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Debates

External Action

Fiddling while Rome burns?

Michael Leigh / Oct 2015

Syrian refugees in Budapest. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The EU has spent the first decade and a half of the 21st century casting around for ways to strengthen its institutions and to exercise greater political influence in the world, especially, in its own neighbourhood. The Lisbon Treaty gave additional powers to the European Parliament and established a new hybrid foreign policy bureaucracy. However the Parliament is still struggling to establish its popular legitimacy and the European External Action Service has yet to prove itself. The Commission is searching for a new role. There is a widespread impression in the media and in public opinion that the EU has been fiddling while Rome burns.

Now four mutually re-enforcing crises raise questions about the EU’s very raison d’être: (1) the persistent euro and economic crisis, (2) Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, (3) the risk of losing a querulous but influential member state, the United Kingdom, and, above all, (4) the migration crisis.

These crises exacerbate each other. A lack of “solidarity” by Hungary and others on resettling refugees (even France is unenthusiastic) may make it harder to mobilize support in Germany for shoring up the euro and for future bailouts. The rift between Germany and Central European countries on migration make a common stance on Ukraine and Russia harder to preserve. The return of nationalists to power in Warsaw may deepen the rift with Berlin. The euro and migration crises bring grist to the mill of populists in the UK, France and elsewhere who claim that the EU is failing. The UK’s highly restrictive approach on refugees (who are widely portrayed in Britain as welfare tourists) is driving a further wedge between London and Berlin, making a package to keep Britain in Europe all the more difficult to negotiate.

The prolonged crises in Ukraine and Syria, with their huge cost in human suffering, give urgency to the EU’s efforts to stabilize its immediate vicinity. Other influences are now at work in these regions, including Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and the Gulf countries. They dispose of resources that dwarf the EU’s and have very different agendas. Even member states ignore EU democracy and human rights conditionality in their own relations with neighbouring countries. The emergence of violent, sectarian, extremist groups and of political leaders, including Russian president Vladimir Putin, who play by different rules, have cast a dark shadow over the EU’s liberal, ameliorative strategies.

The EU as such has little role in diplomatic efforts to contain conflict around its periphery. The German Chancellor and French President, who are increasingly contested at home, make fitful efforts to calm the storm using shifting, temporary negotiating formats, delegating only limited practical tasks to EU institutions. Other member states, including Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, stand aside, preoccupied by populist challenges or economic malaise.

Against this background, the review of the “European Neighbourhood Policy” (ENP), scheduled for 18 November, must not become a routine exercise. Procedural changes, however welcome, will not themselves provide real leverage over events that have now spilled over into the EU itself, the very risk the ENP was designed to avert. The EU should, at last, make a frank strategic evaluation of the risks it faces and the tools it possesses to mitigate them. Above all the member states must decide whether they prefer to go it alone or to make the EU part of the solution. Only the latter course provides a glimmer of hope for the future.

Michael Leigh

Michael Leigh

October 2015

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