If we think back to the many crucial events and developments that unfolded in 2011, it is difficult to think of a moment in which the EU was perceived to be a crucial player in world affairs.
From the Arab Spring, to the intervention in Libya or negotiations with Iran over the termination of its nuclear programme, none of them involved a strong ‘global actor EU’, but merely a number of EU countries dominating the agenda, mainly driven by national concerns rather than a broader European program. When the EU did make global headlines, it was due to its internal crisis situation with both the single currency and the European project itself threatening to be gradually swept away by the joint forces of global markets, credit rating agencies and a dwindling economy.
Many have taken the crisis of the EU as a final sign that Europe truly has become an old continent, unable to reform itself and adapt to the changing circumstances and requirements of the global system. Despite considerable institutional changes within the Lisbon Treaty to improve the EU’s foreign policy structure – and in particular with the consolidation of the post of the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs – the Union has not emerged to be more than the sum of its parts, broadly united in aims and values, articulating a common foreign policy agenda. 2011 has proven to be yet another disappointing example, with member states preferring to tackle major foreign policy challenges alone or in small coalitions, rather than through adopting a collective view of 27.
In many ways – given the dominance of individual member states in this area of EU policy-making – this may not come as a surprise; however, many have argued that the EU’s response to events such as the Arab Spring or the Libyan intervention should have been stronger given their geographical proximity. In particular the Arab Spring, involving a number of countries that the EU was already engaged with through its policies in the Southern Mediterranean, might have prompted a leading role by the EU in reaction to and support of the protests in countries such as Tunisia or Egypt. While High Representative Baroness Ashton responded with general statements of support and a half-hearted commitment to improve the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), a fundamental re-launch of its relations with its southern periphery did not happen and the EU remained a marginal actor in the process.
Even more catastrophic was the EU’s response in the run-up to the intervention in Libya during which it was absent as a credible actor in the negotiations. Deep division within the Union on major foreign policy questions was also evident with Germany refusing to follow France and Britain’s lead to engage in limited intervention.
While it can certainly be argued that the EU missed the significant foreign policy opportunities of 2011 to heighten its profile as an international actor, its small achievements should not go unnoticed. Under the leadership of Ashton, the EU managed to secure a major breakthrough in its representation at the United Nation pushing through a resolution at the UN Council, which grants the EU delegation the right to the speak on behalf of the EU. Likewise, Ashton’s efforts in engaging with post-conflict Libya have been impressive, taking a leading role in strengthening the credibility of the Libyan Transitional National Council.
Overall it is clear that the events and developments in 2011 did little to dispel the doubts over the credibility and abilities of the EU as an international actor. It still exhibits considerable internal barriers to a common foreign policy approach, wasting and duplicating capabilities as well as the resources to improve its own institutions as the discussion over the funding of the EEAS earlier this year exemplified. At the same time, it has not been able to use some of the foreign policy challenges of 2011 to strengthen its capabilities in this area.
It is certainly true that part of the reason for the EU’s weak engagement internationally is due to the fact that for most of 2011 it has been grappling with a deep economic and financial crisis that has gradually escalated during the second half of 2011. However, the EU cannot afford an exclusive focus on its internal problems as the developments in North Africa will have a profound impact on the wider stability of the region and especially the EU’s southern members. With 2011 ending in a climate of uncertainty about the future of EU internal developments, its outward stance on major foreign policy questions should not.