Surprise: still no unified foreign policy for the EU

A few weeks ago EU foreign ministers met in Brussels and showed, yet again, that the European Union is unable to meet the world head on with its own unified foreign policy, but rather still relies on France, the UK, and other world powers to do its dirty work.

After the Islamic State (IS) targeted the Yazidi community, the West decided to take a more active role in the conflict, with the US conducting air strikes to weaken IS. The US has said it will not send troops “on the ground” as to not drag itself into another invasion, the prospect of which continues to be hugely unpopular with the American public.

Meanwhile, after the US strikes, France announced it would send arms to the Kurds and the Yazidis to help them fend off IS. The UK’s prime minister David Cameron then upped his rhetoric regarding the situation, saying that the UK should help defeat the “monstrous” IS. While the UK (and France) also do not want to send in troops, the British government has stated that it will do more to help the Kurds and Yazidis, with the foreign secretary saying the mission could last months.

All of this was the backdrop to the Council meeting held to discuss, among many things, the situation in Iraq. In their conclusions, the Foreign Affairs Council stated that it welcomed the decisions that have already been made by the EU itself and its MS in providing humanitarian aid. The Council mentions the European Emergency Response Coordination Centre, and the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism–both being means to provide humanitarian aid. However it has been clear that within Europe, it has been France and the UK that have the best capabilities to deliver the aid and to do it quickly, as situations like these are constantly changing on the ground and require quick action that the EU cannot deliver.

The Council then condemns the abuses of human rights in the conflict and calls for action. However, the EU “welcomes the US efforts to support the Iraqi national and local authorities in their fight against ISIL.” Here is the old pattern of relying on the United States to use its armed forces and military strength to take control of the situation. Besides being outdated, this is a losing strategy for the EU that continues to risk irrelevance at the global stage. Being a soft power can only take you so far. The EU should have its own efforts welcomed, instead of the reverse.

In its conclusions, the Council also says:


“The Council also welcomes the decision by individual Member States to respond positively to

the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently military material. Such

responses will be done according to the capabilities and national laws of the Member States,

and with the consent of the Iraqi national authorities. The EU will assess how to prevent ISIL

benefitting from oil sales and condemns those funding the ISIL in contravention of UNSCR

1267 and subsequent resolutions. The Ministers invite the European External Action Service

to ensure a stronger presence in Erbil. “

Here is the starkest example of an EU that still relies on its Member States (France and the UK) to carry out military efforts while the institution in Brussels condemns human rights abuses that it has no control  or influence over. The EU will never be able to be taken seriously in the world if it cannot unite its efforts, even when most MS agree on a situation like the one in Iraq. If the institutions themselves are welcoming MS providing arms according “to the capabilities and national laws of the Member States,” then there is no hope for an EU-wide common foreign policy.

This reliance on France and the UK happens anytime there is a conflict that requires military action. In part because France and the UK tend to be the only MS with capabilities but also the will to take military action. While Germany may finally be wanting to take a stronger role in foreign policy, it is still far from the other two MS.

And while peace has been constant within the EU’s borders, the recent crisis in Ukraine and the EU’s newly frosty relationship with Russia proves that it is imperative that the EU is able to not only defend itself but also speak coherently. Even after Russia and the EU exchanged sanctions, some eastern MS (Hungary, Slovakia) criticized the sanctions against Russia. It’s clear that huge differences within the Union remain, hindering any hope of a real common foreign policy. For the eastern MS, memories are fresh of the 2009 cutting off of gas by Russia (via Ukraine) when many people had no heating in the cold winter. Meanwhile, houses in Paris and London were still warm, and so this crisis does not resonate in the same way.

If the EU wants any kind of relevance in the modern world, it needs to come together on at least the big foreign policy issues of the day, such as Iraq. It needs to create situations where most MS can agree on action to be taken under its own flag, and not under 28 flags. If it wants to be taken seriously, it cannot sit in its corner and condemn the human rights abuses. It cannot also assume that it is safe from any military action, as the Ukraine crisis reveals. With American  public opinion (and to a lesser extend in Washington) swiftly moving towards supporting a more isolationist policy, the EU’s reliance on the US is a losing strategy. The EU does not need to become heavily militarized. Using the capabilities it already has within its MS, it needs to combine those to be a force in the world, and to have a credible voice during times of conflict and crisis.


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