The Russian annexation of Crimea has become one of the most widely talked about issues in foreign policy circles this year for a very good reason: Russia’s actions are seen as the biggest foreign policy challenge to the European Union since the founding of the Union in 1993. There are many different aspects to discuss this momentous event but for this post I will focus on the role of the Quint and the failure of this exclusive club to handle this crisis effectively. I will argue that the lacks of effective leadership as well internal disunity are two key reasons for the lack of proactive action on the part of the EU.
First, a description of the Quint is in order. The Quint is an informal grouping of the most powerful states in the European Union with the USA. Traditionally consisting of the USA, France, United Kingdom, Germany and Italy, other states are sometimes included depending on the issue and their relative strength. For example, Poland’s strategic location and willingness to contribute to military activities have seen it becoming an important partner in this informal grouping. The states in the Quint actively communicate with each other to coordinate and decide upon common foreign policy objectives and positions. The states in the Quint have a preponderant amount of influence over the foreign policy decision making process and thus the eventual outcome of European Union’s foreign policy processes will not be too far removed from the informal discussions. Catherine Gegout and other scholars have argued that the presence of the Quint is a necessary function for the European Union as it provides the necessary leadership for get around its consensus based decision making model that can result in deadlock.
Yet, the Quint failed to achieve its goal by failing to put forth any satisfactory reaction to Russia’s actions in Crimea. One reason for the failure of the Quint to handle the Crimea issue is the lack of leadership amongst the Quint themselves. The Quint formed out of the Contact Group on Kosovo (leaving out Russia) as the biggest states involved in the region got together informally to come up with a consensus between themselves which they could push through as European foreign policy. During the Kosovo crisis, the United States essentially strong-armed their European allies to push for military intervention by NATO. Despite their differences, European states agreed to the military action due to American pressure and their convincing argument that the damage to the credibility of EU and NATO would be too much of a cost to bear for non-action. Yet, in the Crimean crisis, the powerful states in the Quint showed little or no appetite to provide leadership to counter the Russian challenge. The US, which often plays the leading role was strangely subdued and appeared almost afraid to challenge the Russian activity. There are a number of reasons for this including the relative decline of US power, the fear of engaging in expensive and lengthy operations in an area which is hardly strategic for the US and the need for Russian support to achieve US foreign policy objectives in other areas such as Syria and Iran. Although the reasons for the lack of leadership may be debated, it is clear that the lack of leadership cripples the effectiveness of the Quint to achieve its goal and with the US failing to provide effective leadership, no other state has yet stepped up to take up this mantle.
The second reason for the failure of the Quint is the lack of unity between the states of the Quint. Russia is a large country which has significant ties with the biggest states in the world with Europe being no exception. Every state has a stake in wanting to maintain positive ties with Russia as they have tangible benefits to gain. The issue is that every state has a different aspect of relations with Russia which it covets. The UK prioritises Russian money as the monetary input of Russian billionaires is critical to maintain the stability of the London financial market. Germany prioritises energy as about a third of its energy needs are imported from Russia. France prioritises sale of armaments as it has armament deals with Russia including a contract to sell 2 warships worth more than € 1 billion but the end of 2014. The US prioritises Russia’s geopolitical strength as it needs Russia’s assistance to peacefully settle issues in the Middle East. The major countries in the Quint thus have a divergence of interests and every country is reluctant to take action that would affect their own key sectors and would prefer taking action that would affect other, less important sectors which itself be an important sector for other countries. Thus, the West cannot seem to settle on anything other than banning a few individuals from travel as reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The lack of unity and the perception that the costs of inaction were too high for each individual member of the Quint has essentially seen the Quint being unable to coordinate to come up with an effective response to Russian aggression.
In conclusion, the Quint has failed in its role of providing leadership to forge a common and effective European foreign policy. There are those who question the relevance of Crimea – how important is Crimea really for Western Europe or for the US? While the annexation of Crimea may not have an immediate impact on the West, we must consider the larger implications of Russia’s bold move. There are countries that are bordering Russia with significant Russian minorities that are members of the European Union and the European Union’s lack of action in protesting the Crimean annexation hardly builds the confidence of these countries and hardly deters Russia from aiming for wider territorial ambitions. Indeed, Putin has warned that Ukraine is on the verge of civil war (conveniently ignoring the annexation as the point that started the unrest) and this could be a prelude to further intervention in the country. The European Union is standing at a crossroads in its foreign policy development. In order to keep the foreign policy processes of the Union dynamic and effective, the Quint must offer effective leadership and forge a united position amongst its biggest members. If the Quint is unable or unwilling to fulfil its intended functions, it may be time for Europe to look to other mechanisms or institutions to fill the gap.