Will the action plan to implement the EU’s Comprehensive Approach have any bite?

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      If ever there were a time when the EU needs to be more comprehensive and coherent in its international action, it is now – and not just in response to the crisis in Ukraine…  In our past analysis of the Comprehensive Approach in the Joint EEAS-Commission Communication we acknowledged that important progress had been made but that real comprehensiveness was still ahead of us. We now have the Conclusions of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council to add to the mix. We ask more practically, will this be a great leap forward in actual practice?  The two key questions we pose are: 1) Will lessons from past “Action Planning” be taken into account? 2) What hurdles must be taken to get this comprehensive approach to the next level? A Useful Shopping List (Largely) Ticked There are some important points in the conclusions – firstly that the active role of the EU’s member-states is noted. There was a danger that the member-states would once again emphasise that responsibility lay primarily with the EU institutions and the comprehensive approach was about them, rather than a ‘whole-of-EU’ approach. Confirmation that the fundamental principles enshrined in the Comprehensive Approach to External Conflict and Crisis are relevant for the broad spectrum of EU external action was another noteworthy element. On the working principles some good practice seems to have been firmly endorsed and the central role of joint analysis and the acceptance of the need of strategy to guide action at the country level are two of the most important. Both are aspects long called for by those working directly on the issues, given past deficiencies of the EU in responding to crisis and conflict. Practically and politically both will still be a challenge. The relevance of engaging with local and international partners is acknowledged and there is more commitment to conflict prevention. The stated need to align to international norms like the New Deal for Statebuilding and Peacebuilding, while becoming better known in development circles, is a useful point of reference and considerably less well known within the EU’s security establishment. The acceptance that the EU’s response must draw on a wider all-EU approach encompassing everything from migration to trade is particularly welcome – a comprehensive approach isn’t just about security and development. Will an Action Plan be Transformative? To drive forward this agenda the Council conclusions call for an Action Plan. There was some wrangling over the actual language or even the necessity for a specific plan, but those who wanted it seem to have prevailed. The thinking here is that without an Action Plan, the implementation would stall. There are a certain number of “ghosts of Action Plans past” haunting the EU, notably Security and Development and Situations of Fragility, both merged into one Action Plan before being unceremoniously dumped.  In addition between 2002 and 2010 the EU reported quite comprehensively on a yearly basis on the Implementation of the EU Programme of Action for the Prevention of Violent Conflict. For those that have followed EU action in this area over the years, the likely roadblocks to effective implementation may not be too difficult to decipher. Firstly, the defunct Action Plan on Conflict and Fragility that didn’t get implemented was left to a few committed individuals within specialist units to develop in the EU institutions. The Plan had at first ambiguous political sponsorship from the respective Commissioners (then HRVP) only to lose it entirely.  Attempts to resuscitate this in 2011, even with very specific commitment in the EU’s Development Policy Agenda for Change, simply failed without high-level political commitment. With member-states now firmly in play, at least on paper, the situation becomes more complicated. Its not just pithy analysts but also formal evaluations that have noted that different priorities of EU member states can hamper abilities of EU institutions in this area - so creative leadership will be key. This leadership will also require an in-depth understanding on where the EU member states are coming from and their readiness to buy into this agenda more concretely in specific contexts to pragmatically forge a way forward. Council conclusions are not going to change the political realities that worked against the comprehensive approach in the past - creative and pragmatic leadership is key. Secondly, the reporting on the implementation of the EU Programme of Action for the Prevention of Violent Conflict was a useful exercise in collecting and showcasing a variety of activities that the EU was doing in this area.  It was usually quite an impressive listing, and there is no doubt that the EU could once again come up with such a listing of worthy activities under a comprehensive approach label.  There was however no real sense of strategy or leverage that could emerge from these documents. The reporting on the new Action Plan should go beyond rhetorical repackaging of existing activities and show strategic direction, the breaking down of barriers and doing things differently. This means more joint analysis and linking it to real political and programming decisions and show that they actually have a country strategy and comprehensive action in some of the most complicated conflict and crisis situations. The Soup Without the Salt A new Action Plan must navigate the lessons of the past, avoiding the roadblocks faced by its predecessors, that ultimately failed to progress. Firstly, it must have active support from the highest levels of bureaucracy of the European External Action Service (EEAS) and Development and Cooperation – EuropeAid (DEVCO) demonstrated by incentives for changed ways of working.  Staff across the EEAS and DEVCO will have to see and really feel the incentives for bringing a more comprehensive agenda forward and the disincentives for lack of progress, which cannot be delivered by specialist units alone. Secondly, the political sponsorship of the comprehensive approach has to come from the top and be more than just rhetorical. The timing is difficult with an ‘end of term/school’s out for summer’ feeling beginning to permeate the institutions despite pressing conflict and crisis situations.  It is not evident that either the outgoing or incoming leadership in the EEAS, Commission or EU Foreign Ministers will expend serious political capital in this endeavour, or at least even keep their respective administrations focussed on comprehensive delivery. Thirdly, the Action Plan should become an instrument for the mutual engagement of both the EU and EU Member States alike. Focusing it on the EU institutions alone would be like soup without the salt. This approach will help to gather momentum for more comprehensiveness and partnering across the Union, providing the basis for concrete joint action starting with early warning, joint analysis, political activities and programming.  Yet ultimately the success of this endeavour will be judged on results not communications and conclusions. This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM or its donors. In addition to structural support by ECDPM's institutional partners The Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria, this publication also benefits from funding from the Department of International Development (DFID), United Kingdom.

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      As European citizens head to the polls, the EU’s credibility has been eroded by unprecedented economic, political and social crises. In September, a new European Parliament will green light the whole new Commission, and the European Council President and High Representative of EU Foreign Affairs will also be appointed before the end of the year. The new leadership will need to prove that it can deliver efficient, political and visible European external action on the world stage. Addressing global problems is in the EU’s self-interest. To fulfill its potential and remain a key player for the future, making a real difference for global problems, the EU must improve the coherence of its collective action. The European Think Tanks Group, bringing together four leading European international development think tanks (DIE, ECDPM, FRIDE and ODI), will publish a major report in the first week of September, identifying five opportunities where the European Union could make a difference in addressing global problems – climate change; poverty and inequality; trade and financial policy; conflict and security; and democracy and human rights. In the run up to its publication, all the reports authors will blog on the future challenges for the European Union, providing valuable insights on key topics. Subscribe to our Newsletter or Follow Us for all our updates.
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