The current crisis in Ukraine has prompted MPs and commentators of all political persuasions to call for a strong and coordinated EU response. However, they are largely missing the point. With the recent central and eastern European enlargements, the EU’s borders have now shifted to areas of both real and potential instability. Although the EU has many powers, it lacks the vital competences in the field of foreign policy to quickly develop a coherent position on topics like Ukraine.
There are numerous reasons for this. The first is the determination of member states not to cede sovereignty in the area of foreign and security policy. Unlike areas such as competition or environmental policy, the EU’s capacity to handle foreign and security policy remains limited. It was not until the Balkans crisis of the 1990s that European leaders began to take foreign and security policy seriously, and even then the commitment remained limited.
A second reason is the EU’s quest to maintain the world’s largest economic market leads to difficult tensions in foreign policy: does the Union defend democracy in Ukraine and deploy a civilian mission to oversee the upcoming elections, or should it remain impartial in order to retain important trade relations with Russia?
Even in light of these considerations, the outcome of last week’s European Council summit was hugely disappointing. The statement released on behalf of EU leaders amounted to a vague promise to monitor the situation and, in the event of serious escalations, to consider next steps.
In a setting where 28 heads of government/state must unanimously agree the wording of a statement, this is perhaps unsurprising. However, given that the EU’s greatest export is often said to be democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, the lack of action is disappointing. In the past week alone we have witnessed the unconstitutional decision of the Crimean Parliament to join Russia and the intimidation of the UN Secretary General’s special envoy. Such actions would be unacceptable in an EU state, so surely we should challenge them when they occur elsewhere?
Labour’s EU challenge
In December 1998, Labour’s Tony Blair was a chief architect of a fledgling European Security and Defence Policy (now the Common Security and Defence Policy). Following the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo, in which the EU was powerless to intervene without US assistance, leaders from across the EU agreed that the Union must have the ability to launch autonomous action in its immediate neighbourhood.
It was claimed that a situation like the one in Kosovo could never happen again on the EU’s doorstep. However, just as we have seen in the past, the international response has been poor. As Obama continues to posture against Putin in a fashion reminiscent of the Cold War, EU leaders can only agree to strongly condemn events in the Crimea.
Britain’s Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, has been at the forefront of EU discussions with both Ukraine and Russia. But despite her best efforts, she is powerless to act in any meaningful way without the agreement of member states. Once again, member state reluctance compromises the EU’s ability to act as a force for good.
The next Labour government will have a number of choices to make in relation to the EU. The UK remains vehemently opposed to the creation of a European fiscal union, for example. However, given current events, one of the biggest questions must be exactly what role a Labour prime minister and Foreign Secretary want the EU to play when events on Europe’s doorstep require a strong and immediate response.
While the Tories continue to push for a referendum on EU membership, I would like to see Ed Miliband push for a different kind of conversation. A conversation where all 28 member states are encouraged to accept their responsibility to help those in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood. This would not amount to the creation of an EU army or a significant loss of sovereignty, but rather allow national armed forces to work together and do more under existing frameworks.
Ed Miliband has been widely praised for finishing what Tony Blair started in terms of reforming the Labour party. If Ed wants to convince the public that he is a true statesman-in-waiting, and that Britain can continue to play a leading role on the world stage, his task is to finish what Blair started at the EU level: ensuring that the Union can take foreign policy action when it is most needed.