by David Innerhuber – Junior Fellow
29th September 2013. Security and Defence, Issue 3, No.7.
The EU somehow managed to cover up its failure in Libya and Mali, but the disaster of its Syria policy cannot be squashed as easily. The time has come for the member states to ask themselves how far they want to go in terms of a common foreign and security policy. In the end it might be better for Europe to stick to those tasks that it can actually accomplish as a Union, instead of chasing an illusion of itself that it will never be able materialise.
Over the civil war in Syria, European foreign policy experienced one of its darkest hours. In May this year, EU foreign ministers could not come to an agreement about the arms embargo against Syria with the effect that it eventually expired – which was probably the best solution anyway. Then, in August, the House of Commons thwarted David Cameron’s foreign policy aspirations. And finally, at the recent G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, German chancellor Angela Merkel hesitated to sign a document calling on the international community to adopt a tougher line of action against the Assad regime. The time has come for the European Union to realise that, unlike in economic terms, it is not a global player when it comes to foreign and security policy. Instead, it is rather a backbencher of international politics. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Russia and the United States negotiated the chemical weapons solution in Geneva above the heads of the Europeans.
A disaster is a disaster. There is no way around the fact that over Syria, European foreign policy experienced one of its darkest hours. In May this year European foreign ministers – pressured by France and Britain – had to abandon the arms embargo against Syria to save at least the progress that had been made on the economic sanctions. This shows how weak the foundation of European foreign policy really is. From hindsight, of course, it seemed reasonable to clear the way for arms deliveries to the Syrian rebels. The British and French argument that this would increase the pressure on the Assad regime cannot be dismissed. And it also made sense to equip the more moderate factions of the Syrian rebels so that after the fall of Assad, they would be able to contain the radical Islamist militias. But, of course, the European dispute over Syria was not about exchanging reasonable arguments.
The second blow to Europe’s Syria policy came with the House of Common’s ‘No’ to any British military intervention in Syria. This vote marks a historical break in terms of both Britain’s domestic and foreign policy. It was the first time since 1782 that a prime minister could not secure parliamentary backing for a military engagement. Some media commentators called it the worst mistake in British foreign policy since the Suez-crisis. In the long-term, Britain will have to redefine her role in international politics. Having lost control over Britain’s foreign and security policy, it will be hard for David Cameron to retain his role of political heavyweight in the world. Even 44 members of his own party voted against him or abstained, as did 22 members of his coalition partner party. Critics claimed that Cameron acted precipitately and tactically wrong in the run-up to the vote. Not only did he cancel his own holiday ahead of schedule, he also reconvened Parliament before the official end of the summer break. Moreover, he invested his entire foreign policy capital by declaring that Assad’s use of chemical weapons must not remain unpunished. Foreign Minister William Hague asserted that, in his opinion, a military intervention in Syria would be legitimate even without a UN mandate. From hindsight, it would have been wiser for Cameron to wait for the final report of the UN investigators.
The latest inconsistency of European foreign policy followed soon after, at the recent G-20 summit in St. Petersburg, when German chancellor Angela Merkel hesitated to sign a joint paper of the western heads of states, calling for tougher international actions against the Assad regime. The reasons for Germany’s reluctance are subject to speculation. Merkel herself stated that she would only sign the paper upon approval of its content by all the foreign ministers of the EU that were supposed to meet the next day in Vilnius. At that time, of course, Merkel knew that a unanimous approval was almost impossible and this suited her very well given the upcoming parliamentary elections in Germany. On the day of the EU foreign affairs council, however, unpredictable events unfolded, when Russia proposed a diplomatic solution to the chemical weapons crisis that allowed the western leaders to avoid any military intervention. Assad’s agreement to dismantle his chemical weapons programme made it easy for the EU foreign ministers to find a common position and Merkel subsequently signed the paper which, by that time of course, was already obsolete. This was the second time that Germany refused to support a democratic uprising in the Middle East. Back in 2011, Foreign Minister Westerwelle abstained from the UN Security Council’s vote on Resolution 1973 calling for the implementation of a no-fly zone in Libya. Despite the striking similarities to the Kosovo crisis in 1998/99, Germany now fails to find an adequate response to the events that are commonly referred to as the ‘Arab Spring’. This is quite intriguing as the intervention in Libya was easier to justify since all the legal, political and moral conditions were met. Obviously, domestic party politics are more important to the current government than Germany’s historical policy of alliances. What will be remembered of the Merkel administration’s foreign policy, therefore, are the failures and mistakes of a civil power without civil courage. Failing to support people in need, it will be difficult for Germany to hold her ground in this tumultuous world.
The same is true, of course, for the European Union as a whole. Its inability to pull together even in the UN Security Council, shows that the common foreign and security policy is nothing but an empty promise. The fundamental problem is that there are some commonalities but even more differences. Time and again, France and Britain follow their instincts as former great powers with particular national interests far from their borders. They think in geo-strategic dimensions and carefully consider all their options – including the military ones. Unlike Germany which, due to its history, is feeling slightly insecure when it comes to international politics, France and Britain are not yet ready to completely subordinate their national interests to the European common foreign and security policy. Apart from the diverging national interests of the 28 EU member states and Germany’s traditional reluctance, the complexity of European decision-making processes can be seen as another reason for France’s and Britain’s frequent unilateral or bilateral actions. The revolution in Libya would have been defeated and Mali would now be controlled by terrorist groups, if France and Britain had waited for their European partners to agree on a common position. In that sense, both countries act for the benefit of Europe because the situations in Libya and Mali posed a threat to the European Union as a whole. So far, European foreign policy proved unable to react not only to single humanitarian crises, but also to the fact that the United States, by way of their inconsistent Middle East policy, have produced a dangerous political vacuum in that region which is so important to European security.
An EU that takes months to reach even the most shallow agreement simply does not have the stature to fill this vacuum. Those dreaming of a common foreign policy might not like it, but here France and Britain at least try to bridge a gap. The EU somehow managed to cover up its failure in Libya and Mali, but the disaster of its Syria policy cannot be squashed as easily. The time has come for the member states to ask themselves how far they want to go in terms of a common foreign and security policy. A rational dialogue on that topic is not possible, however, unless the EU realises that it is not the global political power that it thinks it is. In the end it might be better for Europe to stick to those tasks that it can actually accomplish as a Union, instead of chasing an illusion of itself that it will never be able materialise.
David Innerhuber is contactable at:
Please cite this article as:
Innerhuber, D. (2013). ‘Syria and the Inconsistency of the European Foreign and Security Policy’
Human Security Centre, Defence and Security, Issue 3, No. 7.