Europe’s Foreign Policy Challenges

By Laurence Norman

In a year when the survival of the euro is at stake, European Union foreign policy is unlikely to be the top priority in Brussels.

Yet there are risks if it loses focus. To the south, the long-term results of the Arab spring remain uncertain, with the prospect of increased migration and security challenges if developments go awry. To the east, protests in Russia open fresh challenges in a presidential election year, while Iran’s nuclear program and the continued stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians are persistent concerns.

Despite the deepening economic crisis, the growing pains of the EU’s new foreign affairs apparatus and public criticism of foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton, Brussels enjoyed some success in 2011.

Wrong-footed early in the Arab spring, the EU helped bring member states together in support of the protestors in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere. Europe has maintained a largely united front on Iran and Syria, organizing what seems to have been an effective oil embargo against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ordering asset freezes on several hundred Iranian companies, banks and officials. Tougher measures are in the works.

Nearer to home, the EU completed accession talks with Croatia and brokered talks between Kosovo and Serbia, and further afield helped combat piracy off the Horn of Africa.

Yet European success in Libya was brought about by France and Britain working around the challenge posed by Germany’s opposition to military action, with the help of the U.S. and other allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  With Libya emphasizing that initiative in foreign policy still resides firmly in capitals, talk of a single European foreign policy remains far-fetched.

Brussels nonetheless claims its successes, not least in Iran, on which it continues to increase the economic pressure.

The EU decided in December to look at measures aimed at “severely affecting” Iran’s financial, energy and transport sectors. French proposals–backed by Germany and the U.K.–include central bank sanctions and an oil embargo but faced opposition from Greece and others. But on Wednesday, the sanctions moved a step forward with diplomats saying there was agreement in principle on an oil embargo although the timing and details were still being debated.

Deeper divisions could lie ahead, however, particularly if tensions over the nuclear program intensify and a military option looms larger. Escalating tensions would also likely spike oil prices in Europe’s weakest economies, like Greece and Italy, which are among the largest importers of Iranian crude oil.

Richard Whitman, professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and a fellow at Chatham House, says the prospect of force would threaten a repeat of Europe’s “schism” over Iraq a decade ago. “I think Iran is a big one within the Brussels beltway. It is going to be a very, very acute test of the EEAS [the EU’s foreign service] and Ashton,” he said.

For much of 2011, the Arab spring was a good news story. European officials equated it with the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe. The EU promised a revamp of relations. “More for more” went the slogan: the greater the democratic transition, the more benefits to the government.

Yet events have taken a darker turn. While Tunisia successfully held elections, Egypt’s military has offered no clear transition path. Libya is fragile and still flooded with weapons and many analysts fear Syria is on the brink of civil war.

As the picture has grown murky, so has Europe’s sense of purpose. Several billion extra euros were pledged for the Maghreb but only a fraction has found a home. Traditional concerns about rising migration and cheap agricultural imports have hampered quick delivery of trade and travel concessions that could have swayed choices of regional leaders.

“It’s a familiar story,” says Giles Merritt, secretary-general of Friends of Europe, a Brussels think tank. “EU governments commit to doing something but then somehow it doesn’t happen.”

For some of North Africa’s immediate neighbors–Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Malta–the Arab Spring events were unsettling. Others, like France and Britain, waved the flag of democracy and human rights.

The pro-democracy camp won out in 2011. But if more bad news flows across the Mediterranean in 2012, Europe could divide over an old dilemma: stability versus democracy.

On Russia, there has been no reset button between Brussels and Moscow. Ties have improved since the nadir of the 2008 Georgian war but incrementally. Russia’s opposition to energy liberalization has marred recent summits, with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accusing Brussels of “property confiscation” during a visit in February over EU rules that force energy firms to sell gas pipelines they own.

Bilateral ties vary hugely. Italy under Silvio Berlusconi was close to the Kremlin. German-Russian relations have grown sturdy amid a blossoming trade relationship built around links between Germany industry and Russian energy providers. Others, like the U.K., are still thawing ties after years of hostility.

Even in normal times, transforming this patchwork of interests and suspicions into clear strategy would be challenging.

It’s even more complex ahead of a Russian presidential election, as Russian leaders threaten to place missiles on the EU borders because of NATO’s missile-defense plans, and amid growing calls for political reform.

A recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations says the EU is missing out on an opportunity to turn Russia into a partner on issues of mutual concern: “Europeans have gone from thinking of Russia as a ‘big Poland,’ that it can encourage towards liberal democracy, to a ‘small China,’ which it can do business with but little else,” it says.