Gymnich in Bratislava: What does it mean for EU common foreign policy?

As Gymnich is taking place in Bratislava we are probably more than ever in the paradoxical situation that everybody is talking about the usefulness of common foreign policy but many countries are not willing to give more power to Brussels. How do you see this old-new problem, any way out of this? Read few comments.

Niklas Helwig, Research Fellow – The European Union Research Programme, Finnish institute of International Affairs

The informal Gymnich meetings that traditionally takes place in the capital of the member state holding the rotating EU presidency offers the opportunity for the foreign ministers to step back from the daily business and look at the broader lines of the common foreign and security policy. This year, there is now shortage of substance to discuss as for example EU-Turkey relations and the Minsk peace process are on the menu. Yet, the meeting will also offer the opportunity for some soul-searching after EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini presented the shiny new EU global strategy and the UK decided to leave the Union. What are the next steps for the ambitious idea of having a common foreign policy? Handing over more powers to Brussels is not a likely path that the member states will take. In fact the idea of transferring more competences to the EU in the field of foreign and security policy has died a long time ago during the deliberation on the failed European Convention. Instead of transferring new powers to Brussels, the focus is now on how to implement what we already have on paper. It is not about more Europe, it is about better Europe.

It is clear that the member states are currently looking for a new impulse after the Brexit disaster during the summer. Security and defense policy could well be an area where more can be done together. This does not mean to call for a unrealistic European Army. Instead there can be further steps to coordinate the buying and development of new equipment or to pool capabilities among member states. In addition, the terrorist attacks in Europe show that further steps have to be taken to ensure internal security, for example through better intelligence and police cooperation. Finally, hybrid threats, for example foreign disinformation campaigns or cyber-attacks, can potentially be better addressed by a number of EU member states working closely together and developing joint capacities.

It is unlikely that Brussels will gain new competences through treaty changes. At the same time a number of member states are eager to work closer on security and defense. Steps into this direction are more likely than ever. The US is expecting Europe to take more responsibility on its own defense matters. With the UK leaving the EU, one major stumbling block for more cooperation on defense is off the political map. Cooperation on security is also a matter which is easier to sell to the public as an EU project with added value. Nevertheless, don’t expect anything concrete coming out of this Gymnich meeting. The ministers will talk about the several follow-up papers that are expected to add more flesh to the EU global strategy in the coming years. A timeline for these sub-strategies will be presented later on.  One of these papers will be on the CSDP and more concretely define the ambitious and means of EU defense. EU foreign and security policy is moving in the moment. Whether, however, something meaningful will come out of this process depends on the ability of the member states to agree on concrete steps.

Isabel Camisão, Professor na Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra

Despite some important achievements in the security domain, namely the creation of the EEAS and the enhancing of EU’s military and civilian capabilities, Member States’ reluctance in delegating more power to the European level in this high sensitive domain is indeed an old-new problem.

There have been some substantial improvements since its creation in the 1990’s and recently the EU leaders have endorsed, at least on paper, a wide-ranging strategy to address more effectively the global challenges that affect the EU. However, it is true that although the EU might have important instruments and tools it still lacks a comprehensive, multi-dimensional and truly collective policy in the security domain. Perhaps because a truly common policy would mean that Member States no longer controlled a central task of the state: that of being the security provider.

So here lies the paradox: the EU is advancing in what regards instruments and tools to implement a security and defense policy but lacks a credible shared vision that would make this policy common. And one must note that the EU security dimension goes well beyond the traditional military defense issue. What is more, the EU is facing several internal and external challenges such as terrorism or migration issues that have blurred the line between internal and external security. More than ever the EU’s capacity to manage different types of crises is putted to the test and more than ever the EU needs an overarching strategy to effectively deal with all these challenges. The next informal meeting of Foreign Affairs ministers (Gymnich) in Bratislava has some crucial topics in the agenda and is indeed an opportunity to have a serious debate on Mogherini’s proposal for a foreign and security policy global strategy. But whether the opportunity is taken remains to be seen.

Neil WinnSenior Lecturer in European Studies, University of Leeds

EU foreign and security policy is governed by member states in the main. National sovereignty can on the surface seem to be the only guiding principle of EU foreign relations. This is somewhat simplistic and assumes that the process of European integration – that has been taking place over the past sixty plus years – has had only a negligible impact on foreign policy in the continent of Europe. The EU is indeed partly built upon national interests and in the end the member states still guide policy to a greater than a lesser degree. However, this underestimates the degree of organic growth in the EU itself. The EU as a foreign policy project is a mixture of material and post-modern stimuli. The former evidence themselves in terms of concrete policies such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) which is a diplomatic foreign policy coordination mechanism; the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) which is a tool of EU crisis management policy encompassing military operations and civilian missions around the world; and EU trade policy which is reasonably integrated meaning the EU Commission has agency in determining global outcomes in trade.

This is only part of the story. The EU foreign policy system is also a set of shared values that guide international action at the national level in EU member states and at the global level via EU mechanisms and policies. This is based not just on shared ideas on areas such climate change, counter-terrorism, Eastern policy, policy towards the Neighbourhood and so forth, but is also based on several decades of sunk costs in foreign and security cooperation. The degrees of cooperation are greater in some areas than others. For instance, in the internal security field – areas covering counter-terrorism, law enforcement, and organised crime – EU cooperation is considerable as there are common shared interests to protect the European homeland from perceived or real security threats. Conversely, in the defence field member states have been less willing to cede sovereignty as this is an area governed by notions of territoriality, patriotism, national security and national armed forces.

Nevertheless, even in the defence field there is plenty of actual cooperation between member states military’s beyond the national level and within a CSDP context for military crisis management purposes to manage the Neighbourhood and further afield from Europe. This tells us that national sovereignty is a relative term and somewhat fictional. This also tells us that no area is immune from the EU integration process of the technical functional integration of specialist units formed around problems requiring solutions that cut across national boundaries. Yet this is not to also underestimate the different national security cultures and the lack of a Grand Strategy for EU foreign and security policy. For instance, Spain, Germany, France and the United Kingdom (UK) currently prioritise counter-terrorism as being their number one security risk, whereas the Baltic States might prioritise Russia as a security concern. Southern EU member states that have Mediterranean coastlines might prioritise migration into the EU and so forth. There is a sense that there is not a shared script on security in the EU. Additionally, the “core” founding members of the EU might prefer CFSP/CSDP to solve their security issues to a greater degree, whereas the states of Central and Eastern Europe have a different historical trajectory and see the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) as being the key security provider for their needs as it is tried and tested plus they have more of a transatlantic take on defence matters. Present issues to be dealt with include Turkey, migration, the Minsk process and Russia more generally amongst others. There is a degree of agreement on these areas and the EU plays a supranational role in each of the cases beyond the nation-state in practical and moral terms beyond traditional categories of diplomacy as described above. The elephant in the room is Brexit. The UK along with France is the most significant foreign, defence and security actor in the EU. When the UK leaves the EU this could be a big loss for the European security in general. Either, the larger EU member states will attempt to make up for this potential loss by forming their own enhanced EU foreign and security apparatus that might have weaker ties with Washington. This is both unlikely and potentially dangerous. Conversely, they will try to keep the UK on board in foreign and security terms out of necessity to stabilise the security situation in Europe and also to allow the EU to continue to punch above its weight in international affairs.


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