is that Europe suffers a “capability-expectations gap”. His eponymous 1993 paper identified the gap’s three causes – the inability to agree, allocate resources, or to use instruments at the EU’s disposal. For the gap to be closed, the professor argued, European foreign policy must be grounded in demonstrated behaviour, which would require the EU to take decisions quickly, mobilise institutions and command resources. The alternative, he said, is to simply lower expectations.
That would mean recognising the EU is, in the words of a recent Swedish Institute of International Affairs paper, an “unidentified political object” – not quite a state yet more than an international organisation.