Putting ethics at the heart of Europe

Does Europe have a foreign policy? The British Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, equipped with a new ethical approach, clearly hopes it does. As president of the European Union, he’s tussling with the carnage in Algeria, which continues to claim innocent lives. Mr Cook may have chosen an issue which allows him to use a powerful tool of Union policy: inter-regional cooperation.

The World Today Published 1 March 1998 Updated 7 December 2018 5 minute READ

The common belief is that a serious or effective foreign policy for the European Union is unattainable. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), established by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, has proved insubstantial, resulting at best in well-meaning démarches (policy statements) on issues of international concern – ex-Yugoslavia, the Middle East or Somalia – or, at worst, irrelevance.

This interpretation argues that the lack of a military force and the inability to make decisions that can override national interest are permanent constraints on effective EU action. This is tied to the idea that no Union body is sovereign and, as only sovereign bodies carry out foreign policy, the EU is not – and will never be – a foreign policy actor.

There are enormous problems with this conventional interpretation of EU foreign policy. Firstly, to take the three areas of crisis already mentioned, Brussels is the major aid donor and is also helping to create postc o n flict structures to enable peace to be made and hopefully kept.

In former- Yugoslavia, the EU has administered the divided Croat-Muslim city of Mostar, supervised the Western European Union provided police force, and has been an active participant in the post-Dayton Peace Implementation Council.

In the Middle East it has provided financial and technical support for the electoral process and the training of Palestinian police and has initiated and is financing a Mediterranean-wide political and economic dialogue designed to support the Middle East peace process.

In Somalia, among other things, it is directly helping to create a new constitution with a decentralised system organised as far as possible along functional cooperation lines.

None of these statements imply that the EU is the major or most significant external player, although in Somalia it might well claim to be so, or that the Union achieves all objectives in all circumstances – what state, including the United States does? They do, however, belie the myth of an EU foreign policy that is entirely procedural and solely based on insouciant statements from Brussels divorced from practical involvement in current confli c t s .

No army, no policy

The second problem with the conventional understanding of EU foreign policy is the conceptual contradiction at its core. If the EU cannot be a foreign policy actor because it does not have effective use of military force then many, if not most, states could not possess meaningful foreign policies.

Costa Rica has not had an army since 1948 and many small nations, including EU states such as Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, do not realistically expect to achieve foreign policy objectives through military force.

In terms of the lack of centralised decision-making capacity, it is arguable whether, given the fragmentation of power between Congress, the Presidency and the Supreme Court, US foreign policy decisionmaking is any easier than within the institutionally fragmented EU. Yet this has not stopped the United States becoming the world’s most powerful state.

As for the view that the EU is not sovereign and therefore cannot have a foreign policy, this ignores two important issues. Firstly the evidence suggests that member states have not had any qualms about ‘signing away’ their sovereignty on significant aspects of foreign relations – for instance, on external trade, a fundamental part of foreign policy in this era of globalisation.

Secondly, such an argument denies the possibility of the pooling of sovereignty, that foreign policy competencies can be shared by member states working both bilaterally and nationally, and collectively and multilaterally with other members.

Complimentary policy possibilities

The EU has developed an extensive foreign policy since the early 1970s. This was first made possible in the late 1960s by the common external tariff which enabled the then European Community (EC) to pursue shared economic interests abroad and to utilise collective economic instruments – including economic sanctions – to achieve political ends. One of the earliest examples was the Commission’s suspension of aid to Greece in 1967 after the military coup.

Union foreign policy has not replaced member-state’s foreign policy but created a complementary network of policy possibilities. It has neither evolved as a mere instrument of member-states nor as a Commission-led independent foreign policy.

None of the three major institutions – the Council, Commission or Parliament – has a monopoly on any aspect of foreign policy decision-making, and increasingly all of them, including the Parliament – conventionally (mis)understood as a toothless watchdog – have some say. This gives member-states a very strong input – being directly represented in the Council and indirectly though the national and party affiliation of European Parliament members.

Global player

European Union foreign policy is global in scope and multidimensional in nature and functions. An illustration of the global reach is that by 1993, 157 non-member states had established diplomatic missions in Brussels, precisely because of the importance for them of EU foreign policy.

Although EU policy is variegated in terms of the issues with which it is concerned, it reflects – as would foreign policy in any state – the evolution and nature of the Union’s domestic concerns. Security and defence (in the broadest sense, including democracy and human rights) provide an important focus – as do external trade, development and inter-regional cooperation and enlargement. Monetary relations are not yet on the Union’s foreign policy agenda but they will become an important issue with European Monetary Union.

The inter-regional approach is the most distinctive aspect of EU foreign policy. The Union has expanded inter-regional links so that it now has a global network with regional and sub-regional organisations in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. This addresses four interrelated objectives of Union foreign policy.

Firstly, the EU encourages both the development of regional integration between its partners for economic reasons – economies of scale, larger markets, etc – and political reasons – the idea that peace between neighbours is more likely if they assume the ‘habit of cooperation’ within technocratic, politically neutral, economic institutions.

Useful ambiguity

Secondly, the EU prefers to negotiate trade and political agreements with multilateral partners since it can encourage trade-offs between states and use ambiguities of diplomatic phrasing to achieve agreements that might otherwise have been ‘difficult to sell’ at home or to partners.

In this way Brussels can promote conflict resolution with disparate partners in multilateral groupings – for instance in its dealings with Central America in the 1980s when it supported the peace process by encouraging region to region diplomacy.

In this case, the approach on human rights, peace and democratisation was general enough for European Social Democrats to argue that it was directed at the right in Central America – and the European Christian Democrats and the right could argue that it primarily had the left wing Nicaraguan Sandinistas in its sights. This rhetorical ambiguity allowed the development of an uneasy coalition across Central America and Europe that eventually succeeded in making peace – inter-regional diplomacy developing an ethical foreign policy.

Thirdly the EU uses inter-regional diplomacy as collective security mechanism. Partner states which sign agreements including human rights, rule of law and democratisation clauses, are both persuaded to adhere to those commitments by promises of aid and coerced into maintaining them by threats of sanctions.

Although this type of approach can only work with poorer dependent states, it has a semi-global application since it is the basis of the EU’s treaty relationships with the 71 states of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) grouping. In 1994, for instance, eight ACP states – Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Togo and Zaire – had aid suspended or restricted for political or security reasons.

Fourthly, the EU uses inter-regional diplomacy to provide fora in which it can develop relationships it would otherwise have some difficulty justifying. This particularly applies to states with obnoxious human rights regimes – but with which the EU conducts relations because of strategic and/or economic interests. The best example of this is Brussels’ relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) which allows it to negotiate with Saudi Arabia, the GCC’s dominant power, more or less unfettered by European public opinion.

Interest and ethics

The first, second and third of these objectives combine both interest and ethics. The pursuit of conflict resolution encourages political stability which in turn creates a safer, more predictable environment for trade and minimises domestic fall-out from external conflicts. Containing confli c t abroad can mean less pressure on the EU, in terms of migration for instance, and it also reduces the possibility of external confli c t s being fought on the streets of Paris or London. The fourth objective is entirely directed by strategic and economic interest.

The major failure of the EU’s interregional policy has been in the attempt to sustain a multilateral arrangement with the north African states of Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia – which since 1989 have been collectively organised within the Arab Maghreb Union (AMU).

There have been at least four attempts to create inter-regional cooperation with the five Maghreb states. The AMU and its members have been very keen to develop such cooperation and met EU officials several times in the early 1990s to try to further links.

Also in 1990/91 France, Italy and Spain proposed a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean (CSCM) and again in 1990 and 1991, President Francois Mitterand tried to establish a ‘Five plus Five’ arrangement which would have included France, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Malta as well as the AMU states. These efforts foundered because of British and United States opposition to any move that would have included Libya in a multilateral arrangement and given diplomatic credibility and legitimacy to the Ghadaffi-regime.

The only multilateral initiative left to the EU is the ‘Barcelona process’ – a loose link of north and south Mediterranean states, established in 1995 and designed to support the Madrid peace process through the promotion of free trade, transfers of development aid and support for democratisation.

This approach is hopelessly inappropriate as a framework for policy towards north Africa – partly because two of the five Maghrebi states are not participants. Mauritania’s organised links with the EU are through ACP treaties and Libya is excluded because of United States and British insistence that it continue to be treated as a ‘pariah’ state.

Tunisia and Morocco have negotiated bilateral agreements in the context of the Barcelona approach but it would be difficult for Brussels to establish such an agreement with Algeria, given that European public opinion seems likely to demand visible and discernible improvements in the most basic of human rights – the right of children, women and men not to be massacred.

Between 60,000 and 80,000 people have been killed in Algeria since 1991 in a continuing bloody, primitive and inhuman barbarism. The Algerian state – the military, the bureaucracy and the government – are complicit in that they are not preventing the carnage. The Algerian government’s claim not to be directly involved is irrelevant as, even if it were true, the absolute lack of activity designed to stop the violence is justification enough to charge it with criminal negligence.

Algeria continues to receive substantial financial benefits from EU aid – partly from general funds through the Barcelona process and partly from emergency and food aid budgets. The Union is anxious not to exclude Algeria from benefits and keen to maintain good diplomatic relations because it has very direct economic and political links in the Maghreb.

In 1991 Libya and Algeria were respectively the fifteenth and seventeenth most important sources of the EC’s imports. Algerian gas is supplied directly by pipeline through Tunisia to Italy, and construction is under way to allow the same direct access by way of Morocco for Spain and Portugal.

Forcing change

If the EU and Britain seriously want to engage in Algeria, however, there is a way to formulate and implement policy. They can resurrect the EU-AMU dialogue and start to develop a policy which can do trade off s across and between the two regions.

Not all the mechanisms of inter-regional cooperation could be used to produce change in Algeria. For instance Algeria is not a particularly poor country in global terms – the 1997 World Bank reports puts it 69th in world development terms – just above Jordan and Jamaica and just below El Salvador and the Ukraine.

Brussels has much less financial leverage than it would have on say Mauritania. But at the same time Algeria does want to maintain and expand trade links with the Union and even its government must now realise that long term internal political instability will not benefit domestic or international political credibility.

The EU’s inter-regional approach could deliver the goods for British foreign policy given its track record of managing ethics and interest. But it would mean that the foreign secretary would have to be tough enough to diverge from the United States in a change of tack towards Libya. Given some imagination a new approach might help sort out two problems at once – Libya and Algeria.

We have yet to see whether Britain’s new foreign policy can deliver – not just or primarily to test its credibility – but for a much more important reason: to help protect the safety, security and lives of tens of thousands of innocents in Algeria.