Charlemagne: Tough talk, no strategy

FACED with denunciations by European leaders, the world’s dictators may be tempted to paraphrase Stalin: “The European Union! How many divisions does it have?” Indeed, the EU has no army, and is beset by divisions of the political sort. Its diplomacy has consisted mostly of money and words. For Britain and France, the campaign in Libya was enough for a while. The EU is losing interest even in the peacekeeping missions it once loved.

So it resorts to its favourite new tool, sanctions. Hardly a meeting of foreign ministers passes without punitive measures against a brutal regime: import and investment bans, restrictions on financial dealings, hit-lists with hundreds of people stopped from entering the EU and having their assets frozen. “We have become a sanctions machine,” quips one minister.

In January the EU imposed a fifth round of sanctions on Iran. This included banning oil imports and freezing the assets of the Iranian central bank. This month it turned the screws on Syria again. Here, too, the EU acted against the central bank, and seven Syrian ministers were put on the list. In Belarus 21 new people were similarly “designated”, mostly policemen and judges involved in suppressing civil rights. In the ensuing tit-for-tat, Belarus demanded the withdrawal of the Polish and EU ambassadors in Minsk, and EU members recalled their envoys for consultations. Since 2010 the EU has imposed sanctions against Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (some have since been relaxed, as regimes fall or change behaviour).

This machinegun fire of sanctions is due, in part, to circumstance. The suppression of uprisings across the Arab world demanded an urgent response. The EU now has a permanent diplomatic arm, the European External Action Service (EEAS), that is good at sanctions. Securing agreement for them among 27 members is an achievement. Even the usually despairing Americans are impressed.

Still, sanctions are uncertain. Twelve years of tough ones against Iraq did not dislodge Saddam Hussein (that took an invasion). Sanctions may have contributed to the downfall of Laurent Gbagbo in Côte d’Ivoire and Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, but the decisive blows were military. In Iran escalating sanctions have not dissuaded the regime from its nuclear ambitions, though they may push it into more talks with the EU’s diplomatic chief, Cathy Ashton. That said, the sanctions were aimed as much at convincing Israel that it did not yet need to bomb Iran.

In Syria sanctions seem so far to be doing little to stop Bashar Assad from bleeding his country. The international response is hampered by Russia and China, which have vetoed a UN resolution, fearing it would invite a Libyan-style intervention. This week’s EU summit was discussing how to prise Moscow and Beijing apart. But even if the UN could act, Britain and France might not be keen on military action. Syria is a stronger foe than Libya, and the consequences of intervention are less predictable.

The sanctions policy may soon reach its limits in terms both of people and transactions to ban and of interests among European states. Slovenia has vetoed placing a Belarusian oligarch on the sanctions list, apparently to protect a firm with a juicy contract to build a housing and office complex in Minsk, complete with a new Kempinski hotel. To impose oil sanctions against Iran took a promise to help debt-crippled Greece find an alternative source of oil (and soft finance). The Greeks blocked moves to ban imports of phosphates from Syria.

This raises a bigger issue. Europe’s burning priority is the euro crisis, which broke just as the EU ratified the Lisbon treaty and created the EEAS. By merging multiple jobs into one, the hope was that Europe would at last be able to make its voice heard in the world. But the role was badly designed from the start, hampered by inflexible bureaucracy and the jealousies of 27 foreign ministers. The mediocrity of Lady Ashton has not helped.

The problem runs even deeper. The EU’s claim to importance is that, as the biggest market in the world, it matters. As an example of peaceful integration, it is a “normative power”, able to set a magnetic example of co-operation. But what kind of normative power can the EU wield if its biggest project, the euro, is seen to be in danger of collapse?

Twelve setting stars

Global influence is hard to measure. Not even mighty America can claim to have fixed the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian nuclear crisis or the future of Afghanistan. Yet everybody senses Europe’s decline. It once worried about playing an insufficient part in solving the world’s ills; now it is a big problem itself.

The world is changing fast, but the old continent struggles to respond. Take the Arab spring. The EU drew up a sound strategy emphasising the “three Ms” of money, markets and mobility (don’t call it migration). Yet there is little money to go round; southern Europeans do not want to open up to north African goods; nobody wants to loosen border controls. To the east, has the EU thought much about how to deal with Russia, now that Vladimir Putin is reclaiming the presidency? No. Is anyone talking about filling the military gap as America draws down its forces in Europe? No. Austerity is squeezing defence budgets.

All is not lost. Europe is still rich and has tools of revival in its hands. Its own enlargement still offers the best means of exerting influence. The hope of joining has driven Serbia to find and extradite the most serious indicted war criminals from the Balkan wars and to start seeking an accommodation with Kosovo. Serbia deserves its candidate status. If accession talks with Turkey could be revived, the EU might find a new means of influencing its southern neighbourhood. On the other hand, just thinking up new sanctions every month does not amount to a strategy.

Economist.com/blogs/charlemagne

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