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Important Progress, but Real EU Comprehensiveness Is Still Ahead of Us

20-12-2013

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The “EU’s comprehensive approach to external conflict and crisis”, launched jointly last week by the European Commission and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has been a long-awaited Communication for those following the development of the EU’s external action closely. It refers to conflict and crisis in it’s title but, in essence, goes beyond this as it aims to clarify the guiding principles for a joint EU external action across all areas, while emphasising dealing with conflict (prevention) and post-crisis recovery.

The EU started discussing the need for this policy document in 2011. Elephants have been conceived and born in less time. This is not a surprise given the many political views within EU institutions and Member States on how comprehensive the EU should act externally and the labyrinth of working groups, commissions, hierarchical levels and consultations this document had to pass before it could see the light of day. It gives a sense how long an effective implementation of this policy will take.

Not a Revolutionary Document…

There are a number of tangible actions that are commendable, yet those who expected a break-through on how to take the principles of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty further will be somewhat frustrated. It is not a document that shapes clarity on all fronts. There are a number of commendable actions. Yet it leaves gaps and it does not set out very concrete and tangible structures and processes on who and with whom the Union should work when, where and how. The definitive clearance of confusion around the comprehensive approach is therefore lacking.

The document is also not revolutionary. It does not propose any in-depth changes in the relations between the EU institutions and the Member States on how the EEAS/High Representative and the Commission could draw on and direct the full range of instruments and resources that are at the disposal of the Union. Despite rhetorical commitments to being comprehensive, none of the actors appeared to be ready to give up or ‘pool’ some of their individual powers for an enhanced, collective comprehensive approach. Finally, its shortness and broad orientation could be taken as a meal serving anybody’s taste – or at least one that they could all digest.

…Though Good Progress on a Highly Political Dossier

But taking a more realistic perspective on the status quo of EU external action, the political space given to the EU institutions and the evolving relationships within the Union, the document is an important and overall well-carved milestone that takes the earlier 2001 Communication by the Commission on Conflict Prevention, the Gothenburg EU Programme on the Prevention of Violent Conflict in 2001 and conflict response-related ideas enshrined in the 2003 European Security Strategy and its 2008 review to the next level. It sets out a joint understanding by the Commission and the High Representative on how the Union could work more comprehensively and more effectively to respond to various stages of conflict and other external crises, to early recovery and peace-building while carefully recognising the nature of the partnership between EU institutions and Member States.

This Communication is clearly a consolidating document making references and some commitments to emerging good practices, such as taking context as the starting point, the primacy of analysis, the formulation of country/regional strategies, use of crisis platform mechanisms or joint programming. And it sets out the areas where the comprehensive approach should be taken forward. Useful are the action points for follow-up and further improvements that point out the main actors to be involved and the roles that EU institutions (including its Delegations) should play to advance the reforms. In essence, the document puts the building blocks in place to actually ‘make this happen’ – some of the hard work has already been done in the follow-up to the 2011 evaluation of EC conflict prevention and peacebuilding – and provides an orientation on how the various pieces of the EU external puzzle should be merged to make sense.

Gaps Remain

There are some missing points that will create a sense of disappointment for those who had expected more boldness, strategic insight and daring. For example, it is positive that the Communication goes beyond the confines of a narrow civil-military coordination perspective. But this necessary widening still leaves questions about improved comprehensive actions on CSDP missions (that are politically controlled by the EU Member States) considering that the existing civil-military coordination concept dates back to 2003.

The relevance of trade that had been prominently mentioned in the 2001 Communication as an important factor to overcome instability and crisis, has been totally excluded. This raises questions of whether the Commission finds it increasingly difficult to establish policy coherence between the EU’s diplomatic, development and security aspects and trade. The latter is an important issue that should not have been excluded from steps to further improve the EU’s intra-institutional comprehensiveness towards external action.

Finally, it is surprising that the document does not recognise the importance of local structures, processes and governmental actors (to the extent they still exist) in conflict and crisis-affected countries. Current learning about resilience and post-crisis recovery stresses the need to build on endogenous capacities and underpins the New Deal process on statebuilding and peacebuilding that the Commission strongly supports. It must have been an oversight in view of increasing awareness and practice among EU officials to work more locally and context specific, but should not have been forgotten.

Will this Document Have any Bite?

The document is a pragmatic next step to put the EU’s external action in better shape. Lessons were learnt from the 2001 Communication on Conflict Prevention that was a fantastically ambitious document. But without political sponsorship, it had grave difficulties to bridge the policy-to-practice divide despite some excellent work done by middle level officials. So rather than bemoaning what this Communication on the Comprehensive Approach doesn’t have, those concerned with a better EU response to crisis and conflict should look to use its detail and commitments as the floor rather than the ceiling for a better response.

Like its cousin, the European External Action Service (EEAS) review process, this Communication will only have an added value if the political leadership takes action to monitor and review its implementation. It also will depend on the ability of different EU actors and their partners to do better on the ‘spirit’ of acting comprehensively, as well as the letter. Unfortunately, there are no clear steps proposed in the document to engage in this type of comprehensive change management to make this a reality – so the creativity and craft of officials in devising the follow through will be important. Yet the real work is still ahead of the EU – a process we at ECDPM will surely accompany and monitor.

Photo by davidjmarland.

ECDPM’s Camilla Rocca provided inputs to this article.

The views expressed here are those of the authors, and may not necessarily represent those of ECDPM.

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European external affairsSecurity and ResilienceEU Development Policy and PracticeEuropean Responses to Violent Conflicts and CrisisPost-2015 Global Development AgendaEuropean Union (EU)