Tough mandate ahead for Ms Mogherini in the echoes of the “Arab spring”

Posted on 08. December 2014

by Zuzana Novakova

Reflections on the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum

Zuzana Novakova NEWMs Mogherini inherits a tough mandate and troubled relations with the EU’s Southern neighbours as she takes on the role of High Representative for Foreign Affairs, three years after the beginning of the “Arab Spring”. As the events unfolded it became clear that Europe could not influence the core regional actors; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Iran did not even seem to care that much about the EU as a policy-maker. Despite this shift in power relations, the EU still has a role to play…and not a secondary one.Europe’s core interests require effective relations with its immediate surroundings, and the European neighbourhood is undoubtedly a showcase for the Union’s actual foreign policy performance. So, with the new EU leadership settling in in their new offices, what needs to change for the EU to have more effective relations with this particular region?

1. Address the EU’s own priorities. Between security and values is the space where Europe seems to waver perpetually: it’s faced with the dilemma between what is beneficial for Europe’s immediate security on one hand vs. what should be done to support the bottom-up demands and the much needed transitions on the other. At the moment, the various areas of cooperation under the umbrella of the European Neighbourhood Policy seem to fluctuate between these two, sending a mixed message.

2. Improve European crisis management and policy coordination, between the EU institutions on the one hand and between the EU institutions and the Member States on the other. The Commission’s diverse departments and the European External Action Service sometimes do not seem to dance to the same tune, while all 28 Member States each have their own divergent interests, capabilities and vulnerabilities. The quest to speak with one voice in foreign policy might perhaps seem like an unobtainable objective at first glance. However, most Member States are losing international leverage as they face a non-Europecentric century: with the economic and political rise of the BRICS, MINTS, the imminent reform of the global multilateral governance, the reorientation of the US’ foreign policy and its retreat from providing the security umbrella that Europe has long benefitted from and  the resonating effects of recent (political, economic, social and institutional) crises strangling the capacity of many Member States to invest into any robust independent external action, a true European foreign policy could be the only way to leverage the weight of EU within formations of new multilateralism.

3. Consider the size of the ‘carrot’ that is offered and the way it is used.  The EU might be small politically, but it remains the biggest trade partner of many of the transitioning countries. And even if these countries’ trade volumes with the EU were to be combined they still would only account for a relatively small share of the EU’s total external trade volume. Europe could enhance its use of trade policies to improve socio-economic development in these transitioning countries. The incentives should offset the costs of turning towards the EU and should be beneficial to a country’s entire population, not just the elites. Perhaps seriously easing mobility, especially circular migration, might be a struggle worth fighting in this context.

4. Take a step beyond the Eurocentrism of the current policies. Any cooperation should acknowledge that Europe is only one of the many players in the region and that more often than not it doesn’t dominate all the fields. The EU can no longer afford not to work together with other regional and external actors; it’s the only way to avoid a situation analogous to the developments leading to the escalation of events in Ukraine.

5. Reconsider the (neo)liberal nature of current cooperation frameworks. The EU needs to go beyond the focus on the formal liberal institutions and look closer at the role of the informal institutions in Southern Mediterranean societies as the societal and political-economic transitions in the region unfold. It will also need to look beyond the usual focus on governments, elections and civil society, in order to better understand the nature of the regimes and their economic and social embedding in the respective societies and the ways to engage with these.  The construction of the EU’s knowledge about the ‘context and actors’ strongly shapes its reaction; the framing very much determines the response.

After a decade of European Neighbourhood Policy and taking into account the changing realities, perhaps it is time for a completely new approach. New realities often require new ideas, not just another round of repackaging old tools and instruments.