Securing the EU’s Neighbourhood and building Peace on our Borders
The European Union’s neighbourhood is in crisis. To the east Russian aggression is fuelling a Civil War in Ukraine and threatening the Baltic States sovereignty and stability. In the Mediterranean and North Africa region (MENA), the failure of the Libyan state following western intervention has put Islamists in power and at the doorstep of the EU. Whilst turmoil in the MENA region has created an unparalleled refugee crisis that is putting the EU into an uneasy moral dilemma about assisting whilst avoiding the threat of terrorist infiltration from the ISIS conflict.
How did we arrive here? And what can the EU do to secure the peace in its neighbourhood?
Sadly the first question is easier to answer than the second. With the launch of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) in 2004, the EU hoped to improve the stability and prosperity of its neighbouring states and end the years of conflict that had been afflicting them, though it is now painfully obvious to see how the EU's policy efforts have been a dismal failure, with Libya, Syria and Ukraine all suffering historical conflicts despite being ENP partners. To resolve this second point the EU must formulate a new strategy to effectively counter these threats and move beyond national interests. To mitigate the Russian threat it is imperative that EU member states remain united in directing sanctions against Russia, whilst in MENA the EU must fulfil its promise to help build a 'deep democracy' and not repeat the same past mistakes of working with autocratic leaders who stand in the way of democratic progress. If the EU can successfully achieve these aims, then it can help bring back it’s neighbourhood from the brink of endless conflict and finally restore peace on its borders.
Ukraine is where the disunity of Europe presents the biggest danger. An ever emboldened Putin planned his annexation of Crimea knowing that the economic leverage and political ties he has with EU member states meant that it would be difficult to get unanimous agreement for sanctions against him. He was right. Despite breaking international law by violating Ukrainian sovereign territory, the sanctions that were finally implemented on March the 17th 2014 only targeted a few individuals within his inner circle. Even though sanctions were eventually escalated on the 8th of September to hit the Russian economy with more force (with some success), one must still ask how long it will be before European 'unity' on Russian sanctions is brought crashing down by the national interests of the individual states. Already some European business groups such as the Eastern Committee of German Industry have started to voice their concerns that the subsequent downturn in the Russian economy will harm their companies and the national economy. Business interests can often outweigh political imperatives in these matters, and we must not let this happen if we are going to secure lasting peace. The interest and aims of EU member States to create a more cohesive European foreign policy have long been stated. The Treaty of Lisbon (2009) strengthened the Higher Representative so that the EU foreign policy to present a more united front would in foreign affairs. Sadly, the Ukraine crisis has highlighted how superficial the EU attempts at a unified foreign policy have been. The old patterns of national interests over EU interests always re-emerge when there is a perceived threat. The lack of foresight goes to the heart of what the EU is about, if nations can put aside their smaller interests then they will gain the greater benefit of union and be better placed to deal with what could become far larger threats. Russia is a perfect case in point, if the EU gave a united front to Putin’s efforts to destabilise the Ukraine then it’s widely accepted that Putin will be forced to pull back from his attempts to widen Russian spheres of influence. For this to occur the EU Member States must stay united and continue the sanctions so that the costs of Putin's foreign policy outweigh the benefits of restoring Russian hegemony in the east.
One key figure within EU foreign affairs that is trying to find a resolution to the Ukrainian crisis is the former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is pressing for greater direct engagement with Putin as the best way to promote stability in the region. Whilst it is true that Russia and the EU have worked together in the past and there are many areas that can mutually benefit both sides from working together, what can’t be ignored this time are the irreproachable actions of the Russian state under Putin’s leadership. His unsanctioned actions are a throwback to the unilateral decisions taken in old Soviet days and this brings into question whether it is possible to reign in Russian state aggression with sanctions alone. If Russia continues to make ever more threatening moves towards the entire regional peace on Europe’s eastern border then it may be necessary to enact more forceful diplomatic actions.
The EU has recognised that before the Arab Spring the ENP and Euro Med Partnership legitimised and financed the autocratic regimes in the MENA at the expense of the EU's values. For the EU to move on from this mistake, it must work in genuine partnership with local actors to build a pluralistic civil society which will provide the bedrock for a 'deep democracy'. The EU has the financial might with the ENPI mechanism (€1 billion 2011-2013) to provide financial support and the incentives of “Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements” which will encourage the regional powers to work in line with EU regional policy. This will assist the EU’s goals in the region, though it is crucial that the EU keeps its word and does not make the same mistakes of working with autocratic figures instead of assisting the creation of a pluralistic democratic society.
However, the two concerns that led to the EU working with anti-democratic leaders before the Arab Spring have remerged; uncontrolled migration and the presence of Islamists. The EU provided external legitimacy and rent to autocratic rulers in the knowledge that they would 'stop the boats' and control Islamists, even though the methods of doing so were contrary to the EU's supposed norms. With fears of mass migration and terrorism throughout Europe, it is hard to see how a policy such as this can be implemented. It would be easier for the EU to renege on its promises and resort to once again Securitization policies.
Given the EU's recent decision to launch a naval mission to destroy the smuggler's boats, it is clear that the EU member states have resolved to militarise policy. Though appealing to the public and the MS, this strategy would not promote a more peaceful neighbourhood as EU risks a further militarisation and destabilisation of the region by engaging in military conflict with the smugglers groups. This could lead to the smugglers adopting even more extreme methods of sending the desperate refugees across the Mediterranean, leading to further suffering for those who are most vulnerable.
The challenges facing the European Union is the greatest since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is often remarked that external shocks have spurred the EU into improving their ability to shape their region and act as a cohesive actor. The current crises are such an external shock, if the member states can unify to reduce the Russian threat and fulfil their promises in the MENA region then the EU will be finally heading towards the role it should take as a global power that is promoting world peace and prosperity.