(11) European Union Crisis

Europe on the Brink -- A Wall Street Journal Documentary


11. Europe’s place in the world

THE EUROPEAN UNION’S HOPES that the Lisbon treaty would enable it to play a bigger global political role to match its economic weight were dealt a cruel blow by the onset of the euro crisis. That the Greek problem surfaced just as EU leaders were about to pick a new foreign-policy boss was especially galling. Over the past few years EU foreign policy has suffered not just because the euro crisis has been a distraction, but also because it has eaten away at the respect that the rest of the world previously had for a Europe that had long been considered an economic giant but a political pygmy.

The Maastricht treaty in 1992, building on arrangements previously known as European Political Co-operation, established a European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) as what was then called the EU’s “second pillar”, to be operated initially on an intergovernmental basis. Successive treaties expanded the scope and role of the CFSP, which was later brought under the normal community rules, though always subject to unanimous not majority voting. The 2009 Lisbon treaty then created the post of high representative for foreign and security policy, to be in charge of a new European External Action Service (EEAS). This formalised a job that was previously occupied by Spain’s Javier Solana, a former secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

Yet for all the aspirations of the treaties and despite the creation of new institutions, it has always been hard to secure the consent of member countries to a genuine common foreign policy. The main problem has been with the larger members, notably the UK and France, which continue to see themselves as having a global role of their own. Both are nuclear powers, as well as permanent members of the UN Security Council. The UK, in particular, has often frustrated hopes of the EU playing a bigger security or defence role, for instance blocking any suggestion of setting up an EU military headquarters. Although France under Sarkozy rejoined NATO’s military structure and hás embarked on direct military co-operation with the UK, it too has continued to aspire to a global role of its own, especially in Africa.

But it has often been almost as difficult to find unanimous agreement among other countries. Even as Maastricht was being negotiated and ratified, for example, the outbreak of war in the Balkans provided a first big test that Europe largely failed. It was the Germans who insisted in 1991 on the early recognition of Croatia, followed by other ex-Yugoslavian states; and it was Jacques Poos, the foreign minister of Luxembourg, who proclaimed this to be “the hour of Europe”.1 Yet subsequently the Europeans could not agree on whether or when to intervene in their own backyard, and it took the Americans to knock heads together and secure the Dayton agreement in 1995 that stopped most of the fighting in Bosnia.

Although in subsequent years there were more successful efforts to find consensus within the EU on smaller foreign-policy issues, it has often proved impossible on larger ones. There have been big differences among the larger EU countries on policy towards Russia, for instance, which the Russians under Vladimir Putin have gleefully exploited. And, as the Balkans showed, when it comes to war, the Europeans have more often been divided than united. Most obviously, the EU split over Iraq in 2003, with Germany and France joining Russia in opposing the war, while the UK, Italy, Spain and several countries from eastern Europe supported it (this was the time when the American defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, spoke of there being a new and an old Europe). A more recent example of division came over the 2011 war in Libya, which was prosecuted vigorously by the UK and France but opposed by Germany.


Foreign policy blues


The EU’s aspirations to build a stronger and more cohesive foreign policy to increase its influence in the world were never likely to be all that successful. But they have taken a further knock because of the euro crisis. By an unfortunate coincidence, the choice of the first new high representative came at the same time. The bargaining over names for jobs was, as usual, a shambles, with the UK’s prime minister, Gordon Brown, first trying to push David Miliband, the foreign secretary, into the job. In the end Miliband rejected it and the post went instead to the little-known Catherine Ashton, a former trade commissioner whose previous public-policy life was limited to running a health authority and serving in the UK’s House of Lords, and who had limited knowledge of or experience in foreign affairs. Predictably, the establishment of the new EEAS and the experiment with Ashton as a more powerful EU high representative have both been disappointing. Apart from her own limitations, the job has become almost too big for one person to do. As well as being high representative, she is a vice-president of the Commission, she chairs the Foreign Affairs Council and she is a guardian of British interests in Brussels. She was not given any deputies, even though the exigencies of the Job often require her to be in two places at once. Everything has taken longer than expected and Ashton has continued to be overshadowed not just by national foreign ministers but also by José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, and Herman Van Rompuy, the first permanent president of the European Council. The CFSP was supposed to sharpen the way the EU represented itself in the world, but the results have frequently seemed to do the opposite: both presidents as well as Ashton attend bilateral summits with the Americans, Russians and Chinese, for example. And the EU has continued to field too many assorted leaders at G8 and G20 summit meetings.

Even so, over the past year, Ashton has recorded some notable successes. These include a groundbreaking deal between Serbia and Kosovo that has enabled the first to open membership negotiations and the second to be given a membership perspective, ahead of Bosnia. Ashton has also been a key member of the team negotiating a tentative nuclear deal with Iran, which was in part her own personal achievement. She has become an indispensable partner of successive American secretaries of state, first Hillary Clinton and later John Kerry, with whom she has far more contact than most European foreign ministers ever do. She was the only diplomatic leader to meet the deposed Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, after his imprisonment. And she has played a leading role in negotiations to end the war in Syria. Yet despite all these achievements, the overall record of the EU in foreign policy has not been a strong one – and part of the reason for this has been the EU’s poor economic performance and the distraction of the euro crisis, which has reduced Europe’s overall influence.2

A further consequence of that crisis has been that defence budgets across Europe, already strained, have been further cut. In 2009 a European Council summit agreed to step up Europe’s military ambitions, with some talk of being able to deploy 60,000 troops within 60 days. But five years on little has come of this. The EU is meant to have two 1,500-strong battlegroups available at short notice, but none has ever been used. Overall, EU countries spend less than 1.5% of GDP on defence, far below both the agreed NATO target of 2% and the 4%-plus spent by the United States. Defence spending hás shrunk as a share of public spending. And the money is not spent as effectively as it could be were there to be more collaboration across borders.3 Successive American defence secretaries have continued to voice frustration as Europe has become in their eyes more of a consumer than a provider of security, a growing problem as the Americans pivot their attention towards Asia.

The experience with the onset of the Arab spring in January 2011, which coincided with one of the worst moments of the euro crisis, was illuminating. The Europeans, like the Americans, were taken by surprise by the sudden upsurge of people power, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt. The subsequent decision to intervene in Libya to stop a possible massacre in Benghazi by troops loyal to Muammar Qaddafi was taken by the British and French governments, with the Germans against (indeed, Germany chose to abstain in the vote in the UN Security Council, of which it was a temporary member). But after only a few days the two biggest European military powers were forced to call for more American help, including the provision of drones, air-to-air refuelling and stocks of smart bombs.4 Later, EU members were divided over whether and how to intervene in Syria, with the UK and France showing most interest in arming the rebels against the Assad regime, but Germany and others being broadly against (though the August 2013 vote of the UK House of Commons against intervention in Syria has curbed British enthusiasm for any military adventures).

In economic terms, the EU has also shown itself unable always to work out the most sensible response to the Arab spring. Grand talk by the Commission and the EEAS of the three Ms – money, markets and migration – has all too often run into the sand. Partly because of the euro crisis, there was never much on offer to support a policy that became known as “more for more”: the more Arab countries democratised, the more the EU would help them. Money was short. Fuller market access, particularly for agricultural products, has also been notable largely by its absence: three years after the Arab spring began, only Morocco has even begun negotiations on a deep free-trade deal with the EU. As for migration, hostility towards it has grown as the euro crisis has led to rising unemployment, especially in the southern Mediterranean countries. Far from providing more routes to legal migration, ever more resources have been poured into tightening controls on illegal immigration. Leaky boats carrying would-be immigrants continue to sink in the Mediterranean around the Italian island of Lampedusa, one of the nearest parts of the EU to north Africa. Over migration, indeed, the EU now stands towards north Africa rather as the United States stands towards Mexico – and a part of the reason for this is the dire economic consequences of the euro crisis in terms of jobs and growth at home.


Eastern questions


The EU’s relationship with countries to its east has also become more problematic in the past few  years. One reason for this is that the traditional policy of enlargement to admit new countries has run into trouble. Enlargement has often been described as the EU’s most successful foreign policy. In the 1980s, taking in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal was hugely important in securing their transition from military dictatorship to democratic government. Even more spectacular was the process after the collapse of the Soviet Union of letting most of the central and eastern European countries that had ormerly been under its sway into the European club. The transition of these countries to free-market economies and liberal democracy would have been far messier and might not have happened in all cases had it not been for the powerful lure of eventual EU  membership. The contrast between Europe’s success with transforming its eastern neighbours and the United States’ failure with its southern neighbours is telling.

Since the admission of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, however, the entire policy of enlargement has been under some threat. Part of the problem has been a growing disillusionment with past expansions of the EU. It is widely thought that Romania and Bulgaria were taken in as members before they were really ready; some of their present difficulties with a corrupt judiciary and political class could have been predicted in advance. Equally, Cyprus was allowed to join in 2004 even though the island’s division between a Greek-Cypriot south and a Turkish-Cypriot north remained unsolved.

Both the continuing Cyprus problem and Hungary’s precarious democracy have reminded the EU that the leverage it has over its members is far less potent than its leverage over applicants. And for much of public opinion in Europe, enlargement has become fatally linked to newly unpopular immigration, especially from Bulgaria and Romania following the lifting of remaining controls on free movement of labour on January 1st 2014.

Despite all this, the Commission argues forcefully that the enlargement process is continuing. Croatia was admitted as the EU’s 28th member in July 2013, and membership talks continue with Turkey and Montenegro (though talks with Iceland have been suspended). It is clear that the other western Balkan countries will eventually join the EU, if only because they have nowhere else to go. Indeed, it is only this prospect that has secured peace and stability in the region. Without the lure of EU membership, it would undoubtedly have been impossible to broker the 2013 deal between Serbia and its breakaway former province of Kosovo. Yet the reality is that the euro crisis, the broader malaise across the EU and increasing public hostility to unlimited immigration have combined to cast a pall over future enlargement.5


Who lost Turkey … and Ukraine?


This is seen most clearly in relation to the EU’s two biggest eastern neighbours, Turkey and Ukraine. After years of prevarication, including a negative Commission opinion on its membership application in 1987, it was seen as a triumph for both sides when at long last Turkey’s application was accepted in 2004 and membership negotiations were formally opened in October 2005. The Turkish government, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was eagerly pushing through big economic, social and political reforms to prepare the country for EU membership. Although substantial opposition persisted, especially in France, Germany and Austria, and although a disunited Cyprus remained a large obstacle, there was a genuine optimism that, maybe after another decade or so, Turkey might actually join the European club. Yet eight years on few people even pretend that the talks with Turkey are going anywhere. Half of the 33 chapters of the negotiations remain frozen, either by Cyprus, or by France or by the EU as a whole, because Turkey has not implemented the Ankara protocol requiring it to open its ports and airports to Greek-Cypriot vessels. Only one chapter has been closed; and, in the past two years, only one has been opened. Several EU countries have made clear that, partly in response to their current economic difficulties, they are much less prepared to take the gamble of letting Turkey in. European leaders, distracted by the euro crisis, have barely engaged with the issue of their relations with Turkey, which have soured spectacularly. Understandably, many Turks seem to have lost interest in an EU that they believe has rejected them, perhaps out of anti-Muslim prejudice. And the EU has in turn lost much of the old leverage it had to encourage further reform in Turkey, which has drifted under Erdogan in an authoritarian direction, especially since the Gezi Park protests of June 2013 and the corruption scandal that broke in December 2013. Erdogan’s attempt to rekindle the membership talks by visiting Brussels and Berlin in early 2014 and helping to revive talks on a Cyprus settlement have not done enough to repair Turkey’s damaged image in Europe. Recent stories of corruption in the ruling party, and the country’s growing economic difficulties, are creating renewed worries about Turkey’s suitability as an EU aspirant.6

A similarly sad story can be told for the six countries of the EU’s eastern partnership: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. After the Rose and Orange revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, followed by Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008, it looked as if, despite the Russian blockage on further expanding NATO, the Commission would at least be able to hold out a long-term prospect of EU membership to these countries. Yet once again European leaders took their eyes off the ball, partly because of the distraction of the euro crisis. At the Vilnius summit in November 2013, several countries, the biggest and most important of which was Ukraine, were meant to sign association agreements with the EU that could, eventually, have become a basis for possible membership. Instead, Russian pressure on Ukraine and some other countries to lean eastward paid off.

Only the relatively small Georgia and Moldova were persuaded to stick to their European ambitions. The sight of thousands of protesters on the streets and squares of a snowy Kiev, all waving EU flags to show their displeasure with the decision of their thuggish president, Viktor Yanukovych, to reject the EU association agreement in favour of closer links with Russia, was inspiring but also depressing. It was inspiring, because it showed how strong the appeal of ties with the EU still is to countries from the former Soviet block. But it was also depressing because, at least in part due to their own economic and political problems, EU leaders had paid too little attention to the admittedly dispiriting internal politics of Ukraine, allowing Russia quietly and insidiously to regain influence.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, was able to derail Ukrainian plans to move towards Europe by the simple expedient of offering a no-strings-attached loan and a sharp cut in the gas price, which the EU simply could not match.7

That Ukraine subsequently grabbed the whole world’s attention, especially during the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, was more to do with its own dysfunctional politics and the bravery of its protesters than with the EU. The Americans woke up to the situation, and especially to the interference of Putin, earlier than the Europeans; a truth that became starker when a leaked recording, presumably made by Russian security services, showed Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary for Europe in the State Department, saying to her ambassador in Kiev: “Fuck the EU.” When a few days later Yanukovych’s goons began to kill people in Kiev and elsewhere, matters rapidly spun out of his control. Soon enough he had been chased out of the capital and a new government was installed that may yet turn back towards the EU. But determined not to lose Ukraine, Putin promptly launched an invasion of Crimea.

In mid-March 2014 Crimea, under the gaze of occupying Russian troops, declared its independence from Ukraine and asked to join the Russian Federation instead. The EU and the United States responded with a visa freeze and other sanctions on named individuals, as Russian forces gathered threateningly on the border with eastern Ukraine. The eventual outcome in Ukraine remains highly uncertain. But what seems clear is that the EU (and the West) drifted into its biggest confrontation with Russia since the cold war in part as an accidental by-product of its eastern neighbourhood policy, which distracted political leaders had left largely in the hands of Commission officials.


The EU’s hopes of playing a bigger role in the world and in its neighbourhood were always going to be hard to realise. A declining share of the world’s population and GDP, the rise of countries like Brazil, China and India and a diminishing appetite for military intervention have inevitably taken their toll. Yet the EU is still the world’s biggest economy and single trading block. Had the crisis not sapped its economic power and its political will, it surely would have been able to exert a bigger foreign-policy influence than it has managed over the past five years, especially in its own neighbourhood. In short, the baleful effects of the euro crisis have been seen not just at home, but also in the EU’s fading global clout.




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