What EUrope is today increasingly depends on where one sits and assesses the situation. I’m afraid this is quite a prosaic thing to say; an American will surely see a different thing in the EU than a Sub-Saharan African or an Asian. However dull this may sound Europe should consider applying this approach every time the question of a common European Union strategy in world affairs comes up. What I mean by this can be considered to be a double-edged sword, as too much concern on how one sees you and what one wants from you may lead you to have doubts about your own identity. But still, EU has enough doubts in this respect already, so maybe it is high time to try a thorough process of self-assessment through the eyes of others.
Last Friday, September 30th, the conference on ‘Strategic thinking in the European Union’ was organized in Bucharest by the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS, Brussels) and the European Institute of Romania with the support of the Representation of the European Commission in Romania. The one-day event tried to cover as many issues as possible, from regional strategies (The Danube and the Baltic Sea strategies) to the future of the Europe 2020 growth strategy and, finally, the most cumbersome of them all, the question (of the existence or not) of a European strategic thinking concerning EU foreign policy. I will deal in the next sections with this final topic of the conference, and I will try to explain what I mean by the need of a de-centered self-assessment strategy regarding EU foreign policy.
The four panelists and the moderator tried to discuss in almost one hour the possible definitions of strategy that EU policies in its foreign policy could best embody and discussed cursorily some of its past failures and present challenges. Thomas Renard (EGMONT Royal Institute for International Relations) opened the discussion by placing EU foreign policy in a “post American, post European world” in which emerging powers (BRIC) dared do something unimaginable a few years back, that is to offer solutions to save Europe from its financial impasse.
This scaling down of EU ambitions given the present state of (world) affairs, Thomas Renard suggested, should not mean that Europe must retreat into a small corner, but rather prioritize its interests by re-assessing the situations in which its contribution can still be meaningful. The most obvious example should be, as I suspect many people in the audience waited to hear and discuss more about, the countries in the Southern neighborhood. The Arab Spring, Renard argued, constituted itself as a central issue in the eyes of European policy makers only after the local democratic struggles appeared to produce a regional problem of massive migration to the North. Moreover, the much revered normative, soft European power was nowhere to be found and we have been witnesses instead only to the hard power of two EU members.
However promising this topic appeared to be, Renard left it at that and raised one last and equally thorny topic: if EU has a problem, it’s not the lack of strategies on all sorts of topics, but a system that could connect them in a coherent manner. The solution to this, he argued, is to abandon the bottom-up process of decision making, which is stalling any grand EU foreign policy, and find the means to develop a top-down strategy by first agreeing on a number of big priorities that would make EU a proactive instead of a (dimly) reactive actor.
Liliana Popescu (National School of Political and Administrative Studies) structured her argument by first asking what kind of actor EU thinks itself to be. Is it more of a respublica or rather more of a EU Inc.? Despite this very promising lead, she decided to privilege a lengthy discussion of past European external actions that, according to her, could not be called a true foreign policy of a coherent international actor. After this diagnostic, she made an interesting observation, again not actually discussed beyond its formulation: can we already sit and reflect upon the degree of success of the Liberal internationalism premised in EU’s foreign relations since the 1990s? Instead of actually discussing this burning topic in the context of what is called the Arab Spring at Europe’s gates, she followed the more classic discussion of EU faced with an increasingly difficult Russian Federation in the Eastern neighborhood. Given the EU accession dream in some of the Eastern countries, Russia’s own ambitions in the region and increasing authoritarian leanings (The Putin effect), Bruxelles is still very much an actor dependent in many respects on others (US defense capabilities).
The most interesting part of the discussion was opened by Jordi Vaquer (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). The main topic of his presentation had a lot to do with a topic with which Europeans usually are very uncomfortable, that is geopolitics. And I think that, knowingly or not, Vaquer formulated and confronted us with a contradiction that accounts not only for a patently feeble EU foreign policy, but also for more theoretical arguments on this topic in the academia. What we should be aware of, Vaquer argued, is that strategic thinking is not geopolitical thinking. Those who are presently seduced by examples of tougher players in world affairs, like China or Russia or, increasingly, even Turkey, should not ignore the price of illiberal, undemocratic governments and how the status of a big power was reached by inconceivable human sacrifice.
If this is the geopolitics he is warning us against, that of Halford Mackinder’s Heartland Theory or that of Luttwak’s American post-Cold War hysteria of geo-economics, then the warning is well taken, as it should be. Vaquer made some sensible observations on the authoritarian leaning states like Turkey which are playing these days dangerous games in the Middle East and Cyprus and this offensive, I would agree with him, has gained in strength in the last five years, as Erdogan’s power consolidated to a considerable degree to the point where opposition has almost nothing to say anymore. However, this is the point in Vaquer’s argument where the paradox of geopolitics’ ghost reveals the paradox I was talking about. Where EU has failed in the Neighborhood Policy, as opposed to the Enlargement Policy towards Easter Europe, is in having planned everything on paper up to the last point, expecting such a grand plan to envelop what was imagined as one region that was expected only to take the administered pills and wait for the recovery.
“The neighborhood is not a region…it is at least two, probably more”. Moreover, Turkey and Russia are deplorably absent from the strategy of economic and political assistance towards the countries of the neighborhood. Another critical observation raised by Vaquer was to point to the biggest failure of EU’s foreign policy is the absence of a real North African policy, a region were, unlike in the Middle East, Europeans can and should have more success in influencing the big picture and real lives.
Agreeing with Renard, he distanced himself from the view that Europe has no strategies, as it possesses more plans and better capabilities to assist in various contexts and emergencies its neighborhood better than any EU member state. Unlike the US in the Middle East or Russia in the Black Sea, Brussels at least can proudly argue that its policies have not produced real disasters. If Europe has a real problem, that is its passivity.
Although I think Vaquer was by far the most courageous speaker in the panel, I disagree with him on three points which I will discuss in the final part: If Turkey’s domestic politics should indeed worry us is for its majoritarian, highly centralized politics (and Erdogan’s view on his presidential republic promise further plans for consolidating his control), the treatment of minorities and its illiberal (authoritarian?) Ergenekon strategy, but it should not be conflated with Turkey’s foreing policy and thus easily discarded. Second, The Middle East is the very centre of a future EU foreign policy worthy of such a name, especially since the word Palestine has not been uttered not even once during this entire discussion. Third, geopolitics is the very heart of the matter, but maybe not geopolitics in the classical sense.
The last discussant, Antonio Missiroli (Bureau of European Policy Advisers), raised a very interesting point: Europe has so many strategic partnerships (10) that the expression starts to sound like the word friend on Facebook. Moreover, these partnerships are stalled by a highly bureaucratized, over institutionalized framework. However, the real hot spot of his contribution was to call the 2003 negotiations around a European Security Strategy as a short window of opportunity for Europeans to agree upon a mechanism of sovereign decision out of a Hobbesian context (homo homini lupus). This moment was lost, and the subsequent attempt to revise the act in 2008 failed. For the future, Missiroli concluded, we need a new Hobbesian moment, without which we are doomed to face an “absolute decline”.
Indeed, what I think is the core of Hobbes’ mental exercise is not that much the state of war as actual violence, but the state of constant and unbearable threat that dooms any human intercourse (actually this is Foucault’s idea more or less). What I took from this insight of Missiroli was an image of Europe as a block, indeed that image of the Hobbesian sovereign whose body is made of all the tiny bodies of its subjects and I suspect this metaphor would have been easily embraced by the general feeling in the audience, whose questions without exception lamented on the absence of ‘real leadership’, which was at one point disadvantageously compared with the US decision making capacity.
Now, coming back shortly to my punctual objections to Vaquer’s really refreshing view, I can’t really say I understand how come we are still mired in such a comparison with the United States, and I will shortly explain myself why I think Europe has a huge chance now, wholly undeserved actually, to be a significant actor quite unlike the US. And here I come again to my second amazement this last Friday. The word Palestine wasn’t mentioned in this whole affair by anyone, not even when sparse allusions were made to a Middle East strategy. How can one still hope to be a significant partner for dialogue in North Africa without thoroughly thinking and what are you going to do in the aftermath of such an obvious moment of rupture once the entire political imagination surrounding the Oslo Agreements has been denounced in the UN assembly?
I am not saying that this failure was not patent already, but shouldn’t you have in the back of your head the crowds in Ramallah saluting this speech when you speak of the Arab Spring? Isn’t this the type of imagination which dares connect various strategies in order to make sense of the big picture, as all panelists asked for? And however reckless and worrying Erdogan’s Ergenekon Affair surely is, can Europe really dismiss the ongoing efforts that the Erdogan-Davutoglu team untiringly along the axis Northern Africa-Middle East? If this strategy is very much problematic, as this proved to be in the almost explosive week during which Israel’s diplomatic corps was under attack in Egypt a few weeks ago, this only proves that this hot spot (or rather axis) should better be approached in a different manner by Europeans themselves.
The other point I wanted to raise, about the need for a new geopolitical imagination, was actually a contingent thought I had once it became obvious that no one will address this issue in that chorus of lamentations on the lack of European leadership like the founding fathers which, quite frankly, I think is the best recipe for killing any interesting EU topic. I may be wrong, but what the so called Arab Spring showed us Europeans is that everything we knew about the Arab world, North Africa, dictatorships and their institutionalized armies is simply dusty and irrelevant. Just like we ought to see now more clearly as the EU policies of democratic assistance in the MENA region with their mostly rigid means of identifying a “worthy” civil society to be showered with funds have failed. If these had been successful in any way, it was mostly to contribute to the grander strategy by which regimes have built means to control and dampen the so-called civil society by selective repression, offering sometimes some carrots too, surely, but in general quite ineffective in stirring anything like that man on fire exasperated by what I imagine was a Kafkaesque world in which some things never happen, you never know whom you can address for to solve your problems, and the state and its institutions are the most elusive and at the same time an inescapable machine.
If the revolts in the South showed us anything we can learn from, is that citizenry is not the same thing with what some bureaucratic criteria identify as ‘civil society’. And sometimes citizenry is embodied by something that transcends actual borders and communicates to people who discover they suffer the same nasty things. This new imagination of citizenry and the new expectations it has raised in the peoples in North Africa and the Middle East towards their states can and has to determine new ways in which we can imagine the geopolitics of religion, of cultures and of newly discovered or re-awakened solidarities. Palestine, without a doubt, is central to this new regional movement and, I think, Turkish leaders seem to be more aware of this than European leaders. And really now, can we say Europe should envy the US answer to the challenge posed by Palestinians? If anyone is a true prisoner of Oslo, is America without a doubt, and one determined to keep everyone captive in a picture in which no one is comfortable anymore. Between the unimaginative American position and the flamboyant leadership assumed by Turkey on behalf of the Arab world, Europe has more than an opportunity to assert itself. It has a responsibility to finally get on the field and act as an honest witness of the murderous stalemate that keeps Israelis prisoners to a state of war and Palestinians victims to a state of absolute exception, in which an entire people is captive in a web of barbed wire, walls and checkpoints separating school from home and workplace.. .
I don’t think I am as optimist as Jordi Vaquer, who quite rightly deplored the lack of a North African Strategy worthy of its name without naming EU’s failures in the region, first because European bureaucrats should asses who are the people they are talking to in the region and what these people, want from EU, with all that they have sacrificed and all they have gained in these last months. Surely some big sentences in the Action Plans for these countries contain embarrassing notions and solutions for democratic support and civil-military relations. And maybe another ticking bomb sits in the stalled dossier of immigration and the regime Europeans have offered until now to those in need of refuge in the North.
And by this I return, lastly, to a thing that may have been the most interesting point on the agenda of this conference, a point raised but never discussed by Liliana Popescu when she asked how successful was the premise of a liberal international agenda that EU adopted from the very beginning of its opening towards spaces to-be-democratized in the East and South. Can we really speak of a liberal agenda in Europe’s dealings with North African regimes until 2011? I doubt it.
The EU has been engaged in a phony plan of cooperation for the economic development of the South, its bureaucrats have sometimes incuriously collaborated with the national police forces cum secret agencies cum military forces in order to identify that civil society which was allowed to have a voice. This was rather a result of what Europeans hoped to keep at bay along ethnic/tribal or religious lines in an effort to prevent “things worse than Mubarak”, not to speak of the migration policy towards this countries and the collaboration with their fierce police forces. This management problem that North Africa constituted for a long time, for those up North was not based on liberal, democratic values of individual rights, active citizenry and, in general, civilian politics.
Worryingly enough, the manner in which the migrants from this region are seen as a problem and transformed into EU’s new object of policing is not a heartening premise for a new relationship. This is where I would also disagree with what Liliana Popescu suggested as EU Inc., whose huge market could provide EU its identity as a relevant actor in world politics. The EU has still to learn how to create the means by which it can attract the collaborative interest of its neighborhood around its common market. And in this respect too, Europeans have a thing or two to learn from Turkey’s regional reach.
In the end, I would say that some of the questions raised by the panel are urgent and valuable for the next few years of uncertainty concerning the new political regimes in the South, chiefly a compromise between the voices of the citizens and the space allowed for voice by what looks like a new institutionalization of the armed forces in whatever disguise. The next point that requires consideration is that the previous strategy of bilateral negotiations has to be reconsidered in light of the falls of the ossified regimes that were considered privileged partners until recently. And from this vision of multiple imbrications of actors in the region a new project of what the European market should be could emerge, in which more openings should be created, in a convergent spiral that should determine Turkey to be a central player in this wider Europe-North Africa-Middle East space and not outside of Europe. Palestine is a big challenge that Europe should not ignore. Even failing to enter this debate by prevaricating in all manners is a gesture, but a losing one.
Geopolitics is not to be discarded, but re-imagined, and by this I make full circle and re-connect to the introductory passage. For a very long time Europe asked itself what sort of actor should it be, how strong is in the confrontation with the United States and Russia, the emerging countries and Turkey. If the EU has any chance of finding the beginning of an answer to this question, it should leave behind the anxious comparison with the US type of leadership (what a dreadful word that more often than not leads one to ask quite dusty questions) and find a way to create a larger space around itself, in which the neighborhood is not a problem to be managed, but a pool of actors to be attracted in economic relations, more open and human ways of understanding migration and the workforce. And finally a more liberal understanding of what other societies are and expect from European societies in their turn.
Without such an attempt at de-centering, EU will never get out of a dilemma which asks the question of how to make relevant an EU foreign policy while having to deal with a constant, nagging question in the background: what foreign policy?