Bring peace and security back into the European dream

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Luk Van Langenhove
Luk Van Langenhove

The European integration process has its origins in a dream of at long last achieving peace on the European continent. The road towards that dream was reconciling France and Germany, and building a Franco-German axis of dialogue and co-operation. Integrating our economies was seen as a tool for sustaining this peace. But gradually, after the 1957 Treaty of Rome, attention focused on economics itself. What was originally a means to an end became an end in itself. Deepening economic integration between member states became the new dream so Europe could compete on global markets.

Following the latest big enlargement that welcomed the former communist bloc into the EU, new problems have arisen. The dream of economic integration would appear to have reached its limits, as each member state faces its own sovereign debt crisis and the idea of solidarity is differentiating by country. The EU response to focus on the Stability and Growth Pact has not helped keep the integration dream alive. Public support for the European project is declining everywhere.

All the while, the original peace and security dream has become marginalised, and the EU has never managed to build up a serious security and defence capacity. Nor has it managed even to develop a clear ambition in this area. To the rest of the world, the EU is at best seen as a soft power, not as a serious player in security issues. The establishment of the European External Action Service in 2009 has hardly changed that. And it should be noted, too, that there are now four regional organisations each at the level of the European continent that all pay some attention to peace and security: NATO, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the EU itself. This does not help to develop a unified strategy.

Today, the EU faces a series of external and internal challenges. First of all, the economic centre of gravity has shifted east, putting pressure on the performance of European companies as well as on state budgets. Second, there is a belt of weak and failed states in Europe’s neighbourhood, and the conflicts related to them put pressure on the EU’s external borders. At the same time, the EU as a governance system also faces internal challenges from the complexity of its decision-making procedures and the fact that the now 28 member states have very different positions on many issues. And then there is the waning legitimacy of the European project towards the citizens.

There is obviously no panacea for dealing with these current problems and challenges. But perhaps it is time to go back to the original peace and security dream. The issue is thankfully no longer about maintaining peace within Europe, but how to export that peace and security to the European neighbourhood. The original European project only became a success because of the Marshall Plan, which provided the necessary funds to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. Today, we need a similar Marshall Plan to stabilise the European neighbourhood and to give incentives to political transformations in the region that are in line with the universal principles of human rights.

This is an issue where no single state in Europe can play a role of significance; but by acting together as the EU, member states could present themselves as a credible actor that plays its role in its wider region. The advantage of such a renewed peace and security project would be at least threefold. First, it would contribute to the development of its neighbourhood, which in turn could bring major economic benefits to Europe as it would open new markets, and it could ultimately contribute to a growing acceptance by the European citizens of the EU as meaningful project.

This renewed dream means that the EU needs to play a much stronger role in peacekeeping and peacebuilding, which can be fulfilled by taking the following measures:

  • Member states need to maximise the sharing of their capacities and co-ordinate better at EU level;
  • The regional organisations active in European peace and security need also to step up their co-ordination and clarify their division of labour;
  • The EU needs to set clear priorities in line with its ambitions and these ambitions need to be matched with resources;
  • The EU needs to increase its role within the UN as an actor that is able to deploy both hard and soft power under the multilateral umbrella.

Such renewed attention to peace and security should not be interpreted as a call to make the EU a policeman for the region, nor as a call for protecting the external borders of Europe; it is a call against indifference to what happens in the near neighbourhood. The aftermath of the Arab Spring, and especially the situation in Syria, shows that the EU needs to be present and support all those who strive for freedom, peace and democracy. It also means that Europe needs to support all those who have fled from terror, war and persecution. Refugees need to be welcomed at all times.

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