EU Foreign Policy: More Grand Delusion than Grand Strategy

by Eliz Peck

24 May 2019

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron after the signing of a new Germany-France friendship treaty at the historic Town Hall in Aachen, Germany on Tuesday, 22 January 2019. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner).

Henry Kissinger once said that “no foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is born in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none”. With the EU divided not just between – but within – its member states, a united EU foreign and security policy seems less likely than ever to succeed, regardless of the strength of its leaders.

The job title ‘High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy’ sounds important. And yet, relatively few everyday people living in the EU have probably heard of Federica Mogherini, or her job. In June 2016, Mogherini’s office published a European Union Global Strategy. It projected its vision of the EU’s grand strategy. In its introduction she urgently called for a united EU foreign and security policy in the face of “increasingly fractured identities.” Her calls came following the crises in Libya, Syria and Ukraine, where the EU proved itself an inadequate foreign policy actor, incapable of coordinating amongst its member states an effective and timely response to international crises.

It is misguided to simply attribute these foreign policy failures to weak political leadership. At state-level, leaders of the larger European countries have been as pro-active as domestic contexts have allowed in seeking to combat international crises. Chancellor Merkel sacrificed her political longevity when she threw open Germany’s doors in 2015 in response to the migrant crisis, asserting Wir Schaffen Das (‘We Can Do This’). The growth of the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) party can be traced back to Merkel’s ambitious open-door refugee-policy. This domestic backlash pushed her to back-peddle on a liberal policy, instead striking a deal with Turkey in March 2016 that would curb the number of refugees arriving in Europe.

Although countries can cooperate in certain foreign policies, grand strategy is typically the preserve of an individual state. Hal Brands, Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, sees grand strategy as “a purposeful and coherent set of ideas about what a nation seeks to accomplish in the world”. At their very core, grand strategy and foreign policy are a projection of the values and identity of the state. We see this clearly in President Truman’s policy of ‘containment’ between 1945 and 1953, which Brands describes as ‘the golden age of grand strategy’. First articulated in George Kennan’s so-called Long Telegram, the strategy of containment sought to mobilise the military, economic and diplomatic resources of the American state during the Cold War in order to mitigate the rise of their ideological and strategic rival, the USSR. Viewed from this perspective, the Marshall Plan not only aimed for a peaceful post-war economic reconstruction of Europe but sought to promote capitalist notions of liberty and prosperity that lie at the very heart of the American Dream.

Launching a coordinated European grand strategy for multiple states and multiple identities was always going to be tough. What is more, the EU is vast. Individual strategic priorities differ because of the way that they are shaped by historical context and the geo-political landscape. Russian aggrandisement is a pressing concern for Eastern European countries like Poland, but not for Southern European countries like Italy who are struggling with the flow of migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

No issue more clearly illustrates the failure to coordinate a single EU grand strategy than the rise of China. Despite the recently published EU-China document deeming China a ‘systemic rival’ and calling for ‘full unity’ in EU responses, the member states have nevertheless prioritised national interests over falling in line with Brussels. This is seen in the growing bilateral links between China and the Central and Eastern European states – the so-called 16+1 group, eleven of whom are in the EU – who are hungry for Belt and Road investments. In March 2019, President Macron tried to show a united front when he invited Chancellor Merkel and European Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker to his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He triumphantly claimed “The face of a Europe that speaks with one voice on the international scene is emerging.” Only days later, this claim was undermined when Italy became the first G7 partner to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with China, endorsing the Belt and Road.

The new critical focus on EU foreign and security policy comes in the wake of the radically changed geopolitical landscape. Before 2016, there was little desire for a coordinated EU foreign policy as outlined in the EU Global Strategy. After plans for a European Army were abandoned in 1954, the European integration project was first economic and later political. Secure in their defensive NATO alliance, and on American support for individual foreign policy, the larger EU countries felt an officially coordinated foreign policy with their non-NATO neighbours was not a priority.

Yet Trump’s erratic ‘America First’ policies have thrown doubt on the previously steadfast NATO pact. In a somewhat frantic response, EU countries have had to look to each other for support. The 2017 formation of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – an EU defence union – and Macron’s proposal of a European Intervention Initiative (E2I) at Sorbonne can be viewed in this light.

But this comes too little, too late. The time for establishing the groundwork for a common foreign and security policy was when times were good, not now. Euroscepticism dominates today’s political landscape. The rise of the far-right in Hungary and Poland, the populism of Brexit and Italy’s Five Star Movement and the domestic turmoil facing Macron and Merkel are calling into question certain values – multilateral cooperation and human rights, to name a few – that are the founding assumptions of EU cooperation. What we see now is a crisis of identity that goes to the very heart of the European project.

Collaboration between these countries is not impossible. The success of Europol and the European Counter Terrorism Centre show that states unite against a common-enemy. EU foreign policy has been even more effective in coordinating maritime missions aimed to disrupt acts of Somali-piracy based off the Horn of Africa, which threaten trade routes off the Gulf of Aden. But arguably, this success traces to the clear economic incentive for participation; most other foreign policy issues do not have such direct economic benefits. Without a wholehearted commitment to the European project, states will run into difficulty.

The last time the European territories’ foreign and security policies were coordinated under one single grand strategy was under Charlemagne, the ‘Father of Europe’ who died in the year 814 and was buried in Aachen. President Macron and Chancellor Merkel symbolically met there at the start of this year, in a show of solidarity and mutual commitment more than half a century after the Élysée Treaty was signed. Designed as a show of strength and renewed commitment, the limited progress made at the meeting only reinforced just how difficult foreign and security coordination is in the context of the current European disharmony.

Eliz Peck is an MA candidate in Conflict, Security and Development at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. You can follow her on Twitter @PeckEliz

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