Lessons from Tripoli

Commentary

There are two important lessons to be learned from last month's EU-Africa summit. First, Europe needs to reassert its diplomatic clout after a post-Lisbon period of uncertainty. Second, it needs to think more cleverly about how to promote its values in a world where our economic and political models are no longer unquestioningly accepted.

This article first appeared on E!Sharp

Nobody said the EU-Africa summit in Libya on November 29-30 was going to be easy. Bringing together so many leaders, to discuss such a broad range of issues, is by definition complex. Add to that a Europe in transition to new external representation, a host government which makes a mockery of one of the key themes of the strategic partnership – democratic governance and human rights – and a shifting balance of power between the two continents, and fireworks will fly.

And so they did. After months of wrangling in the EU and the African Union on whether Tripoli was a suitable venue for the event, a diplomatic stand-off on the attendance of Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir, a demand from Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi for more money to protect Europe from greater influxes of migrants, and disagreements over a common declaration on climate change, it was no mean feat that the summit managed to adopt a joint action plan at the end.

Here was a summit which reinforced very publicly what analysts have been saying for years: the world has changed, and Europe can no longer take for granted that its model for development on the basis of a system of rule of law, human rights and democracy is one which partners want to emulate. There was some truth in Gaddafi’s reminder that “Africa has other choices. Let every country and every group govern itself. Every country is free to serve its own interests. Africa can look to any other international bloc such as Latin America, China, India or Russia.”

Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council president, argued back in his opening statement that rule of law is indeed a way for every country to ensure that it serves its own interests: “The dynamics of prosperity set in where business-friendly policies attract private investment, where corruption is not tolerated, where the rule of law is respected and transparency valued, and where governments invest in the education and well-being of their citizens”.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle emphasised the links between economic prosperity and security, and that long-term security could only be achieved in states that protect the human rights of their citizens. But somehow this seems to have been a conversation where the two sides talked past each other. Those – European and African – who agreed on the strength of a liberal democratic system as the foundation for sustainable development repeated this view, and those who didn’t probably left no more convinced.

As the EU launches its External Action Service, and awaits the results of the reflection process that High Representative Catherine Ashton has launched on the new service’s strategy for protecting and promoting Europe’s values in its foreign policy, what lessons should be drawn from this summit?

Two messages seem to present themselves. Firstly, Europe needs to sell itself as a partner in the new global environment. This should not only be based on its role as a critical actor on trade and aid, but it needs to reassert its diplomatic clout. A line needs to be drawn quickly under the confusion created by the post-Lisbon Treaty changes, and the External Action Service needs to start working effectively, confidently, and in a way that draws on Europe’s collective strengths in the world.

Secondly, Europe needs to become smarter in the way it promotes is values. It is true that we are no longer in a world where our economic or political model is beyond question – the financial crisis, competitive economic models such as China, and unaddressed human rights abuses within our own borders, have all contributed to this. That does not mean that the model is fundamentally wrong. But in a tougher global climate Europe needs to find ways to express its values so that they are attractive outside the West, carefully defining priorities in its relationships with countries and regional organisations, and pursuing them in a sustained way, not only on the day of each summit, but in all aspects of its relations in between.

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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