The idea of eurocentrism has been both debated and somewhat discredited in recent years. Philosophically, a realisation that European Enlightenment thought was perhaps more hegemonic than universal has led to a wider appreciation of alternative knowledge systems from further afield. Politically, a similar shift in the centre of gravity has displaced ‘the West’ as the paradigm of progress and development, helped by the economic rise of ‘the rest’. And on a more profane level, the navel-gazing of European policy-makers has also been challenged as too inward-focused in an increasingly competitive world.
As the European Union (EU) prepares to launch the new Global Strategy, it is worth examining how much it really has moved on; has it managed to come to terms with an increasingly non-eurocentric order? Can it craft a strategy which is assertively European yet realistically conscious of its external partners? A key consideration in gauging this is examining how these partners view Europe – what they think of its global role and how they see it developing. Such perceptions, although not fundamental drivers of policy formulation, nevertheless shape the reality within which decisions are taken, and are arguably often overlooked in the study of international relations.
To its credit, the European External Action Service (EEAS) has done a good job of taking into account the considerations of external partners in the outreach and drafting process of the forthcoming strategy. The views of external experts and think-tanks have been widely solicited, by (among others) the EU Institute for Security Studies. During a recent fellowship at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, I also conducted a series of interviews with 15 mid-level government officials from countries across Africa, MENA, Asia and Australia. The respondents, from defence ministries and diplomatic corps, were aware of the basic functioning of the EU system, yet were not specialists in its institutional dynamics. Faced with a series of questions on Europe as a global actor and their perceptions of its role in the world, four areas of strategic interest emerged as common themes.
Firstly, the question of Europe as part of ‘the West’ – is it inextricably bound to the liberal economic and political order led by the United States? Or can it forge a new, singular, stance in which it plays a more assertively balancing role in the international system? Many of the respondents of this study from the ‘Global South’, noting the increasingly multipolar nature of power, were keen to see the EU break out of what they perceived as a ‘Western bubble’ in order to become a more ethical counterweight to the US and China. At the moment, one said, the EU is sometimes viewed as simply playing ‘little brother’ to the US, particularly in the economic and military domains. Of course, this perception probably does not reflect the reality of the Transatlantic relationship. But the existence of the narrative (especially among respondents from beyond the European Neighbourhood) is something which should make Europe reflect. And as negotiations over TTIP continue under increasing public scrutiny and US calls for European defence autonomy grow, efforts to shape a differentiated European stance is also a matter of internal perception to be carefully discussed.
Secondly, Europe has persistently struggled in its efforts to balance interests and values in external action. Accused of double standards, even neo-imperialist ambition, in some parts of the world due to its regulatory expansion, it seems to be moving towards a direction of ‘consolidate values internally, maximise interests externally’ in recent strategies: the strategic assessment of the EEAS, as well as the revised European Neighbourhood Policy of November 2015, provide good examples of a shift in discourse from the normative towards security. And although many external actors would not like to see a Europe completely devoid of values, this may be a step on the right path. Respondents I spoke to, particularly from developing and middle-income nations in Africa and Asia, said they would like Europe to deal with them first and foremost on a mutually beneficial economic level, leaving political issues of democratic reform for much further down the line – if the host society is ready. The spreading of values requires receptive societies, and in the post-financial crisis landscape – as some democracy scholars have tracked in recent years – appetite has decreased.
Thirdly, despite its ongoing efforts at internal architectural tinkering, much of the world remains confused about the competences of the EU compared with the member states. A lack of clarity around who does what, who to talk to about certain issues, means that external partners continue to look to Berlin, London and Paris rather than Brussels as the real centres of European power. This said, pushed to schematise the real added-value of the EU, they do recognise its potential as a ‘platform’ or network which can connect otherwise disconnected ‘nodes’ and help trade facilitation, coordination of development aid, and so on. This reflects some internal discussions, especially at the level of European Council, around a more pragmatic, flexible EU rather than a one-size-fits-all path towards integration. But this still needs to be clearer. To facilitate its reception by external partners, according to respondents, any future strategy will need to markedly outline in which policy areas the EU will take the lead (with a correspondingly beefed-up capacity of the EEAS), and in which domains it will remain more of a coordinator of member state efforts.
Finally, the more general question of European defence and military capabilities is finally on the agenda in Brussels, with strong language expected in the upcoming Global Strategy. But integration and advances in this area were viewed more circumspectly by the respondents to this study. If the internal debate mixes rational economic considerations with historical and strategic dissonance, many of those I spoke to (especially from areas where the EU currently has no military presence) thought that the EU would be best off ‘sticking to what it’s good at’ rather than trying to become a hard power. Of course, other actors have their own power and interests in mind influencing this view; this is a caveat for all perception surveys involving official respondents, anonymity notwithstanding. Yet even if any decision on further European integration should be guided by regional security concerns above all else, it is worth questioning whether, in a world where it is seen as the soft actor par excellence, pursuing a harder military coordination would serve its more broad interests in the eyes of others.
Domnhall O’Sullivan is a former visiting fellow with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and a former research analyst with the World Economic Forum. He also previously worked with the EU Institute for Security Studies.
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