The EU appeared to fail the first test, as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych stepped back from approving an association agreement with the bloc under pressure from Moscow. By contrast, the Geneva negotiations culminated in seeming success, as Tehran agreed to temporarily curtail its uranium enrichment in exchange for mild sanctions relief while talks for a comprehensive deal continue. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry lauded Ashton’s “stewardship” of the process.
The two episodes offered something that European foreign policy debates often lack: excitement. Discussions of Brussels and the world frequently oscillate between grand statements of principles and institutional minutiae. Yet the stakes in Ukraine and Iran are real and significant. Ukraine has become a trial of the EU’s ability to manage its unruly neighborhood and stop Russia from reasserting control over former Soviet states. Iran has tested Europe’s ambitions to project diplomatic clout in the wider world.
The EU has long aspired to be both a regional and global power. The union’s leaders articulated these goals in the first—and so far only—European Security Strategy in 2003. Developed by Ashton’s predecessor, Javier Solana, to mitigate the damage done to European unity by the Iraq crisis, the strategy prioritized “building security in our neighborhood” and “an international order based on effective multilateralism.” The document will reach its 10th birthday this December.
At the regional level, the EU faced a promising picture 10 years ago. It was on the verge of a major enlargement in 2004 that would bring ex-communist states such as Poland into the club. There were rows about when, if ever, additional countries such as Ukraine and Turkey might follow suit. But most of the union’s neighbors still seemed eager to join and willing to make deep economic and political reforms to do so.
Globally, meanwhile, the international backlash against the American-led invasion of Iraq seemed to offer the EU diplomatic opportunities. Some members of the bloc joined the invasion, but all EU members professed their faith in a more effective multilateral system to avoid more such crises in the future. This tallied with calls by non-Western states for a return to international law and multilateral diplomacy. It looked like the EU, with its talent for devising complex legal mechanisms, could play a pivotal role in addressing those demands.
Today, the strategic picture seems much bleaker. At the regional level, the EU faces a new era of “soft power competition” from a resurgent Russia to the east, of which the tussle over Ukraine is just the latest example. European policymakers have also struggled to affect events in the Middle East as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey have competed to shape the region after the Arab revolutions. China also has growing economic leverage in Europe’s neighborhood: Beijing has, for example, given autocratic Belarus financial support. The EU’s appeal has not totally disappeared, as the huge protests in Kiev in favor of closer ties with the union demonstrated, but it has waned.
The same is arguably true at the global level. Ashton’s success in Geneva is notable because it comes after a series of multilateral setbacks for the EU, which has been marginalized in negotiations such as September’s Russo-American talks on Syria’s chemical weapons. Officials in Brussels still fret over their failure to shape a decisive deal on climate change at the 2009 Copenhagen summit, which many had hoped would confirm the EU’s status as a multilateral heavyweight. European governments can still push policies through the United Nations and other international institutions.
Even Ashton’s performance over Iran needs to be kept in perspective. She has kept the talks going through dogged personal diplomacy, and EU leaders have strengthened her hand by implementing tough sanctions on Iran. But the decisive Western player remains the U.S.: If President Barack Obama had not been willing to drive for an agreement, sanctioning backchannel talks with Tehran, all Ashton’s hard work would have been in vain.
More broadly, it is clear that the multilateral arena is likely to be as competitive as Europe’s neighborhood in the years ahead as Russia, China and regional powers ranging from Brazil to Saudi Arabia vie for influence over international institutions. The 2003 European Security Strategy, which highlighted the EU’s ability to build up orderly, rule-based relationships at both the regional and global levels, offers relatively little guidance on how to navigate such fluid and often zero-sum international competition.
This does not mean that EU officials are naive. The team working on Ukraine did not let Russia keep hold of Kiev lightly. Lobbying by both sides has been ferocious with threats—veiled and not—from the West about letting Ukraine spin off forever into Moscow’s orbit. Although the Russians used threats over gas supplies to trump the EU, Brussels is unlikely to drop the fight. Ashton’s ability to deal with Iranian officials certainly suggests she has the necessary inner toughness to push on.
Yet even the most robust tactical diplomacy will only get the EU so far if it does not have an up-to-date strategy to guide its initiatives, especially given the bloc’s economic pains. In a resource-constrained environment, Europeans will increasingly have to make difficult choices about where in the world they want to have influence and how.
The diplomatic lows and highs of the past week show the need for Europeans to become more strategically competitive in a turbulent global environment.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
Photo-Credit: AFP-Catherine Ashton, European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy