The European continent, like never before, is facing a number of security threats the like of which it has not seen since the collapse of communism some twenty years ago. To the south of Europe Islamic fundamentalism is wreaking havoc to previously oppressed, though stable, societies whilst to the east Russia has opted to play old-world war-games rather than become part of an integrated modern, prosperous, inter-connected global economy.
As the European continent grapples with how to deal with this new reality many turn to the European Union for answers. What does the EU have to say on the crisis in Ukraine? What role is it playing in arresting the spread of terrorism? Why is it not doing more to solve security issues that affect EU citizens? Why is it (or is it not as the case may be) taking a stronger stance on ISIS?
The more pertinent question should be what role can the EU play in crises that affect Europe’s security given its many limitations. Many erroneously believe that the EU is somehow either responsible for the emergence of the crises (as in the Ukraine) or is somehow capable of solving Europe’s increasing security challenges (as in the Middle East).
In reality, when it comes to security threats the EU is a pretty ineffectual beast. That has not stopped many of the EU’s detractors from muddying the waters and confusing people’s minds. To address this issue and in answer to those who accuse the EU of being too timid, too inept, too aggressive or too expansionist EU Perspectives intends to shine some light on the role of the EU in an increasingly conflict-prone world.
The limitations of an EU response
The EU, in short, was not created to resolve international conflicts. Although the EU was established at a time when the European continent was locked into the mother of all frozen conflicts – the Cold War it was never assigned a role in responding to the then East-West stale-mate. The EU is first and foremost a creature of the first and second world war and the perceived need to avoid armed conflict between the member states not to solve armed conflicts outside of the member states. As such the founders of the EU decided not to give the EU any executive powers but resolved to grant the EU a European Court of Justice to adjudicate on commercial disputes.
Which explains why the EU has developed a highly sophisticated and effective judiciary but has never purchased, commissioned nor owned a single highly sophisticated military tank. As the EU evolved and prospered so too its Core Values now enshrined in the EU Treaties namely: democracy, freedom, human rights, non-discrimination and the rule of law. These Core Values, combined with policies that seek to facilitate trade and commerce have made the EU the largest global economy in the world and the reason why so many of her neighbours want in.
Admittedly, over the years, there has been some flirtation with security and defence issues but the reality is that the EU has focused largely on matters relating to trade, the economy and finance whilst leaving security and defence issues to the member states and/or other international organisations such as the UN, NATO and the OSCE. The creation of a European President and European High Representative is one way in which the EU has sought to represent itself on the international stage. But neither of these roles, although high profile, can be described in anyway as executive. The EU has no military capabilities, it has no intelligence service, it has no police-force and in so far as it has a foreign policy it is in pursuit of the EU’s trading interests not its security interests.
In terms of economic capabilities the EU can and does threaten sanctions but even they can be fraught with difficulty given the need for consensus amongst 28 member states with very differing agendas. Often sanctions, much to the frustration of the US, are watered down as a result. In the case of Russia, Putin has dismissed EU sanctions as “wrist-slapping”. With his personal wealth and that of his closest advisers secure, sanctions are not going to make much of dent in his armour nor have they weakened his intentions.
In terms of military capabilities the most the EU can threaten belligerent neighbours with are paper airplanes shot from the fifth floor of a Meridian Conference Room. Hardly a threat. Putin knows this. Isis knows this. The Kremlin knows this. Assad knows this. The European Council President knows this too. So what exactly is it about the EU that makes countries such as Russia, Assad or even ISIS loath and fear the EU?
The EU’s Core Values
What all of them dislike and distrust the most are its Core Values. These Core Values question their very existence given that their authority to rule and govern is based on suppression, intimidation, fear, corruption and cronyism rather than dialogue, discussion, pluralism and transparency.
Democracy at gun point
Cast your mind back to November last year and the precipitation of the crisis that is now engulfing the Ukraine. Under instructions from the Kremlin, Yanucovych decided to call-off a long negotiated, hard-bargained for Association Agreement with the EU. To be clear an Association Agreement is not membership of the EU. An Association Agreement is not a military alliance. An Association Agreement does not redefine borders, under-mine minorities, offer military training or supply weapons. An Association Agreement is not expansionism by stealth.
An Association Agreement offers lower tariffs, investment and cross-border exchanges. It offers a glimmer of prosperity, it offers much needed investment, it offers finance to failing infrastructure projects. It also offers a very remote possibility of eventual EU membership but in the case of the Ukraine that was always going to be unlikely. As far as the EU was concerned the Ukraine, like Turkey, was never a real contender for EU membership.
For an increasingly piqued, peeved and paranoid Kremlin, however, even an Association Agreement was one step too far. Putin knows only too well that the EU can not threaten him militarily though he has been very good at portraying the EU as the expansionist aggressor and Russia as the victim of an aggressive, power-hungry European Union.
What Putin fears first and foremost about the EU are the very things that make the EU so successful – it Core Values. He fears that any encroachment further east by the EU would infect Ukraine with like-minded Core Values from where they would begin to lap on the borders of Russia before slowly but surely shimmy their way up to Moscow. Democracy, freedom, anti-corruption, freedom of speech and the rule of law are highly infectious. So long as populations remain quarantined from prosperity and freedom, autocracy can be accepted, even tolerated by populations who have tasted neither. Once they have had a taste of both it is hard to let it go.
So long as a cordon sanitaire exists separating prosperous populations from less economically developed regions it is still possible to make them believe in the fallacy of patriotism and territorial conquest. Ukraine, Putin has decided, will be that cordon sanitaire and he will enforce it through military might to ensure the EU’s Core Values stop right there.
The Kremlin is prepared to stage a bloody and destructive war in order to pursue those ends and threaten not just the Ukraine but EU member states that border Russia as well. Is it any wonder that other EU member states who share a common border with Russia and who have significant Russian minorities feel on edge? The present Russian regime is happy to use propaganda, lies, dis-information and violence to achieve these ends. Their motto – deny, deny and deny again – whilst using the language of the west to confuse people’s minds. Only the gullible believe them. Increasingly the EU Heads of State are beginning to realise that Putin is not calling anyone’s bluff. He is prepared to act and act he has.
Clearly, every sane person wants the war in Ukraine to come to an end but the EU is not going to be the organisation that is capable of bringing this about. It can and has threatened sanctions which in the long term, if not the short-term, will harm Russia’s economic interests. It is also close to signing the Association Agreement with Ukraine – the very thing that Putin wanted to avoid. The new EU High Representative has claimed that Russia is no longer the EU’s strategic partner. In this kind of conflicts no one emerges unharmed. There is no doubt that increased sanctions will lead to a trade war between the EU and Russia. Unless NATO acts to intervene it could go beyond trade and into territorial war-fare.
Once again we see, sadly, a return to cold war rhetoric and tactics. The EU may not have a military capability but its core values are worth defending from belligerent aggressors who would seek to undermine them and even cast them as somehow spurious and wrong. The EU’s Core Values are what make it strong, what make it prosperous and what make it successful. The Kremlin’s misinformation should not let us loose sight of this. Putin has laid his cards on the table. Only the very stupid would not be able to read his poker face and act to defend our Core Values which are very much under threat by those who prefer to rely on violence to meet their own ends rather than dialogue and negotiation. But who will blink first?