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The ghosts of Libya in Crimea: EU’s continued Weakness in Crisis Response.

This post will demonstrate that the on-going crisis in the Crimea has once again exposed the EU’s weakness in crisis response by highlighting the inability of its member states to adopt a coherent and effective response to an external crisis. This is due to the structure of the Union where conflicting interests of member states and the need for consensus among all of them ultimately results in security policies that are severely watered down and thus ineffective in accomplishing the EU’s own security goals.

 This post will first explain the EU’s security policy and the rationale for responding to events in the Crimea and Libya. It will then show and explain why the EU’s responses in both the Crimea and Libya have been lacking. This will be followed by a discussion of the implications of the EU’s ineffectiveness. It will conclude with a recommendation for the EU to improve its future response ability.

To begin, the EU’s interpretation of security is broader than that of other organisations and states. The EU’s focus on security has gone beyond the traditional state-centric paradigm to a human-centric paradigm where security is no longer confined to just warfare. The EU’s European Security Strategy (ESS) of 2003 states that other states that “persistently violate international norms” should refrain from doing so and rejoin the international community, and “ those who are unwilling to do so should understand that there is a price to be paid , including in their relationship with the European Union.” These strong statements indicate the EU’s willingness to impose a cost on others to achieve the EU’s security objectives. The areas where the EU is especially willing to exert her influence are stated in the European Neighbourhood Policy and include places like Ukraine, Russia, the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

Hence, going by the goals stated in the ESS,  the EU is legitimately expected to intervene strongly in the Crimea and Libya because Russia violated the international norm of respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine while Libya experienced state failure. In the case of the Crimea, Russian sponsored forces mounted a takeover of the region while in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi’s forces killed civilians indiscriminately which lead to a massive humanitarian crisis and a flood of refugees to the EU.

The West has sought to craft together a credible response to Russian aggression in the Crimea. However, hopes of a forceful response have been tempered by the widespread realization that the West neither has the appetite nor the ability to compel Russia to pull back. A military solution would be extremely costly and potentially disastrous considering that Russia is a nuclear state. As such, the West is limited to diplomatic and economic tools to force the Russians to back down.

However, while Washington has expressed its willingness to expand the breadth and depth of sanctions against Russia, the EU remains divided over such a move due to member states’ differing economic and security interests. For example, EU states further away from Russia do not share their Eastern neighbors’ anxiety over the Russian threat. Certain EU member states with strong economic links with Russia have also been less keen on pushing Russia too hard despite the seriousness of Russian actions. For example, Germany has sought to downplay the threat of further sanctions, in part due to its desire to protect its own economic interests even as Britain called for harsher sanctions. This is because Germany is the biggest buyer of Russian gas and has more than 6000 firms operating in Russia. 300 000 jobs in Germany are also dependent on trade with Russia. As a result, due to the consensus-based nature of EU decision-making on foreign policy, differing security and economic interests among member states have effectively combined to allow individual states to place their national interest over EU interest thereby making it difficult for the EU to speak with one strong voice against Russia.

Divided interests amongst EU members were also responsible for the EU’s lack of action in the Libyan crisis of 2011. France, under Nicolas Sakorzy was exceptionally vocal and enthusiastic, leading the calls for the no-fly zone to be implemented, followed by calls for a formation of a “coalition of the willing”. The United Kingdom after consultation with the US, uncharacteristically joined France in calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. However, Germany, the most powerful member of the EU, opposed the plans of France and the UK, notably abstaining from the UN Security Resolution 1973 on Libya. This was due to unfavourable German public opinion, concern over links to its militaristic past and a belief that the costs of military intervention outweighed the benefits. NATO ultimately took over the military operations that France and the UK had initiated in Libya. The EU’s hesitation in Crimea thus shows us that intergovernmentalism is still very much at work within the EU. The fact that the EU was unable to respond strongly to a non-nuclear weak state such as Libya strongly suggests that the EU will be even less likely to stand up to nuclear armed  and powerful Russia for her actions in Crimea.

The above analysis suggests that it is unlikely that the EU can ever coalesce around a strong response to Russian provocations in the Crimea. This would give Russia more policy space given that US sanctions by themselves might be insufficient to change Russia’s cost-benefit calculus due to the relatively low volume of US-Russian trade. The inability of the EU to adopt a coherent and effective response to Russian aggression also undermines the EU’s credibility as a united and strong security actor. It could also reduce the confidence of some of its member states in it as a platform for protecting their own interests which would reduce the value of the Union.

Given the importance of a strong and united response, the EU needs to be able to prevent individual states from placing their own selfish interests over the wider EU interest. One solution might be to give the EU Commission exclusive competence in the area of foreign policy and defense policy. This will mitigate the problems associated with inter-governmentalism because individual states can no longer block EU responses. However, such a policy would imply a severe erosion of state sovereignty within the EU as individual states would have to give up what are considered some of the sacred privileges of sovereignty. Hence, whether the EU can ever become a credible security actor will depend on the appetite of its political leaders for greater centralization of powers. Until that day arrives, it is most probable that the EU will continue to muddle through future security crisis.

Hanson & KangSheng

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