Will EU ever move on from “soft touch” diplomacy?

January 21, 2010
Miguel Angel Moratinos (centre)

Miguel Angel Moratinos (centre)

Spain’s Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos recalled this week that it had been said of the previous U.S. administration that what American diplomacy needed was “regime change”. Europeans, meanwhile, he said, simply needed “a regime”.

America got its regime change with President Barack Obama, Moratinos explained this week, while Europeans got a new regime with the Lisbon treaty, a document that is supposed to help bolster the EU on the world stage and creates a more powerful foreign policy chief for the bloc.

The question now is whether the EU, a group of 27 nations and 500 million people that has consistently punched below its weight in foreign affairs even as its economic influence grows, will be bold enough to seize the opportunity Lisbon presents to make it presence fully felt in the world.

Europhiles have argued for years about the need for Europeans to back their ability to exert “soft power” through aid and trade with a united approach to international diplomacy backed by credible “hard power”, or military capability.

Lisbon partly opens the way by providing for the formation of a European diplomatic service. But a rigid reluctance among most big European states to cede sovereignty on foreign and security policy means any “hard power” vision remains a distant concept.

Sceptics will point to the appointment of an unglamorous first EU President in Herman Van Rompuy and an equally low profile foreign affairs chief in Catherine Ashton as evidence that Europe’s most powerful nations remain distinctly reluctant to cede influence or limelight any time soon.

The catastrophe in Haiti, for which the EU has offered 420 million euros in emergency aid and long-term redevelopment, presented an early opportunity for Van Rompuy — a Belgian and a committed EU federalist — to argue the case for combining such EU “soft power”, with a bit of hard power.

Herman Van Rompuy

Herman Van Rompuy

This week he revived a Belgian proposal to establish a special EU force to respond rapidly to disasters such as earthquakes. The force would combine civilian and military resources and mirror a proposal put forward in 2003, which failed to gather momentum. 

Ashton, a native of traditionally Eurosceptic Britain, said the idea was one that should be looked into, but tellingly stopped short of a wholehearted embrace.  And EU foreign ministers are unlikely to go much further down down such a route when they meet in Brussels next week than agreeing to dispatch 150 gendarmes to help protect the international aid effort in Haiti. 

Such caution is a major source of frustration for the likes of Moratinos, who sees the need for a real EU foreign policy backed with the military means to pursue it.

 “I don’t know what happened,” he told the seminar, assessing why the EU was failing to grasp the opportunity Lisbon has presented to project itself more powerfully in the world. “Europe can be a global actor, we have objectives, the principles, we have the instruments, what is lacking is very simply the political will.”

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