Colossal external problems are coming Europe’s way. And yet, there are few signs that the 28 nations that form the European Union will start acting on their shared threats and interests in a more unified, forceful, and muscular way anytime soon.
Some blame austerity for this inaction. Others say the EU was never made to do foreign policy. And yet others maintain that Europeans are just naive and immature surrender monkeys who cling to wishful thinking and simplistic ideas about how the world works.
None of that is true. The underlying reasons why European foreign policy sleeps go much deeper. Four fundamental factors are at play : identities, institutions, external neglect, and internal disinterest.
THREATENED IDENTITIES ?
First, Europeans feel that the threat to their national identities is currently greater than the threat to their physical security. Take a good look at what people really discuss outside the op-ed pages of the larger newspapers, and the chances are you will get entangled in debates on illegal immigration, Islamization, crimes committed by foreigners, domestic culture changing beyond recognition, taxpayers’ money being wasted on people far away, and so on.
These topics dominate the political discourse in the EU’s three biggest countries—Germany, France, and Britain—and in a large number of other nations as well, including Austria, the Netherlands, and Hungary.
Identity-driven debates tend to affect citizens much more directly and emotionally than seemingly abstract issues such as Russia’s menace to the European political order, the so-called Islamic State’s threat to stability in the Middle East, China’s challenge to the global balance of power, or Iran’s quest for nuclear arms.
The security threats that analysts wring their hands over are mostly of secondary importance for ordinary folks. And if ordinary folks are not greatly concerned, politicians prefer not to open a can of worms. This is especially true if that can of worms means building a cohesive pan-European response to a challenge, or weighing up the prospect of increased military spending.
The second reason for Europe’s torpor is that there is not a single EU institution that could credibly formulate a shared European interest. Pro-integrationists tend to believe that either the European Commission or the European Parliament is capable of such a task. But neither of them is.
Parts of the commission come closest to the ideal of being the advocate of a genuinely common EU interest. But these are the branches of the EU’s executive that defend joint interests on questions of trade or the single market, neither of which really goes to the heart of classical foreign policy.
The arm of the commission that did once try to promote a common EU line on external issues has been transformed into the European External Action Service. But so far, this body has been too powerless, too heavily controlled by the member states, and too badly managed to become the vanguard of EU foreign policy leadership.
As for the European Parliament, it does not represent the unified political will of a European body politic—despite its desperate claims to do just that. The parliament’s positions often represent little more than the worldview of its members, a specific caste of Europoliticians awkwardly positioned between their narrow national mandates, European loftiness, and structural unaccountability.
In theory, the European Parliament’s strong focus on values and principles is a good thing. But as this emphasis is not coupled with the more realist world of executive decisionmaking, it frequently ends up as mere moral grandstanding.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the institution most prone to hammering out something that resembles a shared EU interest is the Council of the European Union. Representing the member-state governments, the council has the strongest democratic mandate of all the Brussels-based institutions. But the body’s members also jealously guard national prerogatives on foreign policy and therefore often fail to come up with compromises that are substantial enough to survive first contact with the real world.
In the absence of an institution that could credibly and meaningfully formulate a pan-European foreign policy, the EU’s action abroad is bound to remain incohesive, divided, weak, and, with rare exceptions, generally unimpressive.
A DISENGAGED UNITED STATES
The third limitation on EU external action is the shifting role of the United States. Washington cares less about Europe than it used to and therefore presses Europe less to get its act together.
Arguably the EU’s biggest foreign policy achievement of the past five years is its unprecedented and lasting unity on sanctions against Iran in light of the country’s nuclear program. But behind this unity lies a dirty little secret : massive U.S. pressure on the Europeans, including regulatory pressure by U.S. government agencies on European companies that do business with Tehran.
It is a generally unspoken truth that EU foreign policy activity often relies on U.S. leadership. This is true in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, on most matters of security and defense, and, more recently, in the fight against the Islamic State. America has been the pusher, the limiter, the conceptualizer, and the equipper of EU foreign policy. It has also been the provider of trust to Europeans, guaranteeing that no EU country would become too dominant in the continent’s external affairs, thereby defusing potential internal tensions from the outset.
But these days, that kind of U.S. leadership is rare and often halfhearted, further diminishing the EU’s already low level of foreign policy energy.
THE UNAMBITIOUS BIG THREE
The fourth factor behind the EU’s lethargy is the fact that the union’s three leading nations all withhold proper investment in EU foreign policy.
Britain is interested in parts of the EU’s external affairs but lacks the attachment to European integration that could make the country a leader. France pretends to show an interest but is hampered by unrealistic bouts of national pride and dramatically reduced credibility and resources. Germany, in theory, has the resources but suffers from a combination of traditional passivity, newly discovered unilateral appetites, and a military shyness that greatly reduces its influence.
The EU suffers from rampant identity issues, weak institutions, a largely absent external shepherd, and three uncommitted internal leaders. When these four shortcomings are combined, a formidable mix of root causes for Europe’s foreign policy sclerosis emerges. It is no surprise that external players who are only too keen to exploit Western weakness think that Europe is a spent force.