European Foreign Policy after Libya

LISBON/RIGA – If an encouraging message is to be found in the creation of an international coalition to protect Libya’s civilian population, it is that Europe still counts for something on the world stage. The galvanizing leadership of France and the United Kingdom was vital in assembling an alliance of support that included the Arab League and the United States, and in overcoming the divisions that often plague Europe’s attempts to punch its weight on the world stage (Germany, we are looking at you).

The intervention in Libya also represents a confluence of several longer-term trends. The first annual European Foreign Policy Scorecard, just published by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), identifies these trends in its analysis of 80 foreign-policy issues. Taken together, these trends suggest that, despite an inward-looking stance in 2010, Europe is finding what it takes to count as a foreign-policy actor.

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First, the Franco-British push for intervention is the latest example of European foreign policy by a small number of very active member states. Getting agreement over anything is difficult for a European Union of 27 members. Getting a workable agreement once leadership has been shown is a lot easier.

Indeed, as the ECFR’s Scorecard shows, a small core of leading countries has been vital for the multilateral approach to issues such as Iranian proliferation (led by the EU-3 of Germany, Britain, and France), and getting international climate-change talks back on track at Cancún, following the debacle at the Copenhagen summit in 2009.

Second, European leaders did not feel the need to wait for the US. Today’s world, with its rising global powers (such as India, Brazil, and China) and rising regional powers (such as Turkey and Mexico), is increasingly post-American. Especially after sobering experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former hyperpower is now first among equals. France and Britain pressed for intervention in Libya, and only then did the US fall into line. And once the intervention began, US President Barack Obama was happy to let the Europeans (and then NATO) take the leading role.

Third, in a post-American world, those who took the lead on intervention were aware of the need to act multilaterally. A coalition of the willing that intervenes in an Arab country cannot be composed only of European powers and the US. Agreement from the Arab League was vital, as was securing a vote in the United Nations Security Council.

The climate-change talks and Iranian proliferation are other examples of Europe acting constructively in a multilateral way. Some EU members are better at this than others – Sweden, for instance, punches above its weight, whereas others undermine this approach by going it alone.

Fourth, Germany will not always want to play ball. Its abstention on Security Council Resolution 1973 – placing it in the same camp as the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) – was a sign that its foreign policy is now influenced more by trade concerns than by European solidarity. Like many European countries, the ECFR’s Scorecard observed that Germany’s efforts to deal with the economic crisis left little room for foreign affairs. Instead, its foreign policy was dominated by economic interests.

But German reticence did not paralyze Europe. The Scorecard did identify European division as a prime reason for Europe’s failings on the world stage – for example, in its relations with Turkey and China. But the lesson of the Libyan intervention is that division can be overcome if the will exists. Europe is not a monolith, but in many areas it can still act coherently, even without complete agreement. Whether the outlier is Germany or another EU member state, division need not be fatal.

Of course, none of this means that the international intervention in Libya will succeed; the situation in Libya is far too complicated to predict the outcome. What it does mean, however, is that Europe is finding a way to work when it comes to foreign policy.

As the ECFR’s Scorecard suggests, Europe is still failing in many areas, with its worst performance recorded in its relations with its immediate neighborhood (notably Turkey) and in defending values such as human rights. But there are strong grounds for optimism. Although Europe spent last year preoccupied with the financial crisis, the EU’s Lisbon Treaty began to provide the institutional foundations needed to underpin an effective EU-based foreign policy.

The European External Action Service (which serves as the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic corps) is a work in progress, and the divisions between member states have affected High Representative Catherine Ashton’s ability to speak for Europe on Libya. But, as these institutions mature, a more coherent EU foreign policy should emerge. Given the need for Europe’s leadership and commitment to multilateralism in a post-American world – now catalyzed by the crises just to its south – European foreign policy must grow up fast.