Vimont: EU shouldn’t underestimate its soft power

By Laurens Cerulus

Despite the EU’s difficulties to get its voice heard on the Syria crisis, Pierre Vimont argues that the 28-country bloc should not underestimate its soft power footprint: “I don’t pretend that we’re doing as much as we’d like, but we’re as active as possible, at least in our neighbourhood.”


You mentioned earlier that “we shouldn’t be ashamed of our efforts in Syria and elsewhere”. Are there many reasons for Europe to be proud of its impact?


I wanted to react to everyone saying that Europe is absent from the Syrian issue. Or that Europe is absent from Mali and what not.


Sure, there are shortcomings to our actions and there are more things we could and should do. And that is what we are trying to achieve at the moment. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be ashamed of what we’ve done so far. We shouldn’t underestimate the EU’s efforts; it is not a fair assessment of what we’ve achieved.


We have acted on humanitarian access in Syria, on providing the Malian army with training. We continue to provide development assistance to the Mali people, and we’ve set up a presidential election that was deemed a success by everyone.


The Syrian war has been going on for two and a half years now, and has turned into a humanitarian disaster. Despite all the goodwill and humanitarian aid, Europe hasn’t been capable of changing the course of this conflict...


Yes, but it is a shared responsibility of the United Nations and of others. Now, of course, we haven’t been able to solve this crisis. But the EU is playing its part with all its diplomatic contacts. And we are trying to improve humanitarian access as much as we can. The EU has responded to each of the UN’s calls for aid donations, whenever possible, and we’ve received appraisal from the UN on this.


On the issue of chemical weapons inspections and the elimination of the chemical weapons in Syria, we are going to bring some contributions to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and to the UN. So we’re working on all of this.


Looking at the developments in Syria over the past weeks, would you agree that Europe is simply not a power broker, and it can only play a role when backed by global powers in international community – notably the US?


No, I think it is more complicated than that. Each situation has to be looked at on its own. Syria is not Mali; Mali is not Libya; Egypt is very different altogether. In each case, we have tried to do whatever we can.


Syria itself is an example in which the whole international community had failed – at first. The first actual success only happened last week, with the new Security Council resolution [on the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons] and the decision by the OPCW in The Hague.


But Europe was hardly involved in initiating these actions...


Well, no, you’re right. The issue of chemical weapons became more prominent and therefore the Americans put pressure [on Syria], threatening with military strikes. That this came about was a good thing.


Europe wasn’t there for the initiative itself but we have been as helpful as possible ever since. Again, I’m not saying that what we have done was going to solve the crisis – that is certainly not the case.


You mentioned Egypt earlier, a country that has always been closely connected to EU member states. Is the EU getting its point across: and does it have an actual impact on what is happening domestically?


It is a very difficult issue, we all agree. But one thing that frustrates me from time to time is that people argue that Europe is absent in Egypt; that we’re not visible. Egypt is the perfect example where Europe is in fact clearly involved.


[EEAS High Representative] Catherine Ashton currently is back there [in Egypt] again. The EU is the only player that is able to discuss with everyone. We have invested a lot of effort, including visits from the high representative [for foreign and security policy, Ashton], with special representative for the Southern Mediterranean region Bernardino Leon.


We’re there, trying to push for a solution. We haven’t succeeded in bringing two sides together, I agree. The hardliners in Egypt have been the ones that have prevailed so far.


But we are doing all we can and are the only ones is involved at the moment. And we are working in a way that is, I feel, the right attitude: not lecturing, not patronising, but listening and trying to work out a solution that is supported by the Egyptians themselves.


The amount of diplomatic effort put into this by the EU is also considerable. Catherine Ashton is closely involved in person. Bernardino León is one of the EU’s top international diplomats. What if the EU invested an equal amount of resources into other conflicts, and in Syria for that matter?


Well, we are involved everywhere – in some cases more visible than in others. Take Tunisia, for example, where we have been discussing the present political deadlock with everyone. We are present in Libya, in Yemen...


We are trying to be as active as we can, at least in our neighbourhood. I don’t pretend that we are succeeding as much as we’d like. But we’re trying.


It seems there has been a lot of interest on Egypt, and perhaps high representative Ashton’s visit contributed to our visibility there.


You have been involved in the EEAS from the start and worked at the top of international relations, having served as French ambassador to the US before. What is your assessment of how much Europe’s soft power has suffered from the economic crisis?


Surprisingly, not that much. And I have been repeating this over and over again. When I arrived at the external action service in 2010, everyone told me we would not succeed in our task. And so far, our bilateral partners as well as the international, multilateral bodies have all come knocking at Europe’s door to ask for help and support. I haven’t felt the impact of the crisis.


But I agree with the comments that we can only be strong if our economic situation remains strong; if we keep our competitiveness. So let’s see whether this will be the case.


Pierre Vimont is the executive secretary general of the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU's diplomatic service.