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Mogherini’s The European Union in a changing global environment: a discursive space to rethink the world

“I want a strategy that responds to the ideas, the fears, and even the dreams of the European citizens, the young and the older generations”, Federica Mogherini, 2015.

At the June Summit, which will take place after the UK Referendum, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, will present the results of her global review of external strategy. As part of the review process, the Human Security Study Group, at the LSE, which is convened by Mary Kaldor and Javier Solana, has presented a report entitled From Hybrid Peace to Human Security: Rethinking the EU Strategy Towards Conflict together with twelve background research papers .


Conflicts are at the sharp end of contemporary crises. Refugees, extremist ideologies, criminality and predation are all produced in conflict. Contemporary conflicts are sometimes known as ‘hybrid wars’ or ‘new wars’ in which classic distinctions between public and private, government/regular and rebel/irregular, and internal and external break down. They are best understood not as legitimate contests of wills (the twentieth century idea of war) but as a degenerate social condition in which armed groups mobilise sectarian and fundamentalist sentiments and construct a predatory economy through which they enrich. Identifying ways to address violent conflict could open up strategies for dealing with broader issues.


In this special openDemocracy series, the Human Security Study Group outlines the main conclusions of our report in our introductory essay together with six essays based on some of the background papers. These essays include: an analysis of the conceptual premises of the Global Review (Sabine Selchow); three essays on specific conflict zones – Syria (Rim Turkmani), Ukraine (Tymofiy Mylovanov), the Horn of Africa (Alex de Waal); the importance of the EU’s justice instrument (Iavor Rangelov); and how EU cyber security policy is human rights focused rather than state focussed (Genevieve Schmeder and Emmanuel Darmois). 

European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini at the EU Council building in Brussels, Feb., 2016. Virginia Mayo / Press Association. All rights reserved.

In June 2016 High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR), Federica Mogherini, is expected to present a new EU Global Strategy on foreign and security policy. This new strategy will replace the 2003 strategy A Secure Europe in a Better World (ESS 2003). The development of the new EU Global Strategy was designed as a consultative and inclusive process, with a dedicated online platform that featured a variety of studies and commentaries, aiming to feed into the process of formulating the strategy (#EUGlobalStrategy). “I want a strategy that responds to the ideas, the fears, and even the dreams of the European citizens, the young and the older generations”, Mogherini explained in 2015. 

The foundation for the new EU Global Strategy and the consultative process surrounding it is the document The European Union in a changing global environment: A more connected, contested and complex world. This document assesses the EU's security environment and its threats. It was prepared by “an informal working group, including representatives from the European External Action Service, the European Commission, the Council Secretariat and the European Council”, and presented to the European Council and the public in June 2015.  

Strategic documents, such as The European Union in a changing global environment, are worthwhile objects of scholarly examination – as long as one is clear about what their analysis is able to provide. It is clear that their analysis cannot provide insights into what the authors think, or, for that matter, what HR Mogherini thinks. Neither are documents, such as The European Union in a changing global environment, able to be read as explicit indications of, let alone blueprints for (future) policies. Yet, what their analysis is able to provide are insights into “interpretative dispositions” that are manifest in the text – that is, broad conceptions of the world, which shape what is ‘natural’ and ‘thinkable’ to begin with. Of course, a single document, like The European Union in a changing global environment, is only ever one discursive moment among many others. Yet, endorsed by HR Mogherini as the basis for the development of EU global strategy, The European Union in a changing global environment, sits in a particularly influential position. 

Starting on these premises, a systematic analysis of the conception of the world, that is, the EU strategic environment and the EU as a global security actor, in The European Union in a changing global environment – presents what turns out to be a fascinating picture. This is a picture that is shaped by two countervailing tendencies: we see a notable opening towards unconventional conceptions of the world, on the one side, and a symbolic conservation of EU institutions and programmes, on the other side.

The opening is grounded in the framing of the world as a “complex” post-post-Cold War environment. In contrast to the ESS 2003, in The European Union in a changing global environment it is not just ‘problems’ or ‘causes’ that are ‘complex’ but the world as such. In this understanding of the world, complexity runs through everything; it captures the very state of the world.

This is expressed in the following features of the document:

  1. Established institutions, such as the UN, the World Trade Organisation and the G20, are no longer equipped to deal with the new ‘complex’ realities (p. 138).
  2. The traditional distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ is obsolete (p.140, 145, 150).
  3. Existing concepts, such as ‘borders’ or ‘polarity’, fail to grasp the new reality. “The world system is no longer bipolar, unipolar or even multipolar, the very notion of ‘polarity’ is in question” (p. 136). The same goes for the concept of ‘power’. Power is no longer readily identifiable as it “no longer resides within actors but circulates among them” (p. 136).
  4. Discursive boundaries no longer capture the state of social reality, e.g. ‘tourists’ & ‘terrorists’ and ‘students’ & ‘refugees’, who are conventionally ‘at home’ in different discourses, are symbolically merged under the label “human mobility”, which is a constitutive feature of the ‘complex’ new reality (p. 128-9).
  5. There is no clear normative centre in this ‘complex’ world, one that determines who or what sets the rules to begin with: “We know that variable geometries of state and non-state actors will shape the world in new ways. What we do not know are the rules of global interaction and who will set them.” (p. 138)
  6. In the ‘complex’ world, power is diffused: “We live in an age of power shifts at a global level and power diffusion at all levels – away from governments and towards markets, media, civil (and less civil) societies and individuals.” (p. 135). While security actors such as the US, China and the EU remain ‘influential’, none of them will dominate the scene in the ‘complex’ world: “The combined effect of rising literacy, jobs and disposable incomes, along with the accelerating rate of technological progress, is expanding the number of stakeholders in world affairs.” (p. 135)
  7. »Region« is the guiding organisational category in the new ‘complex’ world: While the world of the document of the ESS 2003 consists mainly of ‘nation-states’, the one in The European Union in a changing global environment consists of ‘regions’, which are in themselves dynamic. “Power configurations change across time and place, making regions themselves dynamic concepts” (p. 136). The prominence of ‘regions’ as an organisational category puts the spotlight on issues such as ‘identity’ and ‘ideology’ as drivers of conflict (p. 136). At the same time, it stresses the essentially contextual nature of the challenges the EU is facing, in contrast to ‘abstract’ global threats, which feature in the ESS 2003. For instance, climate change exists in the ‘complex’ world of The European Union in a changing global environment as a trigger of regional conflicts, rather than as an external or ‘global’ threat to the EU as such (p. 126).

While, taken together, these points reveal a notable opening towards unconventional conceptions of the world, The European Union in a changing global environment simultaneously symbolically conserves existing EU institutions and programmes. They are not subject to a fundamental rethinking.

This is manifest in the following features of the document:

  1. The geographical compartmentalisation of the world into ‘regions’ draws a clear line around the EU, which is seen as being “surrounded by an arc of instability” (p. 123). Despite the fact that, in other respects, the internal/external-dichotomy is presented as failing to capture the ‘complex’ world, the EU is oddly distanced from and quarantined against the developments that surround it.
  2. Interlinked with the first point, is the perception of the EU as a political actor, which is by nature uniquely positioned and well equipped to deal with the ‘complex’ world: “The very nature of the EU as a construct of intertwined polities gives us a unique advantage to help steer the way in a more complex, more connected but also more contested world” (p. 128). Given that the EU is perceived to be uniquely positioned for this new ‘complex’ world, its very nature must be defended and conserved. On this basis, European integration becomes an explicit foreign policy and security strategy.
  3. There are “five sets of challenges” that the EU is facing [i) Redoubling the commitment to our European neighbours; ii)Rethinking the EU’s approach towards North Africa and the Middle East (MENA); iii)   Redefining our relationships with Africa; iv)   Reviving Atlantic Partnerships; iv) A rounded approach to Asia]. Taken together, these challenges are, first, constructed as the ‘regional manifestations’ of the nature of the ‘complex’ world. Second, they are presented as challenges to existing EU programmes. In other words, they are not challenges to the existence of the EU, as such, but to the “major external action instruments and policies” that are already in place, such as the CFSP, the CSDP, the counter-terrorism and counter violent extremism measures etc. In contrast to the ESS 2003, which refers to a variety of threats to the EU, in the world of The European Union in a changing global environment, there are challenges to already existing measures, which require a “re-doubling of commitments”, a “re-thinking of approaches”, a “re-defining of relationships” etc.
  4. Paradoxically, although it is the unique, integrated nature of the EU that is regarded as the foundation of its strength in the contemporary ‘complex’ world and, although ‘regions’ play a central role in the imagination of the world, the concrete EU external approach is guided by ‘international thinking’, at the heart of which is the idea of the nation-state as the guarantor of peace. “Beyond the imperative of fostering democracy, human rights (including the rights of minorities) and good governance, the conflict over Ukraine underlines the need to bolster the statehood prerogatives of our neighbours. These include recognised and protected borders, a sustainable fiscal capacity, as well as functioning customs services and police and military forces”(p. 132)

Taking all of this together, The European Union in a changing global environment exposes two contradictory tendencies. On the one side, the ‘interpretive disposition’ in the text effectively rules out any questioning of existing EU institutions and programmes – they are strictly symbolically conserved. On the other side, The European Union in a changing global environment challenges established conceptions of the world, for instance, by bringing in the concept of a world of ‘human mobility’ or by deconstructing and rewriting established concepts, such as ‘polarity’ and ‘power’.

It is the latter aspect that is fascinating and that makes the document significant: The European Union in a changing global environment opens an ‘authorised’ discursive space, which actors can enter and take advantage of to radically re-think the world, moving beyond conventional understandings of it and, with that, to potentially pave new pathways into the future, such as a future in which EU security is shaped by a second generation human security approach to conflict. Whether and precisely how this is done in practice is an empirical question. Once the new EU Global Strategy is released we will be able to see if, how and by whom this discursive space is filled, (re)shaped or, perhaps, left unoccupied and ‘unused’ after all. We will also be able to see if it perhaps widens enough as to permit the future possibility of fundamentally rethinking existing EU institutions and programmes. 

About the author

Sabine Selchow is a researcher in the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), UK.


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