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European foreign policy post-MH17

Image credit: Rianne van de Kerkhof

Image credit: Rianne van de Kerkhof

There was a time when Europeans aspired to develop a common foreign policy. During the latest round of European treaty change, the Member States’ negotiators even dictated – somewhat equivocally – the progressive framing of a common defence policy. Weathered European Union (EU) watchers of course know that all these promises have come to naught. In spite of the flurry of activity and the many beautifully crafted press communiqués generated by the European External Action Service, European Member States have bickered and disagreed over pretty much all foreign policy dossiers of genuine substance. Whether it concerned the Arab Spring, the implosion of the Sahel, the civil war in Syria, the United States (US) rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific or the emerging conflict in Ukraine, European leaders have consistently failed to develop coherent responses to the most pressing challenges European faced on the world stage. But this did not seem to matter all that much. With the Eurozone troubles there were other fish to fry, and anyone suggesting that Europeans might need to take their own defence efforts more seriously was frowned upon.

Now over two hundred European citizens have been brutally butchered. They were blown out of the sky by an instrument of war, in a conflict they did not want to be a part of. The ensuing scenes of black-hooded militiamen prowling through the remains of passengers and their belongings have been burned into the public consciousness. The disaster of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 may have affected the Netherlands disproportionally, but it directly involved a quarter of European Member States. Whether or not the aeroplane was targeted intentionally or accidentally does not even matter all that much. Blood has been spilt in the context of a conflict that all too many European leaders wished would simply go away. Denying that the European neighbourhood is on fire – partly as a result of European actions and perhaps even more as a result of European inaction – is no longer possible.

European political classes have been slow on the uptake. The European diplomatic service – priding itself on its ‘comprehensive approach’ and its ‘crisis management’ experience – took several days to wake up to the fact that a major international crisis landed on its doorstep. National leaders first expressed shock, but quickly started feeling the heat of public opinion that quickly became utterly enraged by the inability of the investigation and recovery teams to do their work on the crime scene. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, knew that he had to start using strong words like ‘disgust’. European citizens may have struggled to understand what was going on in Ukraine before last week, but they have now been awoken by Leon Trotsky’s bitter words: ‘you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you’.

Yesterday’s Foreign Affairs Council epitomised this state of affairs. The EU foreign ministers called for a transparent and independent investigation, but did not face up to the sad reality that the trampling of all evidence has already made this impossible. Threatening even more economic sanctions that have yielded limited results in the past constituted the one and only policy instrument for exercising pressure. Even assuming that these are not empty threats, the question remains: if such coercion does not yield results, then what? With the setting up of a civilian advisory mission for security sector reform the EU may be unwittingly sleepwalking deeper into an escalation of proxy warfare. Is squabbling over the delivery of the Mistral warships and hoping for the best really the best the continent’s leaders can do?

This is the time for Europeans to close ranks and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Dutch. The greatest European weakness is precisely that they stand divided, leaving ample opportunity for the Kremlin and others to play different Member States off against each other. It is also time to reflect on the EU’s toolkit for safeguarding the security and wellbeing of its citizens. While the US and Russia trade accusations and relay different narratives of what exactly happened, Europeans are mostly left in the dark about events because of their decade-long underinvestment in their own defences. While ploughing the social media yields a relatively clear verdict on the culpability of Russian-sponsored separatists, the absence of autonomous intelligence capabilities means that credible proof of what precisely happened may elude European decision-makers forever. It is also striking that many ordinary citizens started wondering out loud why no North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces could be parachuted in to secure the crash site. The realisation that the means – and the will – to do so are simply not present must surely come as a shock to many.

The past neglect of Europe’s defences was a political choice. It may even have been right, for a post-Cold War world at least. Yet that era is drawing to a close. In the east as well as in the south, the European neighbourhood is in flames, and this instability is now closing in on the old continent. At the same time, Europeans still have global interests, ranging from trade with the wider world and the promotion of a multilateral system of global governance. Yes, European voters and citizens worry about the economy, about pensions and healthcare. But when they are confronted with a vicious attack on their fellow citizens, they look to their governments and they expect that the means are there to protect their wellbeing. If we are entering a period of cold peace and warfare by proxy, different choices are required. Europeans owe it to the victims of Flight MH17 and their families to at least contemplate the alternatives.

Vol. 6, No. 59 (2014)

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