Throughout 2015, the EU’s delegation to the UN pushed for UN reform and for a more comprehensive, less atomised European approach to the body. An important milestone was the September adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in which the EU delegation played an important framing role. When it comes to new multilateral institutions such as China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which was founded in 2015, the EU did not coordinate sufficiently to maximise its potential to shape these institutions, although the decision of 14 member states to join the AIIB at the outset, without waiting for a joint European decision, meant that they formed a significant bloc within the new institution.
As the refugee crisis worsened in 2015, mutating into a domestic political problem for Europe’s governments, the flaws in the EU’s response became more obvious.
The EU vacillated over the scale and goals of humanitarian naval operations in the Mediterranean and was bitterly divided over the resettlement of refugees. The Union also made a strategic error in failing to contribute sufficient funds to United Nations humanitarian operations in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), resulting in cuts in rations and other relief to displaced Syrians that helped trigger the flow of refugees to Europe – though member states such as Denmark, Germany, and the UK increased aid to the region.
More broadly, a number of member states accepted the need to invest more in managing international crises, especially in Africa. While France continued to take the lead in fighting extremism in the Sahel, the Netherlands and Nordic countries kept peacekeepers in Mali. Germany and Ireland also committed to send personnel there, and the UK announced plans to send additional troops to South Sudan and Somalia. However, many crises received only sporadic European attention: while a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) force helped stabilise the Central African Republic (CAR) in 2014 and early 2015, there are very few EU troops in the long-term UN operation there.
Some EU members would have liked to see more military activity in 2015. Italy, for example, lobbied hard for a UN peacekeeping mission in Libya early in the year, though most other EU members thought this was premature. France continues to complain about other European nations’ limited role in African missions. Several EU members kept troops in Afghanistan in 2015 as part of a NATO mission to train the local armed forces, and an EU mission to train local police.
Overall, despite signs that Europe is growing more serious about addressing international crises – and a particularly striking policy shift by Germany, which committed forces to both the Middle East and Mali in late 2015 – EU members will have to increase their ambitions if they are to tackle the crises plaguing the Union’s periphery. In a more positive development, France and the UK played a major role in containing the Ebola outbreak with broad UN support, and the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the end of the crisis in 2016.
Europe had a mixed year in terms of multilateral diplomacy. Russia regularly obstructed European initiatives at the UN Security Council, from delaying French efforts to prevent mass killings in Burundi, to blocking a British proposal to commemorate Bosnia’s Srebrenica massacre. Moscow also vetoed a Netherlands-backed resolution for an international investigation into the destruction of Flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and held up EU efforts to win UN authorisation for anti-trafficking operations in the Mediterranean.
By contrast, Russian diplomats engaged constructively with their EU and US counterparts during the Iran nuclear talks. There were glimmers of rapprochement over Syria, and some European diplomats believe that a general easing of tensions at the UN is possible. China notably avoided backing Russia on Srebrenica and MH17.
In other fields of UN diplomacy, European member states played a significant role in finalising the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in mid-2015. The Irish ambassador to the UN was central to forging the final agreement. However, some EU members, including the UK, were critical of the final set of goals, which have nearly 170 individual targets. Some major European aid donors – including Belgium, Denmark, and Finland – cut their aid spending in 2015, in part to free up cash for humanitarian assistance to the Middle East and North Africa. Spain likewise had to reduce its aid programmes in Latin America to free up resources for crises nearer home.
Nonetheless, 14 EU members, including the Union’s biggest economies, signed up to join the Chinese-led AIIB in 2015, creating tensions with Washington. US fears that the AIIB represents a major challenge to its primacy in the multilateral system are probably overstated. But Beijing is expanding its role in multilateral affairs (President Xi Jinping pledged up to 8,000 troops for UN operations in September) and EU members are starting to adapt to this reality.
Underlining this, China was a key actor in December’s climate summit in Paris. French officials invested heavily in making the meeting a success after the dismal failure of the 2009 Copenhagen summit, and coordinated closely with the US to secure a deal despite transatlantic differences over whether this should be a formal treaty. France enjoyed strong support from other EU members, although Poland remained openly sceptical. The result was an agreement in December that, while limited in scope, was an impressive diplomatic achievement.
European diplomacy was less successful in other fields. There was friction among member states at the five-year nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference. Austria led a push for the elimination of nuclear weapons that won the support of 159 countries, but the UK, France, and other NATO members resisted the initiative. The conference eventually ended without any final statement due to splits over Arab calls for an urgent conference on nuclear disarmament in the Middle East (implicitly targeting Israel), facilitated by Finland and opposed by the US and the UK.
There were other signs of weakness in the international system. African states kept up their criticism of the International Criminal Court (ICC) – arguing that it focuses too much on the continent – and South Africa threatened to withdraw altogether. The EU has a clear interest in a strong ICC: for example, the court announced in 2015 that it would investigate crimes committed in the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. However, UN human rights officials have played a useful role in charting abuses in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, challenging Russia’s propaganda over these regions.
The EU’s greatest stake in the multilateral system now concerns the refugee crisis and the broader humanitarian catastrophe in MENA. Europe needs international agencies to manage the refugee issues more effectively “at source”, while UN mediators are struggling to bring peace to Syria, Libya, and Yemen. It remains to be seen whether the EU will give these actors the financial and political support that they need to reverse the chaos of 2015, which showed that the EU lacked the capability and cohesion to manage major crises in its backyard.
Leaders: Bulgaria, Luxembourg, Sweden, the UK
Slackers: Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands
International aid budgets were under pressure in 2015 as EU members struggled to cope with the refugee crisis. Leaders increased their development and humanitarian aid budgets towards the 0.7 percent of GDP agreed under the Millennium Development Goals – or stayed above it – while slackers made major cuts.
Slackers: Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Greece, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia
Given the increasingly precarious security situation worldwide in 2015, a significant number of member states failed to contribute adequately – either in terms of troops or contributions to civilian missions abroad, including under the EU, NATO, UN, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). France stood out as the only leader, thanks to its engagement in the Sahel and elsewhere in Africa, focusing on conflicts and areas of instability with broader implications for Europe’s security. The slackers are those who relied on others for security rather than making significant contributions. This is the fourth panel of the basic tab example. This is the fourth panel of the basic tab example.
EU institutions – including the EEAS and the Commission’s departments on migration and the neighbourhood (DG HOME and DG NEAR) – spent significant time on the search for a strategy to manage the refugee crisis facing Europe. However, a lack of sufficient political will from member states for a united European response (with the notable exception of those states on the frontline) meant that the effect was limited.
CSDP missions to train local security forces were ongoing in countries such as Afghanistan, the Central African Republic (CAR), Niger, and Mali (built up to full capacity in 2015), while EU Naval Force Mediterranean was renewed with a new anti-people-trafficking mission, Operation Sophia. On the security front, CSDP operations faced a threat from budgetary pressures, the preference by some member states to channel security policy via organisations such as NATO, and a failure to build the EU’s collective capacity by sharing resources and expertise between member states.