March 09, 2021

The EU’s Risk-Averse Nature

Europe’s slow response to the bloody coup in Myanmar highlights a key weakness of European foreign policy: It always tries to play it safe. This significantly reduces its potential effectiveness. 

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Police stand after they seized Sanchaung district in search of anti-coup demonstrators in Yangon, Myanmar, March 8, 2021. Picture taken March 8, 2021
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It has been more than a month since the military took power in Myanmar and ousted the democratically-elected civilian government, but the European Union has yet to impose targeted sanctions, even though it agreed to do so at a Foreign Affairs Council meeting on February 22. Since that decision was made, more than 60 pro-democracy protesters have been gunned down by the police and military, including several teenagers, while journalists have been rounded up and charged with laughable crimes. And, all the while, the military junta’s stronghold on power appears more and more intractable.

Nonetheless, I was informed last week by Heidi Hautala, a Green MEP and a member of the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Southeast Asia, that “the EU took decisive action.” Nabila Massrali, EU spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, told me: “The EU has been swift in responding to the coup in Myanmar through the different means it has available. Sanctions are only one—albeit an important—part of this response.”

On February 2, the day after the coup, a European Council did indeed issue a statement condemning the coup “in the strongest terms.” The EU also worked with the United Kingdom to present a strong-worded motion before the UN Human Rights Council, which was accepted on February 12. Advice was sent to European businesses active in Myanmar about how to avoid military-run supply chains. Discussions have also been held with other powers, including with  US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

“Moving Too Slowly”

But it is sanctions, the stronger the better, that reverse coups, not rhetoric. “The EU has moved far too slowly to support the people risking their lives protesting on the streets every day,” Mark Farmaner, director of the advocacy group Burma Campaign UK, told me. “Sanctioning military companies so that European companies are not helping to fund the military should have been an obvious step taken within hours of the coup.”

The current hold-up over sanctions, I am informed, is due to the fact that EU officials are now beset with making sure the legality behind any sanctions regime is airtight and can be defended before a court. “Surgical action is needed to ensure that the right and most effective tools are used and that the real perpetrators are targeted,” Hautala told me. Many EU officials, no doubt, remember July 11, 2019, when the European Court of Justice annulled EU targeted sanctions on several high-ranking former Ukrainian officials, including asset freezes on former President Viktor Yanukovych. The EU Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime, its “Magnitsky Act”-like scheme, came into effect in December with much fanfare but was only used for the first time last week, when four Russian officials responsible for serious human rights violations were sanctioned on March 2.

The Death of EU Foreign Policy?

It comes as some observers are writing their obituaries for EU foreign policy. “European foreign policy died in Moscow last week,” Matthew Karnitschnig, Politico’s chief Europe correspondent, wrote on February 13. That missive was in response to EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s horrendous visit to Moscow when he was humiliated during a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Why Borrell even made the trip to Moscow isn’t clear, coming just days after the Kremlin imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny and enforced a crackdown on pro-democracy protests. There was certainly much opposition to him travelling there in the first place, and more when he returned to Brussels. Belgian MEP Assita Kanko famously asked Borrell to locate the EU’s cojones upon his return.

European foreign policy is like a feted adolescence, lavished with praise from overbearing parents and told it can achieve anything it wants, yet without knowing itself what its purpose is. The rush to declare it dead, however, falls down on the fact that it is still germinal and not all that aware of which problems are stunting its growth.

Karnitschnig, for instance, placed the blame on the EU’s lack of consensus. “High-stakes diplomacy,” he wrote, “has never been and ... never will be the EU’s strong suit for the simple reason that there is no consensus within the 27-member bloc on foreign policy.” He went on: “Negotiating a coherent position within the EU is next to impossible; not for reasons of party ideology, but because national interests often diverge.” One could say this is the traditionalist narrative of EU foreign policy failings. And the EU’s leaders haven’t been adverse from laying the blame on disunity, too, since it's a convenient excuse for their habitual delays in action. 

Centralizing Power

But by pointing out this apparent problem one also intimates a solution. If the problem is a lack of consensus, that foreign policy decision-making is too decentralized, then the reliable answer is to centralize power. Perhaps the EU should have an actual foreign minister, not just the grandly-titled High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to whom all powers in foreign policy decisions are vested. Maybe the European External Action Service, or EEAS, its similarly awkwardly-titled foreign and defense ministry, needs to be given greater powers at the expense of member states’ foreign ministries. Others argue for “qualified majority voting” so that not all major foreign policy decisions require unanimity, thereby allowing differences of opinions but not allowing them to interfere in how quickly decisions are taken.

The idea of disunity has become a convenient trope, yet the logic partly falls down when one considers it was actually over-centralization of national interests, not disunity, at fault for many of the EU’s latest foreign policy calamities—not just the Nord Stream 2 pipeline involving Russia and Germany but also the too hastily agreed terms on the investment pact with China on December 30, another possible date to carve onto the headstone of EU foreign policy.

In the case of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), as it’s formally called, a distinct lack of polarization was obvious. Poland and France did raise early objections to the treaty, with Warsaw stressing that the EU should delay negotiations until the Biden administration entered office, since his transition team called for joint EU-US action to secure better terms from Beijing. But this opposition quickly faded once it became clear that Germany, then holding the EU presidency, wanted to push forward with the investment agreement as soon as possible. Had there been a little more of the disunity we hear so often about, talks for the investment pact might have been delayed.

Vaccination Failures and Foreign Policy

It is easy to see why analysts are quick to pronounce the EU foreign policy’s expiration; last year saw much hyperbole from EU politicians themselves over a new foreign policy agenda, not least from foreign policy chief Borrell who spoke a good game on getting serious about human rights and democracy across the world. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen started her tenure in late 2019 by promising to build the first and true “geopolitical Commission.”

Maybe excess confidence in foreign policy capabilities should have been expected in 2020. After all, compared to its handling of the 2009 financial crisis and the subsequent eurozone fiasco, the EU’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was actually impressive, certainly in organizing bloc-wide bailouts, a eurobond scheme, a sizeable budget over the next few years, and a unified fiscal policy (which tip-toed the bloc closer to fiscal federalism). And it was certainly impressive when compared to how appallingly national governments handled the crisis.

That success quickly fell away by the beginning of 2021, however, when the vaccination campaigns became debacles. But why was the EU so successful in quickly agreeing to a major stimulus package but then utterly incompetent in creating a stable basis for vaccination campaigns?

The answer, I suggest, is the same as the reason for its foreign policy errors, including over Myanmar. Unlike the economic measures in 2020, planning for vaccination drives required major risks. Huge sums were expected as down payments on vaccines that may not have actually ended up being created or being effective. Procurement had to take place before agreements on distribution. In other words, one had to act and then make decisions later. But compared to the American or British bureaucrats, the EU’s were more risk-averse. For sure, an overly centralized bureaucracy that has to cater to so many vested interests becomes slow and plodding. But it also becomes hazardously cautious, with the marker of success seen only from the absence of failure.

The Betrayal of Burma

A month on from the military coup in Myanmar, the EU is still debating the legalese of its threatened sanctions. Once imposed, the EU’s sanctions may end up being far tougher than US sanctions against Myanmar. Hautala, the MEP, said that the EU “will certainly also target companies linked to the army.” And, no doubt, they will be far more legally accurate and uncontestable. But if the goal of the sanctions isn’t just to punish the military junta for their coup but to attempt to turn the situation around and restore the civilian government, the EU sanctions are likely to arrive far too late.

Indeed, it is looking increasingly likely that there won’t be a return to a status quo ante in Myanmar. Most likely, the junta will either maintain its power, including through the use of more brutal force, or the international community will accept its compromise promise to release the political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and hold fresh elections at some point in the distant future, at which point the military can be assured to harass voters. Maybe I’m wrong on that, but if the military is ousted it will be thanks to the Burmese people now valiantly protesting and risking their lives for freedom, not the EU.

In other words: If EU foreign policy wants to become more effective, it needs to act much more quickly and worry about details later.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, covering European foreign affairs and Europe-Asia relations.

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