Alphen, Netherlands. 28 July. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail the somewhat weak-kneed and weak of will Sir Robin confronted by the Three-Headed Knight says to King Arthur, “Would it help to confuse him if we ran away more?” I was reminded of this scene when doing a TV interview yesterday to discuss the debacle of the EU’s pathetic non-response to MH17 and Russia’s continuing proxy and not-so proxy aggression in Eastern Ukraine. Unless Moscow changes tack something even bigger and nastier is about to happen. Russia is now locked onto a course that somehow or another will see it take another part of Ukraine. And yet in the face of such aggression EU member-states seem more interested in fighting each other than blunting Russian ambitions. Yet again EU foreign policy has been proved not to work. Why?
Yesterday Sir Tony Brenton the former British ambassador to Moscow discussed the crisis. He told a story that explains all too graphically why the EU routinely fails in a crisis. While serving in Moscow he received the text for the May 2003 “EU-Russia Common Spaces” agreement. This long-term plan suggested four grand spaces: a Common Economic Space; a Common Space for Freedom, Security and Justice; a Common Space of External Security; and a Common Space of Research and Education. So meaninglessly lofty was the document and so lacking in diplomatic substance that Sir Tony read it out to his appalled staff. This EU fantasy was about as far as one could get from applied statecraft.
It highlighted the three essential dilemmas of the EU and its so-called external relations. First, EU external relations only work so long as no-one really tests it. That is why Brussels loves the long-term and the meaningless language of unstrategic ‘strategic partnerships’. Second, the only crisis the EU really focuses on is the eternal internal crisis that the EU has become. One only has to look at the ridiculously labyrinthine structure of the European External Action Service to recognise it is just about the worst possible instrument to conduct real time crisis management. Third, as soon a crisis breaks the member-states are far more concerned about using the EU to shift the burdens and costs of crisis management onto other member-states than actually confronting the challenge.
That is precisely what happened this week. On Tuesday EU foreign ministers met to discuss tougher sanctions on Russia in the wake of MH 17. They could not agree. Britain wanted to protect its financial services sector, France wanted to protect its warships deal, Germany wanted to protect the 25,000 German jobs dependent on the oil and gas sector it shares with Russia, and Italy did not want anything that would reveal the Faustian energy pact it has struck with Moscow. Only those Central and Eastern European members in the firing line of Putinism were really willing to confront the wider strategic implications of Moscow’s actions which had been re-iterated by President Putin as recently as his 1 July speech to Russian diplomats.
As usual when there is an impasse the European Commission was sent away to consider more sanctions. The draft document that emerged yesterday and which will be discussed by ministers today was archetypal of all that is wrong with EU foreign and security policy. It was little more than a blatant Franco-German attempt to shift almost all the cost of any further sanctions onto Britain and the City of London. So much for the impartiality of the European Commission. And, far from deterring Russia this absurdly unbalanced document if enforced would probably do more to push Britain closer to an EU exit than damage Russia.
The consequence is not just an expensive foreign policy white elephant, and the EU is certainly that. So much political energy is expended by EU member-states trying to out-manoeuvre each other for narrow, short-term gain within the EU (in EU parlance the search for common positions and joint action) that their own national foreign policies are gravely weakened. Britain is a classic example of this. For that reason the EU foreign and security policy whole is far smaller than the parts of its sum resulting in a Europe that punches way below its weight not just in the world but also in Europe.
In the long-term either Europeans move towards a genuine EU foreign policy or they renationalise their efforts to enable the construction of coalitions of like-minded states. The problem with the former idea is that it would require an EU Foreign Ministry which would in turn need a country called ‘Europe’. The problem with the latter idea is that it would mean an end to the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The bottom-line is this; until Russia sees that Europeans are prepared to face economic pain to blunt Moscow’s ambitions they will continue to regard the EU as somewhat of a foreign policy joke; an institution long on grand declaratory rhetoric and very short on power and substance. And, until all Europeans are prepared to share such pain equitably then any and all such efforts will do more damage to each other than the intended miscreant.
If Europeans continue to hide a no man’s land of foreign policy irrelevance and incompetence they will be victims of the twenty-first century rather than shapers of it. So, what will the EU and its member-states do to blunt President Putin’s ambitions? Run away more. That should confuse the blighter!