Rumours of EU armed forces marching under Brussels’ command always guarantee a mixed bag of responses: raised eyebrows among cynics; clenched fists among Eurosceptics; jitters in neutral countries. Time and again, Eurocrats and diligent commentators calm the waters and point to the political and practical realities. To quote EU High Representative Federica Mogherini’s spokesperson: “there is absolutely no plan for an EU army with a global strategy.”
The Treaty on the European Union does provide for a Common Security and Defence Policy in Articles 42-46, and in Article 42 refers to an “operational capacity…for peace-keeping, conflict prevention, and strengthening international security in accordance with the principles of the United Nations.” Crucially, it is the Member States that provide the goods for any potential deployments, not Brussels, and any deployments would be to “outside the Union.”
As it stands, the EU is, above all, a union of values: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human and minority rights. Not coincidentally, the EU’s founding values build on those enshrined in the UN Charter, supporting the view that such values are (near) universal. Indeed, the Arab Spring and the Euromaidan protest in Ukraine demonstrated that firm belief in what many people hold to be universal values is as potent a weapon as any in the pursuit of human dignity and freedom in the face of tyranny, oppression, and corruption.
As far as the events surrounding Euromaidan are concerned, the EU’s offer of closer association with Ukraine in 2013/2014 proved to be an unacceptable encroachment into what has long been Russia’s sphere of influence, triggering hostile Russian military action in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, a crisis which remains unresolved. That an overwhelmingly political and commercial organization, not NATO (Russia’s inherited foe after the Soviet Union), could elicit such a violent response speaks volumes of what oppressive, undemocratic regimes are most afraid of.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine does, however, offer useful lessons for any future EU foreign policy experiments, especially regarding conflict resolution, peace, and capacity building. Russia’s secret intervention in Ukraine exposed the EU’s weakness in the face of aggressive Realpolitik. Senior European officials visiting Kiev for the 2013 OSCE Ministerial Conference touring the Euromaidan protest and making grand statements in hindsight looks hopelessly naïve, and indeed provocative to Russia. Georgia’s keenness to join NATO around the time Russia invaded in 2008 should have served as an ideal example of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. On the other hand, Russia’s actions proved its contempt for open societies as well as for the one international norm it trumpets above all others: non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs. Further, were the EU to have disposed of armed forces in 2014, the crisis in Ukraine may well have escalated even further.
The lesson learned from this misadventure is that, as with eastward NATO expansion, EU foreign policy, especially enlargement, as well as any military or peacekeeping missions, must be conducted carefully, tactfully, and skillfully. Peacekeeping missions require, aside from impartiality, the consent of the parties to a conflict. An armed EU peacekeeping force in Ukraine, no matter which Member States field the troops, would immediately be perceived as a provocation by Russia, and would most likely be rejected by its proxies in Eastern Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the EU has sent a ‘non-executive’ (non-military) Assistance Mission to Ukraine to advise on the civilian security sector. It is one of sixteen EU civilian and military missions worldwide, in countries as diverse as Bosnia, Georgia, and Somalia, to name just a few. Most of these deployments are in fact advisory missions, a tribute to the EU’s appeal as a reliable, experienced partner (and to the values it represents). By the same token, all current EU missions, especially its military deployments to Bosnia and Somalia, are being conducted in theatres where an obvious strategic naysayer has been lacking.
A commitment to protecting international peace and security, and promoting universal values is an admirable undertaking. The EU and its Member States ought to be congratulated for their willingness to assist all who ask for help. Europeans must be mindful, however, of their Union’s strategic weight. While unable to react kinetically to aggression in its region (and rightly so, that is another organization’s job), the EU will, through its very existence, continue to deploy its most powerful weapons, which concurrently serve as beacons of hope to millions of people worldwide: its values.
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