A popular argument is that EU member states can increase their global influence by negotiating common foreign policy positions. Taking issue with this idea, Charles Crawford argues that in many cases the burden of negotiating joint-positions harms the influence of powerful states, such as the UK and France, by reducing the speed with which diplomatic actions can be taken. The interests of the EU may be better served by allowing these countries to negotiate as individual states and endorsing their positions where appropriate.
In a recent EUROPP article, Daniel Thomas has the good idea of trying to test the oft-heard proposition that by bringing their foreign policies under one EU-led roof, EU countries have greater weight in international affairs.
He has looked at one example, namely a concerted EU push in 2002 to persuade countries not to sign bilateral non-surrender agreements (BNAs) with other governments around the world (notably the United States) lest the International Criminal Court be undermined. The EU sent out a barrage of diplomatic démarches. However, “… 47 per cent of states that received an EU démarche went on to sign a reciprocal BNA, while only 38 per cent of states that did not receive an EU démarche did so – presumably the opposite of what the démarches were intended to accomplish”.
In his article, Thomas concludes:
… the EU was not willing to put much of its collective diplomatic muscle behind its anti-BNA campaign. This stood in stark contrast to the willingness of the US to threaten immediate cut-offs of military and economic assistance to states that refused to sign a BNA … Even if the EU was not willing to condition its economic aid on compliance with its view of BNAs, it could have found other ways to reduce other states’ vulnerability to the US threats. But it chose not to do so.
Indeed. But therefore what? Yet more EU-led coordination? Or a lot less? The strange idea that joining forces necessarily acts as a multiplier of an individual state’s foreign policy weight is all too often pushed out unthinkingly. See, for instance, the then British Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister Jim Murphy on Zimbabwe back in 2008: “We’ve made progress today … Most notably we got a very clear statement from the EU on Zimbabwe … a good demonstration that Europe is an essential multiplier of UK influence in the world.”
This is exactly wrong. The EU is an amazing multiplier of Luxembourg’s influence in the world. And Ireland’s. And Greece’s (look how Greece for years stopped the rest of Europe calling Macedonia ‘Macedonia’). But when so many EU countries have views and instincts running against our own – and their positions are being amplified with our resources (since by spending so much time dealing with countries which have no authority, we diminish our own) – it isn’t true that British influence is multiplied to any significant extent.
On the contrary, in many key foreign policy areas the EU directly diminishes UK influence. It drags us to sign up to lowest common denominator positions at the UN and elsewhere, since to give a clear principled British view would break a carefully negotiated EU consensus which in fact is worth nothing since it is so banal. This process degrades both the UK and wider EU impact in key forums: see for example the supine UK/EU approach in the calamitous UN Human Rights Council.
Another 2008 example goes exactly the other way: France’s President Sarkozy in 2008 noisily proclaimed victory in Georgia, by cutting a ‘peace’ deal with Moscow on behalf of the EU that did not involve Russian troops withdrawing fully from Georgia’s territory. A great result for France/Russia – an awful one for the EU/Georgia. That’s how a country uses EU weight as a ‘multiplier’ for its own interests: by being assertive and single-minded and largely ignoring the positions of many other EU member states.
The push for an ‘EU common foreign policy’ is of course all about (in part) other EU member states tightly harnessing French and British traditional influence in world affairs to try to get better shared outcomes. But take the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit. Here the EU and its member states (with the UK’s Labour Government right to the fore) helped lead and even host a vast planet-wide lunge at an historic new deal on Climate issues. Yet in the final sordid negotiation President Obama sat down with China, India, South Africaand Brazil: all countries exercising diplomatic weight precisely by not being in a tight bloc with others. They worked up a meaningless text before racing to the airport. The Europeans were not even in their own room.
What makes any foreign policy successful? The answer lies in Physics, and the relationship between Mass and Velocity as expressed by the formula for kinetic energy:
Kinetic Energy = (1/2) Mass x Velocity2
This is why tank shells are small and very fast: you get exponential increases in impact by increasing velocity, but not by increasing mass. Likewise reducing Velocity significantly diminishes Impact, even with a lot moreMass.
EU Foreign Policy adds vast Mass (lots of countries intoning the same thing), but it significantly reduces Velocity (ie the speed with which positions are formulated and then the nimbleness of real-life responses and resources deployments). Note that this is not a bug – it’s an inherent feature, since without endless sluggish coordination to draw up ‘common positions’ there would be no common positions at all.
There are policy areas where Mass is better than Velocity, such as the laborious rolling out of democratic processes to former Communist Europe. Here (Ukraine, Belarus and other CIS countries) the sheer weight and inexorability of EU process are probably the best weapons we have to grind down post-KGB structures aimed at maintaining Russia’s psychological and operational control. It took decades for Communism to do so much damage. It has to take decades to repair the damage. Velocity counts for a lot less here.
In most other areas, including most issues which fall for UN votes or concerted speedy lobbying, the lack of Velocity brought about by EU wittering is a serious handicap. The UN Security Council permanent membership status of the UK and France gives the European Union a tremendous asset. In practice it would be far better for ‘Europe’ and European values if the EU just let the UK and France get on with it and endorsed whatever positions/tactics they thought made sense, rather than wasting UK/French time trying to ‘coordinate’ policy to suit every footling point of view. But that would ‘diminish’ other EU partners and so is unacceptable. Much better to diminish everyone!
Conclusion? The opportunity cost of UK/French diplomats haggling with EU partners over meaningless texts aimed at achieving ‘common positions’ and proclaiming edentate démarches is the time (and credibility) lost in not engaging hard with the emerging powers in the world on hard substance.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Charles Crawford joined the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1979; in his subsequent career he became an international expert on Central/Eastern Europe and ‘transition issues’, serving as British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. Charles left the FCO in 2007 and is now a speech writer, Negotiation Technique consultant and qualified mediator. He is also a founder partner of ADRg Ambassadors LLP. His writings have appeared in the Independent, Guardian, National Review Online, Radio Free Europe and DIPLOMAT. His website was voted a Top 12 Non-Aligned Blog in the 2011 Total Politics UK political blogs survey.