Europe united?

Kirsty Hughes
27 September 2001

The European response so far to the terrorist attacks on the US has been one of strongly expressed solidarity. But the global crisis provoked by the attacks on America, poses an old question in a very new context for the European Union. Can the EU match its global economic weight with a parallel political influence? Or will the EU’s recurring difficulty in speaking with a single voice undermine its ability to contribute at global level to ensuring a peaceful and effective long-run resolution of the current crisis?

Initial European reactions to the attacks were strong and clear: shock and outrage at the atrocities; shock at the vulnerability of the US; and fear at the potential for more attacks that might choose targets throughout the western world. These initial reactions were followed rapidly by questions as to how the US would and should respond, and how the EU could contribute to and influence that response. Very deep concerns remain as to which path the US will choose – particularly about a too wide and too rapid military response, with potentially huge destabilising effects.

European leaders remain reluctant, apart from Tony Blair, to use the rhetoric of war, and the communiqué from the emergency summit of EU heads of state on 21 September did not use the term. European leaders, including Schröder and Chirac, have emphasised that political solidarity, and the unconditional condemnation of the attacks, does not mean an unconditional signing up to all subsequent US actions and responses. This remains the case, even with the unprecedented agreement of NATO to invoke its Article 5. And it seems clear that the US will not in fact work through NATO, in order to retain its greatest freedom of manoeuvre and decision-making.

Three Challenges

The EU’s political leaders face three main questions that will determine the role and influence of the Union in the unfolding global crisis. Can Europe unite in establishing its short and longer-term political strategy in response to the attacks and in tackling terrorism more broadly? Will the EU be able to maintain and advance its own point of view while maintaining strong relations with the US? And will the EU strengthen its own internal security, without alienating its citizens and weakening civil liberties, and without building a ‘fortress Europe’?

The answers to all these questions will depend not only on the EU’s internal political dynamics. They will inevitably depend critically on the extent and impact of US military action, on the approach the US adopts to its wider global strategy against terrorism, and on whether there are further terrorist attacks in the near future.

At present, while the US continues building a global coalition of support, the nature and extent of its military and non-military plans still remain unclear. This lack of clarity is paralleled in the strong but very general declarations of solidarity being made around the world. Once more specific actions and policies emerge, the diversity of views behind the expressions of solidarity will come sharply into focus.

The EU has the chance to give a positive response to its three big challenges – of unity, influence and effectively combined security and civil liberties. But while there are some positive signs in these very early days, the prospects for success in all three areas looks weak, for both internal and external reasons.

A diplomatic contribution?

At their emergency summit on 21 September, the EU’s political leaders made a strong statement of political support for the US, including support for a US response as legitimate on the basis of the UN Security Council Resolution 1368 (passed on 12 September). They also expressed member states’ willingness to participate in such actions but ‘each according to its means’. This reflects the fact that the EU itself is still not in a position to participate as a body in military activity.

But behind the solid political front in the summit communiqué lie different views on involvement in military action, and the form of action, if any, that is desirable and legitimate. This reflects different foreign policy stances, very different military capabilities and differing approaches of smaller and larger member states (plus the existence of 4 neutral countries within the EU). Public opinion varies too, with nascent peace movements in many countries (Germany for example with its strong pacifist section of opinion, while France so far has seen little peace movement activity). All this suggests that once military action begins, unless it is very focused and limited in time and impact, the EU will struggle to maintain a single view on the US’s military strategy.

The EU is also moving rapidly and so far cohesively on non-military fronts – both internal and external – to respond to the attacks. It strongly supports the broad US view that a successful global strategy against terrorism must involve a range of diplomatic, economic and legal tools. It is particularly trying to contribute diplomatically in the Middle East – both with a direct focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and through attempts at bilateral diplomacy, including with Iran and Syria. But EU leverage in the Middle East is limited – in part precisely because of its own inability to build over time a genuine strong common foreign policy and to have a global profile as a strong foreign policy actor. Despite moves forward in recent years, member states, particularly the big ones such as Britain and France, remain jealous of their own national foreign policy roles (including in the UN Security Council).

On the wider foreign policy front – diplomatic, economic, institutional – at its most positive, the current crisis does potentially open up the opportunity for stronger and more coordinated global action on a range of fronts to tackle wider sources of global instability, tension and inequality. As the EU’s Commissioner for foreign affairs Chris Patten put it, in one of the broadest political interventions in the early days of the crisis: “we [must] work together not only to root out terrorism but to tackle its causes and consequences.” Calling for action within the UN to destroy terrorist safe havens and networks, he at the same time emphasised that “we need to redouble efforts to redress the divisions and inequalities in this world which are an affront to us all and which sustain the men of violence and hatred” (Guardian, 15 September 2001).

But so far, there is scant evidence to show that such a positive and wide-ranging response will be forthcoming. The EU, like the US, has been moving rapidly to do what it can to deal with the economic fall-out. And both the US and EU look to be pushing for launching a world trade round at Doha in November as a signal of positive global economic action.

There is no sign yet, for example, of a wide-ranging initiative from the EU setting out a bold and concrete new path to match Chris Patten’s strong words, and which the EU could lobby for with the US and globally. And examples from the EU’s recent history are not too encouraging here either. EU trade negotiations with post-apartheid South Africa were held up lengthily and shamefully by individual member states wrangling over sectoral interests, at the level of cut flowers and fortified wines. The Commission’s recent initiative to remove trade barriers for the world’s poorest countries, ‘everything but arms,’ was weakened by member states to protect key products such as rice and sugar (‘everything but agriculture’ said some). It is on such detailed sectoral and national interests that the EU’s efforts at a common voice have frequently floundered.

Can crisis produce progress?

Crises can produce rapid progress that seems impossible in more normal times. It is too early to see if the EU can maintain some of its newfound unanimity and rapidity of movement in internal and external affairs. But the EU has moved quickly both diplomatically and in internal areas, notably on drawing up a common terrorist list and in looking for agreement on a single European arrest warrant by early December. And such speed does not necessarily mean that proper democratic scrutiny is being avoided – the slow pace of typical European legislation is often as much for bureaucratic and procedural reasons as for democratic ones – but there are still genuine concerns that EU responses could negatively impact on civil liberties, and on international obligations (on asylum and refugees notably). And if the EU’s response is to over-tighten its borders, this will impact negatively on political relations in the EU’s often none too stable wider neighbourhood.

Rapid improvement in transatlantic relations, suffering in the first 9 months of the Bush presidency, is a perhaps not surprising outcome of the current crisis. Apart from declarations of solidarity, plans for cooperation have already been announced in a variety of focused areas from air transport security, police and judicial cooperation, border and visa controls, to action against terrorists’ financial networks. But the real questions and opportunities lie in the areas that were causing contention earlier this year – from the environment to the Middle East to tackling world poverty.

It is still too early to see clear outlines of the strategic direction the US will take – whether it will aim to assert its weight as a hegemonic superpower, picking and choosing its supporters and coalitions on different issues. Or whether, there can be a more genuine set of global policies and partnerships, of which a positive transatlantic relationship can form one important part.

As for the EU, it faces the challenge of trying to build and maintain a unified and influential voice. If it splinters and divides, Europe’s political weight on the world stage will be minimal in these critical times. The first challenge in the coming weeks will be whether the EU can remain cohesive once military action is underway – or whether we see a familiar divide, with the UK closer to the US than any other European country. The bigger and longer run challenge is for the EU both to develop and to unite around a strong, multi-dimensional set of global policies. The EU must not be not only persuasive in promoting those policies. Above all, it must avoid splintering on its own diverse sectional self-interests.

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