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Introduction: Weathering the Storm?

The EU as a Global Peace and Security Actor in Turbulent Times

In: European Review of International Studies
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Abstract

Promoting peace and security in Europe, its neighbourhood, and in the world, is at the heart of how the European Union (EU) understands itself and its global political role. In recent years, however, both the tangible role of the EU in fostering peace beyond its borders and the Union’s famous image as a ‘normative power’ have met substantial challenges. The challenges, which fundamentally alter the context in which the EU supports peace and security, include EU-internal factors, such as democratic backsliding in some member states, electoral success of populist far right parties, or disagreements over migration. They also include external factors, notably the unravelling transatlantic relationship under President Trump or the rise of China in the peace and security domain. This article introduces the special issue ‘Weathering the Storm? The EU as a Global Peace and Security Actor in Turbulent Times’. It first discusses the numerous tests the EU faces in fostering peace beyond its borders, and how past research has evaluated and interpreted the effect of these challenges on EU foreign policy. It then outlines two interrelated shortcomings of past research: an ‘EU navel-gazing’ and focus on how EU policies come into being in Brussels, rather than studying how these policies are implemented ‘on the ground’ – coupled with a lack of interdisciplinary conceptual and empirical debate between peace and conflict research and European Studies. Finally, it discusses how the articles that make up this special issue help to address these shortcomings and how they contribute to the current trend in blurring the lines between domestic and international politics.

Abstract

Promoting peace and security in Europe, its neighbourhood, and in the world, is at the heart of how the European Union (EU) understands itself and its global political role. In recent years, however, both the tangible role of the EU in fostering peace beyond its borders and the Union’s famous image as a ‘normative power’ have met substantial challenges. The challenges, which fundamentally alter the context in which the EU supports peace and security, include EU-internal factors, such as democratic backsliding in some member states, electoral success of populist far right parties, or disagreements over migration. They also include external factors, notably the unravelling transatlantic relationship under President Trump or the rise of China in the peace and security domain. This article introduces the special issue ‘Weathering the Storm? The EU as a Global Peace and Security Actor in Turbulent Times’. It first discusses the numerous tests the EU faces in fostering peace beyond its borders, and how past research has evaluated and interpreted the effect of these challenges on EU foreign policy. It then outlines two interrelated shortcomings of past research: an ‘EU navel-gazing’ and focus on how EU policies come into being in Brussels, rather than studying how these policies are implemented ‘on the ground’ – coupled with a lack of interdisciplinary conceptual and empirical debate between peace and conflict research and European Studies. Finally, it discusses how the articles that make up this special issue help to address these shortcomings and how they contribute to the current trend in blurring the lines between domestic and international politics.

Introduction

Promoting peace and security on the European continent in the European neighbourhood, as well as in the world, is at the heart of how the European Union (EU) understands itself and its global political role.1 In the aftermath of World War ii, an ‘idealistic narrative’ of ‘Europe as a peace project’2 was part of what drove European integration among the Union’s predecessors, a notion perhaps most visibly highlighted in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in December 2012.3 Benefiting, in addition, from the rules-based international order created and strengthened after World War ii, the United States (US) security umbrella, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (nato) contributions to fostering peace in western Europe, the EU today stands, despite all its crises, as one of the most peaceful, free, democratic and economically prosperous regions in the world.4

This experience, as it is often described, has translated into how policymakers in the EU have striven to build on the Union’s ‘strengths and historic achievements’ to conceptualise and develop the EU’s foreign policy.5 In the famous words of Manners, the EU has been labelled a ‘normative power’ that has ‘the ability to define what passes for ‘normal’ in world politics’.6 This means it has enshrined the centrality of core norms such as peace, liberty, democracy, the rule of law and human rights as its foreign policy objectives in its treaties and policy documents; and it pursues political conditionality in its external relations by tying assistance to democratic principles and human rights standards.7 The image and idea of a normative power is also visible in concrete foreign policy actions, outcomes or budget decisions. The EU is today amongst the most important global actors working on the prevention of violence and promoting sustainable peace. Its 2020–2027 multiannual financial framework includes, for instance, eur 98.4 billion under the heading ‘Neighbourhood and the world’.8 Since 2003, the Union has furthermore carried out more than 35 civilian and military missions and operations under its Common Security and Defence Policy (csdp), and EU officials have participated in or advised hundreds of peace negotiations around the globe, such as in Georgia, Yemen, Myanmar, or between Kosovo and Serbia.9 Together with its member states, the EU is the leading global donor of Official Development Assistance, providing more than 50 per cent of aid, while member states contribute around one-third of the budget of the United Nations (UN) and as much of the UN Peacekeeping budget.10 As a result, surveys regularly show that a vast majority of citizens in Europe associate the EU with the promotion of norms such as peace or human rights, and the EU is often equally positively perceived in other parts of the world.11

In recent years, however, both the tangible role of the EU in fostering peace and security beyond its borders, as well as its image as a normative power, have met substantial challenges, which fundamentally alter the context in which EU foreign policy operates. A number of EU-internal and external challenges have been particularly highlighted in scholarship on the topic.

Within the EU ‘democratic backsliding’ in member states such as Hungary and Poland,12 growing societal divisions and the electoral success of populist radical right parties have added to the politicisation of foreign policy; and illiberal domestic policies by populist actors have the potential to undermine the EU’s legitimacy abroad.13 This politicisation – long absent from public discourses on foreign policy issues – has also specifically hit EU action in promoting peace and security abroad, such as when debates are linked to salient issues like terrorism and migration.14 As Lohmann notes in this special issue, the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the EU is maybe ‘the most visible sign’ of this politicisation and of a ‘corrosion of commonality among Europeans’, which has removed significant financial, military and political resources previously available to the Union’s foreign policy. In the long run, he argues, Brexit will weaken the EU’s capability to pursue its foreign policy – but, as others hold, it may also present an opportunity for the EU to reflect on its identity as a foreign policy actor.15

The ‘overemphasis on migration’ within EU policy discourses16 and rising security interests in the member states after the arrival of over one million refugees and migrants in Europe in 2015 have diverted attention in policy circles – and academia – from the development, adaptation and evaluation of foreign policy instruments other than migration management that can foster sustainable peace. The so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has also been named as a key reason for why narratives (and policies) on how to build peace have shifted – in addition to the realisation among policymakers that ambitious peacebuilding missions and the promotion of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in post-conflict societies are ‘more difficult than anticipated, fraught with challenges and confronted with a continuing difficulty of understanding local politics and dynamics’.17 Some have argued in this regard that the EU has all but abandoned transformative ambitions that focus on the promotion of peace, democracy or human rights in remote countries in favour of a ‘downscaled’ agenda stressing resilience, stability and order.18

An additional factor with the potential to further contribute to the ‘downscaling’ of foreign policy goals is the measures to contain the covid-19 pandemic since March 2020. These have put strain on the EU’s finances and have forced the Union, as some argue, to ‘look inward’, raising expectations that the pandemic will in the long run downsize the Commission’s ‘ambition to take on a more forceful geopolitical role’.19 While crises ‘are not a new phenomenon’ in the history of the EU, what is new is ‘the sheer quantity of different challenges’ confronting the EU today that overburden its institutions and the cohesion of its member states.20

This also holds true beyond the EU’s borders. In recent years, armed conflict and organised violence in the Union’s direct neighbourhood, such as in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh, have posed a direct security threat to the EU and presented a renewed challenge to its foreign policy. Although the number of battle-related deaths in armed conflicts worldwide has been declining since 2014, violence is on the rise in countries in which the EU is particularly active in support of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, such as in Afghanistan, Mali or Niger.21 This development is not unrelated to the role the EU itself takes on in these countries. As human rights activist Drissa Traoré recently highlighted, more civilians were killed in Mali in 2020 by state security forces –which receive training and advice from the European Union Training Mission in Mali (eutm) – than by jihadist extremist groups.22

Finally, a changing world order in which China’s economic and political power increasingly rivals that of the US also tests how the EU can foster peace and security beyond its borders – and do so independently. Between 2017 and 2021, US President Donald Trump openly questioned joint multilateral action under his America First policy. He regularly voiced thinly-veiled contempt towards multilateral institutions as such, and towards the EU in particular, the latter being perhaps ‘the most radical form of multilateralism worldwide’23 and, as Grimmel and Gurol write in this special issue, one of the most vigorous supporters of multilateralism on the world stage. The retreat of the US from the world stage and the unravelling of the transatlantic partnership under President Trump went alongside a further rise of non-western actors in the peace and security domain, meaning China in particular. China contributes growing numbers of troops to UN peacekeeping operations, provides through its Belt and Road Initiative (bri) substantial volumes of development assistance to conflict-affected states, and regularly engages as a mediator in peace processes.24 The European Commission has famously called China a ‘systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance’,25 and policymakers and academics alike have framed its rise as non-conducive or contradictory to the EU’s foreign policy, due to its ‘pragmatic’, rather than normative approach.26

Shortcomings of Previous Research

This special issue explores the implications of these recent challenges to the EU’s role in promoting peace and security in various ‘theatres of engagement’ around the world.27 How do these challenges affect tangible foreign policy readings, concepts, strategies, or instruments? Does the EU, for instance, build peace differently, face previously unbeknown contestations, or strive to adapt peacebuilding instruments, now that it faces a growing Chinese presence in conflict-affected societies? Has the frayed transatlantic partnership under President Trump or have divisions within the EU altered policymakers’ usage of foreign policy concepts, the EU’s narratives or efforts towards its interventions, or its cooperation with other organisations?

The numerous internal and external challenges outlined above have certainly prompted a rush of scholarly articles, many of which we cite in this introduction, some indeed written by the authors contributing to this special issue, and several also published in the European Review of International Studies.28 Yet, the acceleration of many of the challenges we described above due to the covid-19-pandemic,29 as well as shortcomings in the existing scholarly literature, call for further conceptualisation and empirical analysis on the topic.

Our key ambition in this special issue is to take the existing scholarly debate a step further by addressing two interrelated shortcomings of how the EU is normally conceived as a global peace and security actor. As a number of scholars has noted before us, the first shortcoming is the EU-centric character of research on the Union’s foreign policy. Studies often tend to focus on decision-making in Brussels or the member states and on how concrete concepts, strategies or instruments come into being ‘at home’, rather than how they are implemented and perceived in receiving countries.30

The two scholarly fields primarily occupied with how the EU fosters peace and security beyond its borders – European Studies on the one hand and peace and conflict research on the other– often also remain disconnected, study different elements of political processes or make use of distinct analytical lenses on the EU’s role in fostering peace. For instance, some have argued that peace and conflict research often neglects the EU as an actor in peacebuilding as such, as in mediation or security sector reform processes, especially when compared to the vast scholarly attention paid to the UN’s role in that domain.31 At the same time, European Studies rarely considers conceptualisations or frameworks from peace and conflict research that help explain why policies succeed or fail in countries of the Global South, such as insights into viable conditions for sustainable peace.32

The notion that the EU is a role model that ‘exports its internal model and transforms the international landscape in its own image’33 is still also widely shared in European Studies, whereas several works in peace and conflict research have problematised the export of Western ideas and institutions to conflict-affected societies.34 The gap between the two subdisciplines and the ‘navel-gazing’ approach to how the EU fosters peace and security is hence also problematic insofar as there is a growing ‘awareness among practitioners and scholars that local contexts, agencies and communities greatly matter for the success and sustainability of peacebuilding efforts’ as well as widespread agreement that there is no universally applicable blue-print for fostering peace and security.35

Finally, the articles that make up this special issue not only address some of these shortcomings of previous research, but also contribute to a trend in the literature of reducing what Korosteleva and Flockhart have referred to as ‘line-drawing’ between domestic and international issues. They argue that some political science disciplines, such as International Relations, have long had a tendency to ‘bracket domestic politics’ as outside the realms of international politics, and although ‘a softening of this stance certainly has taken place’, a shadow still remains.36 This observation closely relates to the calls by academics and practitioners concerned with closer connections between internal and external factors in determining how the EU pursues its goals of peace and security.37 We have thus asked all contributors to address how both external threats and internal challenges shaped and transformed how the EU attempts to foster peace and security in the world.

Introducing the Special Issue

This special issue combines articles from authors representing both European Studies and peace and conflict research in order to fully seize the explanatory potential of both disciplines. Almost all articles that make up this special issue thereby analyse the EU’s role as a peace and security actor from the perspective of its ‘theatres of engagement’. While some articles analyse well-studied yet very recent cases of the EU’s engagement (such as the EU’s role in the Sahel), others investigate previously overlooked cases of EU efforts in fostering peace, such as the EU’s role in Nepal or Southeast Asia. Almost all articles also come with novel empirical insights from carrying out in-depth interviews and fieldwork and address the interrelationship between internal and external factors.

In their conceptual piece, Grimmel and Gurol analyse the political and academic discourses on the EU’s and China’s foreign policy. Taking Kagan’s cultural theory of foreign policy as a starting point, they argue that a juxtaposition of the EU as a ‘normative power’ versus China as a ‘pragmatic actor’ has in recent years significantly shaped the political and academic discourses; furthermore, policymakers and academics alike have understood China and its approach to global governance as one of the most serious external challenges to the EU’s foreign policy. Drawing on debates on the EU’s and China’s roles in international relations and on a number of original interviews with policymakers, political advisors and academics from both the EU and China and conducted in Beijing, Shanghai and Brussels over the course of 2019, they not only expand the existing literature on the topic by studying how authoritative figures and elites regard their respective country’s foreign policy making, but also show how the common duality of normativity versus pragmatism is misleading and needs to be overcome through a broader understanding of the EU’s and China’s foreign policy models: both the European Union’s and China’s foreign policy approaches always and necessarily have a normative and a practical side. In short, there is no normativity without pragmatism, and every pragmatism also has a normative effect. This insight also offers a new and deeper understanding of possible conflict constellations in the area of tension between the two foreign policy preferences and models.

This finding by Grimmel and Gurol from a conceptual perspective is echoed in the study by Strasheim and Bogati, who examine the EU-China divide from an empirical point of view. They ask how China’s rise as a so-called ‘pragmatic’ peacebuilder that supports development, poverty alleviation or infrastructure restoration rather than democracy, the rule of law or human rights in building peace38 has affected the EU’s peacebuilding agenda in Nepal. Drawing on 55 interviews and three focus group discussions conducted since 2015, they show that casting China as the sole or key challenger to EU peacebuilding in Nepal is not justified. While they thus explicitly study the rising presence of China in post-conflict societies as an external challenge, their findings highlight how EU internal and external factors both shape peacebuilding success. For instance, while the alternative resources China offers to domestic policymakers in Kathmandu have lessened the EU’s leverage in the areas of civil society or human rights, a lack of coordination of the EU with its member states or a change in public perception towards Western peacebuilders in recent years have been similarly important in explaining (the lack of) peacebuilding success.

The contributions by Bergmann and Plank and by Müller come with equally rich empirical material and novel insights based on interviews and fieldwork, thereby substantially advancing our understanding of the EU’s role in different contexts in Africa and Asia. Bergmann and Plank draw on insights from historical institutionalism39 and the concept of ‘foreign policy entrapment’ to study the long-term evolution of the EU’s policies towards the Sahel in order to understand how current policy dilemmas the EU is facing in the region have developed. They demonstrate that, due to internal and external factors, the EU’s approach towards the Sahel has been increasingly driven by two main narratives: a security-related narrative to which migration was added after 2015 and a narrative of ‘Sahelian solutions for Sahelian problems’. An important EU-internal driver that has shaped the evolution of its Sahel policy is, for example, inter-institutional competition that has constantly reinforced initial decisions and has made it difficult for EU policymakers to ‘escape’ well-trodden paths. External factors have also contributed to lock-in effects in EU foreign policy towards the Sahel, as they strengthened the perception among policymakers that previous actions were insufficient to address problems.

Müller also looks at the EU’s security engagement abroad but employs an organisational perspective. In his study, he draws on information gathered in interviews with over 200 representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (asean), the Economic Community of West African States (ecowas), the EU and other actors, and obtained during 11 months of field research in both regions, to compare the EU’s relationships with the two regional organisations. Asking what factors explain the difference in the EU’s role – pre-eminent in security cooperation in West Africa, but subordinate in Southeast Asia – he finds that while previous explanations focus on the EU’s internal characteristics, the organisational environment is an additional determining factor. A crowded organisational environment may pose a challenge to the EU realising its strategies in security cooperation with other regional organisations.

Finally, Lohmann uses the example of Iran to examine how the role of the EU as a global peace and security actor more and more comes into conflict with the reality of EU policymaking. In doing so, Lohmann focuses on strategic autonomy, which the EU has recently placed at the centre of its foreign and security policy as a guiding principle. The study aims to trace the genesis and use of the concept of strategic autonomy. The focus of the empirical analysis is the Iran nuclear deal and the EU’s reaction to its unilateral termination by the Trump administration. Lohmann identifies a central obstacle to a more effective foreign and security policy of the EU, not least strategically, in the lack of EU foreign policy tools. In addition, however, he elaborates on the lack of effectiveness in the processes of European decision-making. Lohmann sees the EU’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the policies of Trump’s US administration as an important lesson in the inadequacies of EU foreign policy and its desire to achieve more strategic autonomy. Lohmann thereby studies how internal and external challenges have influenced the EU’s ambitions in becoming a more active and influential actor in international relations, in addition to how those challenges have exposed the weaknesses that prevent the EU from playing a more effective role. He finds that while the fraying of the transatlantic relationship under President Trump has played a pivotal role, internal factors have been less prominent in this case, where EU solidarity has been sustained to an unusual degree.

Overall, this special issue can only provide insights into some, albeit central, areas of the EU and its foreign policy. However, the editors of this issue of eris are convinced that the studies compiled here provide highly valuable insights for political science research in various fields, which above all will also be the starting point for further discussion and contribute to a more differentiated understanding of the current problems and challenges facing the European Union in the context of international relations.

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1

Patel, ‘Who was saving whom? The European Community and the Cold War, 1960s-1970s’; Blockmans, Wouters, and Ruys, The European Union and Peacebuilding: Policy and Legal Aspects; Ejdus and Juncos, ‘Reclaiming the local in EU peacebuilding: Effectiveness, ownership, and resistance’.

2

Tocci, Framing the EU Global Strategy. A Stronger Europe in a Fragile World, p. 42.

3

Cf. Ghervas, Conquering Peace. From the Enlightenment to the European Union; but see Patel, Projekt Europa. Eine kritische Geschichte, or Hansen and Jonsson, Eurafrica. The Untold History of European Integration and Colonialism, for a critical reading of this narrative.

4

Birchfield, Krige, and Young, ‘European integration as a peace project’; Institute for Economics and Peace.

5

European External Action Service, p. 8.

6

Manners, ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’, p. 242.

7

Molenaers, Dellepiane, and Faust, ‘Political Conditionality and Foreign Aid’.

9

Panchulidze and Bergmann, ‘The new ‘Concept on EU Peace Mediation’: boosting EU capacities in crisis response and conflict resolution?’.

10

European Commission, ‘The European Union remains world’s leading donor of Official Development Assistance with €75.2 billion in 2019’; Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the UN, ‘Europe’s Role in the United Nations’.

11

E.g. Wike, Fetterolf, and Fagan, ‘Europeans Credit EU with Promoting Peace and Prosperity, but Say Brussels Is Out of Touch with Its Citizens’.

12

Bermeo, ‘On Democratic Backsliding’.

13

Bergmann, Hackenesch, and Stockemer, ‘Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe: What Impact Do They Have on Development Policy?’; Cadier and Lequesne, ‘How Populism Impacts EU Foreign Policy’.

14

Barbé and Morillas, ‘The EU global strategy: the dynamics of a more politicized and politically integrated foreign policy’.

15

Cf. Haastrup, Wright, and Guerrina, ‘Bringing Gender In? EU Foreign and Security Policy after Brexit’.

16

Tocci, ‘Resilience and the Role of the European Union in the World.’, p. 185.

17

Karlsrud, ‘From Liberal Peacebuilding to Stabilization and Counterterrorism’, p. 2.

18

Barbé and Morillas, ‘The EU global strategy: the dynamics of a more politicized and politically integrated foreign policy’; Schwarzer, ‘Europas geopolitischer Moment’.

19

International Crisis Group, ‘Watch List 2020–Spring Edition’.

20

Grimmel, ‘Introduction: The Many Challenges of the European Union’, p. 1.

21

Pettersson and Öberg, ‘Organized violence, 1989–2019’.

22

Traoré, ‘Plus de civils ou suspects non armés ont été tués au Sahel en 2020 par des forces de sécurité que par des groupes extrémistes’.

23

Tocci, ‘Resilience and the Role of the European Union in the World’, p. 190.

24

E.g. Fung, ‘What Explains China’s Deployment to UN Peacekeeping Operations?’.

25

European Commission, ‘EU-China-A Strategic Outlook’.

26

Cf. van der Putten and van der Meulen, ‘Europe and China in International Conflict Management: Rivals and Partners’; but see Grimmel and Gurol in this issue for a more critical assessment of the pragmatism-normativity-dichotomy.

27

Richmond, Björkdahl, and Kappler, ‘The Emerging EU Peacebuilding Framework: Confirming or Transcending Liberal Peacebuilding?’, p. 7.

28

E.g. Schramm, ‘Exit from Joint-decision Problems? Integration and Disintegration in the EU’s Recent Poly-crisis’; Webber, ‘Declining Power Europe: The Evolution of the European Union’s World Power in the Early 21st Century’.

29

Haass, ‘The Pandemic Will Accelerate History Rather Than Reshape It’.

30

Ejdus and Juncos, ‘Reclaiming the local in EU peacebuilding: Effectiveness, ownership, and resistance’; Keuleers, Fonck and Keukeleire, ‘Beyond EU navel-gazing: Taking stock of EU-centrism in the analysis of EU foreign policy’.

31

Ansorg and Haastrup, ‘Gender and the EU’s Support for Security Sector Reform in Fragile Contexts’; Bergmann, Plank, and Niemann, ‘Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe: What Impact Do They Have on Development Policy?’.

32

But see the literature on the ‘local turn’ in EU peacebuilding, e.g. Ejdus and Juncos, ‘Reclaiming the local in EU peacebuilding: Effectiveness, ownership, and resistance’.

33

Barbé and Morillas, ‘The EU global strategy: the dynamics of a more politicized and politically integrated foreign policy’, p. 757.

34

Cf. Ansorg and Kurtenbach, Institutional Reforms and Peacebuilding. Change, Path-Dependency and Societal Divisions in Post-War Communities.

35

Müller and Zahda, ‘Local perceptions of the EU’s role in peacebuilding: The case of security sector reform in Palestine’.

36

Korosteleva and Flockhart, ‘Resilience in EU and international institutions: Redefining local ownership in a new global governance agenda’, p. 161.

37

E.g. Holvikivi and Reeves, ‘Women, Peace and Security after Europe’s “refugee crisis”’.

38

Kuo, Chinese Peace in Africa. From Peacekeeper to Peacemaker.

39

E.g. Pierson, ‘The Path to European Integration: A Historical Institutionalist Perspective’.

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