In praise of dignity

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Yesterday Finnish foreign Minister Alexander Stubb gave a speech at LSE expanding on his idea of a ‘dignified’ EU foreign policy.  Far from signalling a departure from confronting difficult issues in the EU’s relationship with third countries - which many in human rights circles feared was what he was about in his first references to this idea a few months back – he was in fact arguing for an approach to foreign policy which equips us better to achieve what we want to from it. Respect for human rights and the rule of law is a core part of what Europe wants, but it is currently not particularly savvy at getting it.

For those of us working on these questions at ECFR, much of his speech is music to our ears: not least because it chimes very much with the three part strategy which we put forward in our recent policy brief Towards an EU human rights strategy for a post-Western world.

It is hard to argue with his three commandments on promoting universal values:

1. Putting our own house in order by protecting human rights – he singles out addressing recent discriminatory treatment of the Roma people in Europe as a priority;

2. Speaking with one voice, and

3. Speaking softly and carrying a big carrot (!) – more on what this means further down.

Clearly these are all important pieces of advice if the EU wants to be more effective in this area. But they are not new. What is perhaps even more valuable in Stubb’s speech is the approach that he suggests for dealing with strategic partners. Ultimately, as our post-Western strategy brief also argues, the EU will only be effective in promoting human rights, the rule of law and democracy if this is supported by its wider foreign policy.

Realistically, the values agenda will only ever be one among a host of interests that Europe has in any partner country, and so Stubb is right to suggest that “We should conduct a thorough assessment of our interests with every strategic partner and also bring up the difficult issues, such as human rights”. It is only by being honest about what these interests are that we can devise a long term strategy to ensure that our relationship with a country maximises any potential to promote human rights.

If decisions are always taken in an ad hoc, uncoordinated way – as we are seeing this week on attendance at the Nobel prize giving in Norway – then Europe can never hope to have much impact on an agenda to advance fundamental rights. If we don’t work out how our interests fit together ourselves, then partner countries will do it for us, and dangle the carrot of trade deals, or co-operation on border control, or whatever their lever might be, in order to deflect attention away from human rights abuses at tricky moments.  We need to be clear on what our carrot is, and how best to use it, if we want to stay in this game.

Every year around 10th December, UN Human Rights Day, the EU agrees Council Conclusions on Human Rights and Democracy. They are a set piece in the annual calendar, but they never really generate debate or new thinking on how the EU can achieve more in this area. Let’s hope that Alexander Stubb takes his recent thinking on a dignified foreign policy into the meeting this year, and champions a real discussion in the Foreign Affairs Council on how to do things differently, and better.

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