Closing Europe’s Strategy Gap

MADRID – ongoing crisis in Ukraine has been a hot topic of analysis for almost a year. But one question has largely escaped thorough examination: what Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine indicates about the European Union’s foreign policy.

During the early stages of the crisis, Germany, which had bet heavily on Russia’s modernization, was averse to taking any consequential action. But, as the crisis deepened, German Chancellor Angela Merkel worked to persuade her European counterparts to implement a broad and biting sanctions regime.

This certainly was a step in the right direction, but it did nothing to address the foreign-policy failings that helped spark the Ukrainian crisis and continue to undermine Europe’s response – namely, the EU’s misguided Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and its muddled approach to energy. On both of these fronts, the EU’s lack of strategic vision has created the impression that Europe is repeatedly being outmaneuvered by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It increasingly appears that Ukraine is becoming locked in a “frozen conflict” – Russia’s foreign-policy specialty. Indeed, the situation in Ukraine represents a tactical victory for Russia, with the fragile but enduring ceasefire – and accompanying legislation that grants Donetsk and Luhansk considerable political autonomy – allowing Russia to entrench the conflict near the EU’s border. Moreover, the delayed implementation of key elements of the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine is clear evidence that, at the moment, Russia dictates the terms of EU-Ukrainian engagement.

In Europe, the Kremlin has been able to pursue a successful divide-and-rule strategy, particularly in view of Hungary’s decision to suspend gas flows to Ukraine. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government, whose behavior in recent years has been at odds with the EU’s criteria for democracy, now openly approves of authoritarian regimes – and Putin’s, in particular – with serious potential consequences for European unity.

Nonetheless, the timing of the current ceasefire, which coincides with the installation of a new EU Commission, is advantageous, as is Putin’s shortsighted emphasis on tactical victories. EU leaders should take advantage of the break in the fighting to stop reacting and start anticipating. With a long-term strategic vision, the EU could overwhelm and ultimately undermine Putin’s short-term successes.

Such a vision must include a reconceptualization of the ENP. The program’s mission – to help guide the political, social, and economic transitions of neighboring states – is not inherently problematic; the problem lies in the way that the mission has been interpreted and pursued.

For starters, the ENP assumes that all of the EU’s neighbors, both in the south and in the east, ultimately want to realize European values and structures in their own countries. In other words, the ENP does not account for the developmental, cultural, and aspirational differences among the EU’s partner countries.

The ENP suffers operationally from its excessively technical approach and lack of strategic vision. For example, before the Ukraine crisis, the European Commission was so focused on negotiating the technical features of the association agreement that it did not consider adequately the potential fallout of the process – such as, say, a response from Russia.

To be sure, the EU recognized its need for a coherent strategy, and attempted to resolve it by establishing the European External Action Service and the position of High Representative for Foreign Affairs. But the EEAS ended up in a turf war with the European Commission, and outgoing High Representative Catherine Ashton did little to ease the tension, owing to her unwillingness to involve herself in intra-EU disagreements. It is telling that Ashton has made progress exclusively in areas defined by ample consensus, such as the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and the pact between Kosovo and Serbia.

Further eroding Europe’s effectiveness is its fragmented approach to securing energy supplies. With every country largely controlling its own energy policy, Europe’s energy market has become inefficient and excessively dependent on Russian supplies. To the extent that there has been an EU-wide energy strategy, it has related to renewables, rather than the intersection of geopolitics and energy security.

But there is reason for hope. The new Commission, which its president, Jean Claude Juncker, has restructured significantly, could provide Europe with the strategic leadership it so badly needs.

In fact, Juncker has already expressed a desire to integrate incoming High Representative Federica Mogherini into the Commission’s policy program. The new structure – which tasks Mogherini with guiding and coordinating the work of multiple commissioners, including those responsible for trade, the ENP, and climate and energy – should strengthen the coherence and direction of EU policies, particularly after Mogherini completes her European Council-mandated assessment of the global strategic landscape.

But a restructured Commission is not enough to ensure a reset of Europe’s foreign-policy strategy. For that to happen, Mogherini must assert herself as a leader, backed by Juncker and the new European Council president, Donald Tusk. And, most important, all EU member states must recommit themselves to cooperation.

The Ukrainian people have demonstrated the power of Europe’s values. Indeed, Europe has a large set of tools at its disposal; it just needs to figure out how to use them. If it can, it will be better able to respond not only to the Russian challenge, but also to many of the other challenges that characterize today’s rapidly shifting global environment.
Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University