What is the value of the EU’s external policy

By Olga Hajflerová 1

It is widely acknowledged that the human rights situation across many regions has been seriously deteriorating over the past few years. International law is violated by many states, at times flagrantly, as with Russia since last autumn. Democracy is challenged even by a head of an EU Member State (Hungary). If the 1990s were the age of democratization, then surely we are living through the counter-surge of authoritarianism; our age has seen the weakening of the concepts of human rights, democracy and rule of law. This article argues that not only are these values the bedrock upon which the EU has been founded, but their promotion and enforcement is vital both for the EU’s very functioning and its external impact. In other words, the core values are the EU ‘s power.

It is in this gloomy atmosphere that the EU negotiates the new Commission and, even more importantly, chooses its new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. At the working level, the EU has just started discussing its Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy. It might therefore be useful to sit back and reflect on the reasons why the EU has so far been weak in empowering its values, in empowering itself. It is obvious that a powerful EU is important, especially now and it is therefore now that the EU should try and refresh its policies in order to adequately face the new situation.

Multiple identity

The root of the problem, in my view, lies in the identity confusion in the EU. Without a clear and strong identity there is no self-confidence and no strong policy. Despite 57 years of intensive European integration there is still no genuine European identity. Indeed, in many states there is still a distinction of “us at home” and “them in Brussels”, an understandable simplistic reaction to intransparent and overgrown EU bureaucracy as the latter is not an irrelevant notion. This negative European identity – of the citizens and sometimes even of the representatives of the Members States – is matched by mostly positive national identities and superregional alliances based on common interests or experiences (“new and old” Member States, “south and north”). There is no need to suppress the national and regional sub-identities, on the contrary, it is useful to take advantage of different experiences, approaches and interests, to create differentiated policies answering complex issues.

It is vital, however, to keep enhancing a wide acceptance of a common European identity. I am convinced that despite its imperfections, the EU is a unique and from many points of view a hugely positive project that has no parallels and, more importantly, no viable alternatives. It is crucial to communicate it and try and make the EU more embraceable both inwards and outwards. European identity is an identity of its core values. Its dual nature (European equals enforcing core values) is a sound basis for it to project power in an increasingly multipolar world.

An unpolitical policy

As absurd as it sounds, many within the EU machinery have presented policies on human rights, democracy and rule of law as something outside the political arena. Discussions with non-EU powers have been carefully undertaken “on the expert level”, as if we could deal with it just until we address the “real” issues like security, trade or military cooperation.

States like China couldn ́t be more grateful: a separate Human Rights Dialogue has done the trick and kept these icky issues off the agenda of the higher levels of political dialogue. Another example was the internal battle in 2006 to make the EIDHR (European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights) be able to provide support to “political activities” in third countries (functioning of parliaments, supporting democratic pluralism, flexible direct support to the human rights defenders in danger, etc.).

This ‘apolitical’ approach didn’t make the EU more respectable or the issues more digestible to our counterparts; they have only learned how to play that shadow game with us. For them, it is a hard core politics. And for us it should be too. It is high time to acknowledge that promoting EU’s core values is a political agenda. It is not only a moral imperative (which in itself might fail as a motivation to pursue it). It is our vital interest, certainly from the security point of view (issues like stability and migration). The economic angle has not been comprehensively analyzed yet: besides the obvious argument of indirect acceptance of human rights violations when trading and investing with regimes like Russia and China, there is an open question whether it is economically profitable at all (taking into consideration all its aspects including the full impact on EU’s economies and social implications).

Since 10 years the need for “mainstreaming” became almost a magic formula in most of the discussions within the EU concerning human rights, democracy and the rule of law. As a result, on the working level, there have been some improvements in the coordination of the discussions of these issues between various working units within the EU’s complicated structure. What is critically needed, however, is to have these core values permanently “mainstreamed” into all the processes, including the high level and complex political dealings. The core values must be omnipresent. Without that, there is little chance for the EU to develop policies that are coherent or consistent. Indeed, this was the mandate of the Personal Representatives of J. Solana (then the EU »s High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy) for Human Rights first appointed back in 2005 (since 2012 the position was slightly upgraded to an EU Special Representative). Without the collective political commitment of the whole EU it proved to be an impossible task despite personal effort of the representatives themselves.

A powerful Europe

The EU’s weight as a global power doesn’t lie in military muscles or in dynamic economic strength. Its power is in its unique and rich experience of its own creation, in the legacy of a continent torn apart by war and sown together by values and commitment to peace. The EU’s integration started for a good reason and for the same reason it more or less successfully went on. The whole process and all that structure literally stands on a simple but firm foundation, its core values. There are countless examples proving that whenever we waiver on our values, we ultimately lose. One topical example for all: for 14 long years now, there were systematic crackdowns on the civil society in Russia and the EU failed to be assertive enough in raising it in its meetings and dealings with Russia. There were other, more complex issues involved, of course, but now we are facing an open political, economic and military confrontation and the civil society in Russia is weakened, with only the bravest standing up. How can we hope to see more cooperative and democratic Russia without a free and strong democratic force in its own society?

Another aspect of the EU’s composition that can be harnessed by both the EU and the democratic forces around the world is the EU’s inner diversity. Instead of denying or suppressing it, we can make enormous advantage of it. The plethora of our different experiences, skills, interests and inputs can more easily answer the countless different needs and challenges. There is already a certain division of labor among the EU Members, but it can be deeper and livelier, especially if we secure it by a common vision.

The EU is also enriched by a strong civil society, a product of its democratic nature and past struggles. Thankfully, the EU’s many NGOs are very active and empowering for Brussels and bless them, they are stubborn. Strangely enough, it is only in recent years that they are fighting their way into the decision making and implementation processes of the EU. They still have to overcome some resistance from the official side of the EU, but the trend is, hopefully, irreversible. I am convinced that if we fully use their background, expertise and connections (particularly with the local democratic forces in third countries), we will reap many rewards. They are our partners and we should consider and treat them as such.

For some mysterious reason, the EU is not used to using its power. It is very hesitant to make potentially painful decisions and when it finally does make a difficult step, it usually omits to follow it up or to make sure it’s implemented. The arms embargo with China is a good example, the ways around it are well travelled. The most recent sanctions towards Russia are commendable (better late than never) though one can already hear the griping about their economic impact. Well, we can’t be friends with everyone. You can’t have your cake and eat it, as they say. We have to defend our values and be ready for sacrifices. Thanks to the great sacrifices of our forefathers, we are living through a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity, but we must not take these for granted. If we do, we might have to sacrifice much more in the future.

European citizens seem to understand that. Although the popular ownership of the core values is a complex issue, especially in the post 2008 economic decline (and certain politicians taking advantage of it), the people still seem to be rather prone to stand behind the core values and even to provide concrete support to those needing it outside the EU. I am not aware about any comprehensive mapping of the citizens ‘support – in terms of active work within the NGOs or financial support to them – but one snapshot could be illustrative: the biggest Czech NGO dealing with human rights and humanitarian aid, the People in Need, gets more or less the same share of its funding (18%; about 4,1 mil. GBP) from individuals as it gets from the EU and from the Czech state’s budget (both around 20%). Maybe it is the collective memory that still holds the previous costs of the current life in security and plenty and the importance the core values play in it.

The EU’s labyrinth

In addition to these “ideological” questions there are a number of rather “mechanical” challenges that the EU has to address. The decision making processes are extremely difficult simply by numbers of its participants: 28 Members State combined with different roles of the three institutions. Making any decision is a challenge and unless there is a common vision, it is reduced to a simple exercise of finding the lowest common denominator, which, in turn, being lowest, cannot have any real strength…

The EU mechanisms don’t make things easier; trying to navigate through the labyrinth of the funny acronyms is a bureaucrat’s wildest dream. The mechanisms badly need a clean-up, one option being a transfer of working level coordination from the Council’s building in Brussels either to Geneva, New York (UN matters), Vienna (OSCE), Strasbourg (Council of Europe) or replacing it by a videoconference between capitals. The effectivity measured by time and effort compared to gains is alarming. It sounds like a banal matter, but being busy with duplicate processes ultimately leads to a situation where there is no time and space for reflection and strategic thinking. Another point is following up on the matters. For example, the EU’s Election Observation Missions are extremely important. Their reports provide a lot of valuable information. But they are rarely followed up. Addressing all these elements will not be too complicated, and it could provide an important impulse for making the EU stronger.

The world needs a powerful Europe. The current international context is upsetting all the more because the existing international mechanisms are not efficient enough. The reform of the UN – notably the Human Rights Council – has not brought any tangible improvements; while ambitious initiatives like the Community of Democracies have lapsed in obscurity.

The concept of the responsibility to protect – once the defining feature of global politics – has gone into limbo. The potential of the International Criminal Court has not been fully embraced yet. There will have to be a thorough review by the democratic world if it wants to stop hitting the invisible wall and keep the pace with the challenges. Since 2004, Václav Havel repeatedly warned about the danger arising from formal democracies – referring to Russia. Now we are beginning to see that he might have been right. In my opinion, the EU has fallen into the trap of formal policies: of reacting, of creating policies to deal with problems, rather than leading from principles. This is not good enough. The EU must reach back to its core values and be both innovative and visionary.

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  1. Olga Hajflerová (Čechurová) is a former civil and political activist and a Czech diplomat. A civil activist since before the Czechoslovak “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, then an activist of the non-violent Transnational Radical Party which she also represented at the UN in Geneva. After joining the Czech Foreign Service in 1999, she dealt with the human rights and democracy support agenda in different positions including at the Czech EU Representation in Brussels. Currently on a temporary leave.

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