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Can Europe become better in wielding a stick?

I recently took part in a study visit to Lebanon. During the three days that I and the rest of our delegation spent in the country, we spoke with local politicians, academics, and civil society representatives to learn about current political developments in Lebanon and in the Middle East. Some of the most often mentioned concerns included the on-going civil war in Syria, the unprecedented number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon’s territory, Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and Lebanon’s economic problems that could result in collapse in the coming months.

Several Lebanese stake holders also expressed concerns at Europe’s perceived lack of strategy towards the Middle East. More specifically, they pointed out that Europe’s ability to wield influence in the region is severely handicapped by its inability and unwillingness to use a stick to protect its interests in times when that would be necessary.

This essentially means that, although Europe tends to provide development aid and other financial assistance to encourage various actors in the Middle East to behave in a certain way, it struggles to use harder measures (e.g. strict conditionality, military force) in times when a carrot alone is insufficient.

A good example of this is Europe’s response to the Syrian civil war. In 2013, France and the UK seemed prepared for a moment to intervene militarily in the conflict in order to protect the Syrian rebels from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In the end, however, they decided against military intervention.

Yet, Russia did intervene in 2015 on the side of the Assad regime. This was a gamble for Moscow and many, including then US President Barack Obama, predicted that Russia would end up sinking in the Syrian quagmire. However, Russia turned this gamble into a diplomatic success. It is now the most important external power involved in Syria and no major decision concerning the conflict can be taken without Moscow having a seat on the table. In other words, wielding a stick can bring real diplomatic benefits.

The point is not that Europeans are completely unwilling or unable to use military force. Many examples can be given from recent history in which Europeans have used the military instrument, both autonomously and in cooperation with partners, through different frameworks and in different parts of the world.

After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, America’s European allies invoked NATO’s Article 5 for the first time in the Alliance’s history. They also participated in the following US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and are currently also part of the international coalition that is fighting the so-called ISIS terror group in the Middle East.

European countries also contribute to various UN-led peacekeeping operations such as UNIFIL in Lebanon, and the EU itself has launched over 10 military operations since 2003—a considerable achievement for an actor that self-identified as a ‘civilian power’ less than two decades ago.

The point is rather that Europeans seem unwilling to act militarily by themselves in situations in which the outcome is uncertain and in which the risk of having to suffer casualties is high. Since the end of the Cold War, the operations that Europeans have conducted autonomously have tended to be operations of choice rather than necessity.

This means that those operations have dealt primarily with second order concerns such as peacekeeping and humanitarian relief instead of Europe’s fundamental security interests. Furthermore, they have taken place in environments in which it has been relatively safe for Europeans to get involved.

The EU, for example, has conducted operations in regions such as the Western Balkans and sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the Western Balkans had been more or less stabilised by NATO when the EU got involved, and in sub-Saharan Africa European troops have faced only lightly armed militias that have posed no serious threat to the well armed and heavily armoured European troops.

Nevertheless, the intensity of conflicts in the MENA region tend to be rather high, multiple actors are involved in them, those who get involved often suffer casualties and the outcome of the conflicts tend to be anything but certain at the time when external actors decide to get involved in them.

The Syrian civil war is no exception to this. Approximately 500,000 people have lost their lives since the conflict broke out in 2011. The war has pulled in not just in Middle Eastern regional powers such as Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also Russia and the US. Although for a time it seemed as if the Syrian rebels would emerge victorious in the conflict, Russia’s 2015 intervention tipped the scale decisively in favour of the Assad regime. As a result, the regime’s victory seems to be almost certain at the time of writing.

Compared to unitary actors such as the US and Russia, it is of course more difficult for Europe to act decisively in international affairs because Europe is not a state, nor it is likely to ever to become one. Rather, it is a continent of small and medium-sized powers who often have fundamentally different interests and security concerns.

The Baltic states, for example, understandably tend to be preoccupied with Russia, whereas Italy and Greece are much more focused on developments around the Mediterranean basin. This means that collective European decisions, especially with regards to the use of force, often reflect the lowest common denominator—i.e. what is acceptable to the country that is the least willing to act.

We saw this in Europe’s approach to Libya in 2011, to Syria in 2013 and we have also seen it in Europe’s response to the war in Ukraine. This is the EU’s main structural handicap as a global actor, which limits its ability to wield a stick as effectively as states.

Yet, this should not be taken as an excuse for passiveness and inaction. The current state of affairs is simply unacceptable if Europe is to become a more effective global actor and take modest steps towards ‘strategic autonomy’—the goal outlined in the 2016 Global Strategy. Regardless of what many people here in Brussels might think or say, Europe’s international partners and competitors will not treat the continent as a serious player on the global stage if it cannot even handle conflicts in its own neighbourhood without external assistance.

Europe should have intervened in Syria in 2013 to protect its interests in the Middle East and to balance against the growing influence of Russia and Iran in the region. It should have also been able to act in Libya in 2011 without US support. In the end, however, Europe proved unable to act without its transatlantic partner.

In the context of the EU, it is unlikely that much will change in the short term because the nature of the problem is structural. Some people have suggested that increased use of Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) could help the EU overcome lowest common denominator decision making in foreign, security and defence policy.

However, this is a short-sighted solution that would certainly create more problems than it would solve. The reason for this is that an active use of QMV in these highly sensitive policy areas touch the very core of statehood risks heightening the already high, internal tensions within the EU. It is easy to imagine the media onslaught that would follow, for example, if a member state from Central and Eastern Europe would be forced to support and contribute to an operation in sub-Saharan Africa against the wishes of its government.

If the EU is to become better in wielding a stick, at least three things need to happen. First, there should be increased use of constructive abstention. It is a procedure outlined in Article 31 of the Lisbon Treaty that enables those member states who do not wish to participate in a joint action to stay out without torpedoing the whole thing. If only a few countries do not wish to participate in a joint action, it is better to let them stay out instead of forcing them to participate through QMV.

Second, Europe needs to have the defence technological and industrial base that could provide it with the resources to play a more effective role in the international affairs. The recent establishment of the European Defence Fund is a step to the right direction, but the focus should be more on consolidating the European defence market and merging small and uncompetitive national champions.

Third and finally, the EU needs a leader, a country that would play the role of the US in NATO. Unanimity decision making is also the rule in NATO, but the Alliance can act more effectively than the EU because Washington is strong and powerful enough to bang heads together and convince reluctant allies to act when necessary. A similar country is needed in the EU.