By By Ivelina Fedulova
The revolutionary democratic movements that have spread across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) like wildfire have reminded the world of how profoundly it is changing. New global economic leaders are emerging in the face of China, India, Brazil and Russia; the focus of global politics is moving away from the West; and the US has become wary of playing global policeman. Faced by these changes, doubts have been emerging that the European Union’s political and economic influence is in decline and that it has reached its limit. Yet, the cause and the solution for these is the same: unity.
The biggest advantage of the EU is that it is a union of 27 European countries, thereby creating a vast economic and political union. It represents only 7 per cent of the world’s population but its GDP accounts for nearly 30 per cent of global economic output. The fact that it represents 27 countries gives the EU more political clout in global politics as well as more expertise in different areas.
Individual member states could hardly compete independently with other players in the global economy if they were not a part of the EU. The same applies to the political aspect of the Union. Even member states such as Britain, France and Germany, who are strong international actors on their own, can achieve a lot more through the European Union.
However, precisely for the same reason, the Union can sometimes be perceived as irrelevant and inefficient; getting 27 member states to agree on the same position is a hard task and failing to achieve so makes the EU look powerless. Appearing divided and weak discredits the EU’s political influence around the world. In the face of the already existing global challenges to its role in international politics, the Union cannot afford to compromise its influence and position because of internal causes.
The revolutions in the MENA region have particularly underlined this, as they are the first real test for the EU and its foreign policy since the changes of the Lisbon Treaty, aimed at improving the EU’s political influence, came into power. Luckily for Europe and the West, both Tunisia’s Ben Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak stepped down relatively quickly, avoiding the need for decisive actions by Western leaders. However, the events in Libya have shown that without internal agreement in its foreign policy actions, the EU is not able to react efficiently to real and pressing situations.
The Union certainly started off on the wrong foot. Stefan Fule, the Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy, said that “Europe was not vocal enough in defending human rights and local democratic forces in the region”. Not only was it not vocal enough but it also appeared weak and divided as Britain and France were suggesting the introduction of sanctions, whilst Italy, Malta and the Czech Republic opposed such actions, predominantly due to national interests which include oil, gas, arms and immigration. This gave Gaddafi an excellent opportunity to use a divide-and-conquer strategy, using threats based on these interests. Furthermore, controversial statements such as that of the Czech foreign minister that “If Gaddafi falls, then there will be bigger catastrophes in the world” and Berlusconi’s refusal to disturb the Mad Dog were appearing in the press as details of the bloodbath in Libya were also emerging. Even the Commission did not miss out on such gaffes: one Commissioner stated that no one “has the right to interfere with Colonel Gaddafi’s position”, only two days after Jose Manuel Barroso pledged Europe’s support for the freedom fighters in the Arab world. France’s decision to acknowledge the Libyan National Council based in Benghazi before the EU-27 had agreed on a common position turned into another sign of division in the Union.
At the Extraordinary European Council on Libya, EU leaders finally agreed on a number of important issues but not on any decisive actions against Gaddafi. The inability to agree on a no-fly zone, masked by statements regarding the need for approval from the UN Security Council and the Arab League, became apparent when a decision could no longer be avoided. Britain and France eagerly pushed for a no-fly zone, while Germany joined China and Russia in opposing it, highlighting once again the constantly recurring rift between the EU member states when it comes down to foreign policy.
The events in Libya have now taken another turn as the UN Security Council approved a no-fly zone and the West has started implementing it. Yet, the developments so far have already shown how important it is for the Union to act united. The need for cohesion in the EU’s response to the fights for democracy and freedom is not only because it is the morally right thing to do but also because unity is the only way to achieve the EU’s geostrategic interests and to help it remain important in world politics.
The current stagnation of EU integration has resulted in the EU already losing its main foreign policy tool to influence its neighbouring states – enlargement. With the Union nearing its integration limits, the way forward would be for the Union to re-evaluate its role and step up in international politics. As the US has lost interest in playing global policeman, a gap is left to be filled either by the EU or by other emerging political actors. In both cases, if the Union does not seem strong, united and assertive, it will miss out on either being that leader or on being considered as a partner by the new leader. Failing to support the Libyan people and the fight for democracy could be a sign for its political weakness, signalling to other dictators and leaders that Europe can be ignored.
The lack of agreement on Europe’s foreign policy resulted in Egypt reportedly advising Baroness Ashton to cancel her trip to the country last month “as their calendar is too heavily loaded… very busy domestic agenda”. A highly revealing, and troubling, rebuff to the titular foreign-policy chief of the world’s mightiest economic bloc. This is one of many examples lately underlining the decline of the EU’s relevance. Yet, if member states and the EU acknowledge the importance of a united European Union and build up on it, the EU has every potential to big one of the big and key players in world affairs. Unity gives power; just ask the freedom fighters in the Middle East and North Africa.