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A new social contract for Europe?

Under the working title ‘EU global strategy’, Europe is reformulating its outdated approach to foreign and security policy. Rather than content, however, the drafting process itself will be decisive for the initiative’s success. Only if the EU manages to get on board both national governments and the public, can the new strategy bring about a stronger EU foreign policy.

Europe needs some serious talk: it has to develop a strategic response to a whole new range of conflicts in its immediate neighborhood and beyond. The refugee crisis or Russia’s geopolitical ambitions require a common European approach.

The EU is taking steps in the right direction: it intends to finalize a new ‘global strategy’ by June 2016. Already, EU institutions, and primarily the European External Action Service, have begun to consult with national governments and civil society in order to prepare the new guiding document.

But the devil is in the details: EU Member States have no legal obligation to comply with the new strategy. Foreign policy remains an arena of intergovernmental bargaining.

A bullet list of good intentions?

Will the new strategy merely add another layer to the skyrocketing pile of EU documents? Can a bullet list of good intentions introduce coherence to foreign policy, an area that is heavily dominated by national interests?

For Europe to develop a more coherent foreign policy, two things are essential. Firstly, more integration on the EU level requires public acceptance. Secondly, European policymakers need to define common security priorities and agree on the means to achieve them.

National governments can’t hide behind public opinion

As regards public acceptance, the situation looks surprisingly rosy. A recent Eurobarometer survey reveals that two thirds of Europeans support the idea of a more unified EU foreign and security policy. This high level of support has been stable over the past years, in spite of the Union’s disastrous public image around TTIP or the Euro crisis.

However, if the EU is to capitalize on this positive attitude, it should push the strategic review higher on the public agenda. At the EU Council in June, the issue was reduced to a side note, with the Euro Crisis once again claiming the spotlight. The Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini recently declared her attention to “forge a new social contract with European citizens through foreign policy”. If Mogherini wants to go beyond rhetoric, she will have to engage EU citizens in a broad debate on the advantages of a common European foreign policy.

Conflicting national interests as the biggest obstacle

However, a much bigger obstacle consists in the diversity of national approaches and priorities. In the face of Russian aggression, for instance, the Baltic States or Poland currently prefer a hard strategy based on military security. To the contrary, the refugee crisis at Europe’s southern border requires a soft security approach, including long-term development aid and stabilization.

It’s now up to Mogherini and her drafting team to mediate between divergent national interests and find a common line.

Towards a European foreign policy consensus?

In fact, the EU global strategy could open a window of opportunity. Probably not so much for its content, but for the writing process itself. It is hoped that the EU’s extensive consultations national actors and civil society will advance a European consensus on foreign policy. Such a consensus could provide the necessary grounds for stronger political cooperation in the future.

Therefore, the Union is seriously stepping up its game: while (public) participation has often come down to window-dressing in EU policymaking, this time officials seem determined to get a broad range of actors on board. The drafting team itself includes a variety of external experts: for instance, Mogherini charged the researcher Nathalie Tocci with coordinating the drafting process and reaching out to think tanks. Moreover, several academics have been invited to feed their research papers into the drafting process.

In the upcoming months, the drafting team will then go on a ‘roadshow’, thereby paying visits to the policy planning staffs in the national ministries and hosting a range of workshops to consult with civil society actors.

Use existing tools before creating new ones

If all this results in a more consensual approach to foreign policy, this could enable the EU to finally mobilize the political tools it already has at its disposal. Since 2005, for instance, the Council commands the so-called EU battlegroups, which draw their troops and equipment from the Member States and are deployable at any time. Whereas they have already been described as a potential ‘standing army for Europe’, so far they have not once seen military action.

Similarly, the EU already has a legal mechanism to foster enhanced military cooperation, even when unanimity in the Council is lacking. The Lisbon Treaty of 2009 silently introduced Permanent Structured Cooperation as a provision that allows a group of Member States to work together more closely on defense matters. This would form the first binding commitment of EU member states in the field of defense. However, Member States have so far shied away from using Permanent Structured Cooperation.

The national governments will not paint their foreign and defense ministries in EU colors any time soon. But any meaningful action must begin with some serious talk.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.