The EU risks neglecting fragile and conflict-affected countries

Antoine Plüss via Iwaria


The EU’s new leadership will be confronted with intensifying political and humanitarian crises at its borders and in its extended neighbourhood. In this commentary for our series ‘To the new leaders of Europe’, Volker Hauck and Sophie Desmidt argue that ignoring fragile and conflict-affected countries will inevitably backfire on the EU, damaging its reputation and interests. A dedicated strategy and political leadership are needed to ensure fragility is dealt with in a decisive manner.

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    The new European Parliament and Commission will be confronted with rising levels of global conflict, instability and disorder. Increased fragility and intensifying crises at the doorsteps of the EU is a realistic scenario, but more political turmoil and humanitarian needs can also be expected in the EU’s extended neighbourhood, such as the broader Sahel, the Gulf of Guinea, the Horn of Africa or the Middle East.

    This raises questions about the EU’s future engagement in fragile and conflict-affected countries and how to link it to the EU’s internal policies and priority-setting. Given Europe’s dependence on political partnerships, international trade and economic relations, an inward-looking EU, favoured by recently elected right-wing national governments and the new cohort of right-wing European Parliament members, is not an option.

    This ‘Europe first’ approach may seem logical from the perspective of an electorate that does not benefit from globalisation and fears the loss of personal prosperity and security. But looking inward will have a negative impact on the EU's regional and global positioning, and on its influence in shaping mutually beneficial relationships with its international partners. This, in turn, can lead to further inequality and insecurity in Europe.

    Rising fragility in the EU’s immediate and extended neighbourhood

    In its foreign policy, the EU should place special emphasis on relations with countries in its border regions and its extended neighbourhood. Governments and influential societal groups in several of these countries hold anti-Western positions. Accusations of Western double standards and dominance, informed – among others – by past interventions in Iraq and Libya, have further opened doors for Russia, China and regional actors, such as Turkey and the Gulf states, to widen their influence and presence. 

    This is particularly true in countries of the Central Sahel, where military juntas have massively pushed back on Western influence. Other countries in the region could follow a similar path. They are all affected by climate change and the resulting erratic availability or scarcity of essential natural resources – water and arable land in particular. This leads to increased poverty among a demographically growing population, political crises and violent communal conflicts. 

    Europe’s immediate neighbourhood is experiencing troubling developments, which will lead to knock-on effects on European security and stability.

    Europe’s immediate neighbourhood is experiencing troubling developments, which will lead to knock-on effects on European security and stability. First, it will likely lead to increased migration – at least by those who can afford paying for the dangerous routes via the Near East, or through the Sahel and across the Mediterranean Sea. Managing these demographic movements will require close attention and engagement by the EU and its partners in the neighbourhood. 

    Second, if these crises and conflicts escalate regionally, they will pose an increased threat – and cost – for Europe’s internal security. Finally, governments in these countries aligned with the West, who expect Europe to stand by its values and provide long-term assistance and cooperation in their struggle for political, economic and social survival, will ask for more support. Somalia is one of these countries.

    Securing long-term trade and investment partnerships...

    The current European Commission has tried to redefine international cooperation with countries in different parts of the world. In 2020, when the EU’s new seven-year budget was agreed upon, several reformed instruments and approaches were deployed in response to calls for more efficiency and effectiveness.

    Since 2020, the EU has also redirected its focus towards countries that could supply critical raw materials, essential for European industrial production, while serving as potential markets for skilled labour and for European products in the mid to long term. These countries are prepared to engage with the EU – but on a more transactional basis, driven by shared interests.

    In this setting, and some would argue in response to growing Chinese economic competition worldwide, the EU’s Global Gateway strategy emerged. It focuses strongly on infrastructure projects and human development in emerging markets and developing economies in the transport, digital, green energy, health and education sectors. The aim is to mobilise €300 billion worth of investments from development banks and the private sector between 2021 and 2027.

    … but keeping a fragility and conflict-sensitive perspective

    Since the introduction of the Global Gateway strategy, the EU has launched or identified around 225 flagship initiatives – mostly in emerging markets. However, this approach is only marginally suitable for highly fragile and conflict-affected countries. Investments need security and ‘good enough’ governance with calculable risks and predictability. Instead, a partnership with these countries will further depend on EU support that subsidises partner countries' economies through grants, concessional loans, targeted technical assistance and appropriate cushions for unforeseen crises.

    The Global Gateway strategy and its flagship initiatives are only marginally suitable for highly fragile and conflict-affected countries.

    So far, the European Commission and EU countries have not found an adequate strategy for their engagement with highly fragile and conflict-affected countries – 35 to 40 countries around the world, according to the World Bank. Some 80% of flexible funding embedded in the EU’s budget for 2021-2027 for unexpected developments and emergencies was used by 2023 – for support to Ukraine, the COVID-19 pandemic and the Syrian refugee crisis.

    In addition, the EU’s pivot on security and defence seems to have pushed long-term and sometimes difficult engagements in mediation and peacebuilding further down the agenda. The EU used to be widely appreciated as a promoter of peace. However, its reputation has waned amidst accusations of double standards and significant discrepancies in funding between peacebuilding and mediation versus military support, security and defence spending – including through the European Peace Facility, an off-budget instrument used exclusively for military support.

    The EU has stressed the importance of promoting ‘resilience’ and ‘peacebuilding’ in highly fragile partner countries for years, a commitment underscored by several EU decisions. Promoting resilience typically involves providing humanitarian aid and support to vulnerable communities and displaced populations. However, in reality, the current emphasis on investments, coupled with insufficient funding for peacebuilding, development and humanitarian aid, sidelines the EU's attention to fragility and peacebuilding efforts.

    The stakes for the incoming EU leadership

    The new European Parliament and Commission would be ill-advised to ignore fragile and conflict-affected countries, which could ultimately harm the EU and its reputation. 

    In view of the EU’s own long-term interests, the new Commission and the European External Action Service should develop a dedicated strategy on fragility. This will allow the EU to deal with these countries as an integral part of its overall external relations, guided by clear political leadership that reconciles partnership and ownership priorities, the EU’s values and interests, and a clear commitment to durable peace(building) and long-term resilience. 

    In view of shrinking financial resources, the strategy should also outline the principles based on which the EU can prioritise its engagement.

    Such a strategy will need to focus on creating ‘win-win’ opportunities, taking into account the views and needs of partner countries. In view of shrinking financial resources, it should also outline the principles based on which the EU can prioritise its engagement. The strategy should be implemented by promoting resilience and peacebuilding in partner countries, based on thorough knowledge and feedback mechanisms. Finally, flexible funding will need to be available to respond quickly and effectively to emergencies where support is most needed. 

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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