Calling in the EU-Team

Commentary

The EU needs to go beyond the standard "wait, react, peacekeep!" approach to handling looming crises. Instead, Richard Gowan argues, the EU ought to focus on early diplomacy. Given the strains on national budgets, this may be a job for the EU-Team (aka the European External Action Service).

Every other year, it seems, the EU now faces a summertime war. In 2006, Israel took on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. European governments sent thousands of peacekeepers under the UN flag. In 2008, Russia clashed with Georgia. The EU deployed monitors.

On August 3, European diplomats were disturbed by new rumblings from Lebanon. Three Lebanese troops and one Israeli officer died in a border clash. This followed months of reports that Israel – worried by Iran’s nuclear programme and Hezbollah’s influence in Beirut – was contemplating another Lebanese war. The UN called for “maximum restraint”.

The border incident may be a one-off flare-up. The Israeli government, facing international anger over its behaviour in Gaza, has been trying to look more moderate recently. But the episode should make EU policymakers – especially those involved in setting up the new European External Action Service (EEAS) – reassess their neighbourhood security policy.

In recent years, the EU has developed a routine for dealing with trouble in its backyard. It lets major crises escalate. It calls for calm. And then it sends in some peacekeepers.

This is true not only of Lebanon and Georgia, but also of Chad, to which the EU deployed troops in 2008 to patrol the border with Sudan. In all these cases, the presence of European personnel (armed to the teeth as in Lebanon or without weaponry as in Georgia) has done short-term good. But they can be an alibi for strategic inaction.

The Security Council mandate for the UN “Interim” Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) calls for political efforts to create peace between Lebanon and Israel. But a recent series of seminars on UNIFIL, organised by the International Peace Institute, a New York-based think-tank, repeatedly came to the same conclusion: the peacekeepers do a decent job of managing day-to-day crises, but they do not serve a real political process.

The EU monitors in Georgia are also credited with doing a worthy job on the ground, but Russo-Georgian talks in Geneva have gone nowhere. The EU troops in Chad left after a year, handing over to a UN mission that never found its feet and will close in December.

What do such interventions achieve? A wise UN official notes that they do not resolve the conflicts involved – they merely make potential combatants think rather harder about launching new offensives. This is a good tactic, but very hard to sustain over time.

Many European governments have chafed at the need to keep large forces in Lebanon; Poland withdrew its contingent in 2009. The chief of the EU mission in Georgia reportedly wants to close down his mission before he departs, lest it become permanent.

European Union officials need to think beyond the standard “wait, react, peacekeep!” approach to handling looming crises. Of course, they do this already. The EU has no lack of matrices and flow-charts for conflict prevention – and a roster of weak countries that worry it.

But the real challenge is often getting involved diplomatically when unpredictable and potentially explosive incidents occur, like the latest Lebanese firefight. That requires a mix of personal contacts with important political and military players; diplomatic personnel experienced in mediating in dangerous places; and an appetite for risk. If you have all these you can just avert or at least mitigate a crisis – even if it is still a long shot.

As High Representative Catherine Ashton and her colleagues put together the EEAS, they have a chance to develop these assets for the EU. Those – like me – who argue this is a priority are sometimes accused of alarmism or watching films like the A-Team too often.

But the EEAS will have a big role to play in crises on the EU’s periphery, not least because many national foreign services are liable to cut back on necessary personnel after the financial crisis. Lebanon and Georgia present more far complex challenges than Hollywood. EU-Teams of EEAS officials may handle such crises in future – and Brussels will love it when a plan endorsed by all 27 members of the EU comes together.

This article is based on Richard Gowan’s remarks to a Wilton Park conference on “How can the Lisbon Treaty help the European Union implement the Responsibility to Protect?” (26-28 July 2010), and was first published by E!Sharp.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

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