From Iran to Libya, the EU has once again failed to protect its interests in every imaginable way
As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sends Turkish troops to Libya, he's implicitly reminding the European Union just how impotent it is in foreign policy. It should be European powers intervening diplomatically in Libya. Instead, Turkey and Russia appear set on carving up the country, like Syria, into spheres of influence that will damage the EU's interests.
The EU looks just as irrelevant in Iran, as that country descends into a spiral of retribution with the US, following the American killing of Iran's top commander. Now the mullahs are pulling out of their 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers including the EU's "big three" (France, Germany and the U.K.). That deal used to be held up as the greatest achievement of European foreign policy. Now it looks like just another indulgence in European naivety.
In both Iran and Libya, the EU has vital interests at stake. Libya, for example, is a failed state a boat ride away from European shores. It has become a haven for human trafficking and a hub for migrants heading to the EU. Its territorial waters abut those of Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and other countries bickering about rights to drill for gas.
But instead of taking a joint diplomatic stance, the union's member states are supporting opposing sides in Libya's civil war. Italy, its former colonial power, backs the government that's recognized by the United Nations and led by Fayez al-Sarraj. (So does Turkey). France plumps for his enemy, a warlord named Khalifa Haftar. (As does Russia).
This is just one example of the EU's irrelevance in foreign policy generally. This weakness contrasts with the strength in unity the EU has found in other policy areas. In trade it has become a global superpower by acting in unison, even when that means compromising the national interests of member states. Yet foreign policy and defense remain purely national matters.
In theory, the EU does try to speak with a common diplomatic voice, in the person of a "high representative for foreign affairs and security." The current occupant of that role, Josep Borrell, a Spaniard, is in fact well aware of the need for more unity. He worries that the EU, in a world where the US, China, Russia, Turkey and others pursue ruthless realpolitik, could turn from "player" into "playground."
But there's little Borrell can do, beyond chairing meetings of national foreign ministers. Those usually achieve little, owing to a rule that foreign-policy decisions must be made unanimously. As a result, any member state, even tiny Malta, can veto anything. On a single day last year, Italy vetoed a resolution on Venezuela; other members blocked a statement on the collapse of a nuclear treaty between the US and Russia; and Poland and Hungary nixed an overture to the Arab world meant to deal with migration.
Naturally, other world powers exploit this set-up. China, for example, has financed big infrastructure projects with lots of strings attached in member states such as Portugal, Greece and Hungary (as part of its "Belt and Road" initiative), and those partner countries then vetoed some EU declarations aimed at China.
One obvious fix is to scrap the unanimity requirement and introduce qualified majority voting for foreign policy. Such a proposal exists. If adopted, the EU could impose sanctions, authorize civilian missions or make declarations on human rights if 55% of member states representing at least 65% of the EU's population are in favor. (Troop deployments would still be for member states to decide).
Skeptics argue that this amounts to another loss of national sovereignty, that large states will ignore the views of small ones, and that the backlash will stoke Euro-skeptic populism, thus threatening the EU's cohesion. Those in favor counter that majority voting in fact shields small states from, say, Chinese or Russian pressure. Above all, it would make the whole EU more powerful. So majority voting is certainly a necessary start.
Even so, it won't be the whole solution, because member states will keep ignoring policies they don't like. They do this all the time. The sinners include countries that usually boast about being good European multilateralists.
Take Germany. The European Commission, Parliament and Council (the EU's big three), as well as most member states, oppose a second gas pipeline being built between Russia and Germany through the Baltic Sea. They worry that this could increase energy dependence on Russia and jeopardize the eastern European countries through which gas flows today. But Germany, thanks to the Russophilia of the Social Democrats in its governing coalition, presses ahead regardless.
Such fundamentally different perceptions of the world and its threats are half the problem. The other half is the denial of power politics as such that's baked into the operating system of the EU as a "post-nationalist" peace project. The trend in world politics, by contrast, has turned from idealism to realism, from multilateralism to unilateralism, and from soft to hard power.
The EU's geopolitical rivals, including China and the US, think of power as a continuum that stretches from trade and currencies to technology, investment, migration and energy, and ends with aircraft carriers, missiles and indeed drone strikes such as the one that killed the Iranian commander. "If we only preach the merits of principles and shy away from exercising power," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has warned, "our continent may always be right, but it will seldom be relevant."
In Iran, Iraq and the Persion Gulf, the EU is already close to being irrelevant. It can call for "restraint" on all sides, as it always does. But the decisions about war and peace are now made by others.
In Libya, long fought over between Ottomans and Europeans, the EU is also absent. Turkey has been arming Sarraj since November. In return, Sarraj has accepted a maritime border with Turkey that could block a planned gas pipeline between Israel, Cyprus and Greece. Erdogan is now sending troops to Libya, while signaling that he'll come to a deal with Russia when he meets with President Vladimir Putin this week, as the two did in Syria. That would give Erdogan sway over two major routes of migration into Europe.
Put differently, from Iran to Libya, the EU has once again failed to protect its interests in every imaginable way.