Guest Post by Elisa Piras*
From the 22nd to the 24th of May – indeed, during the Euro polls weekend – a huge academic conference focusing on the EU’s external dimension(s) took place in Brussels, in the sumptuous Palais des Académies. Among the organisers of this event, that has reached its fourth edition, there are three Brussels-based institutions – namely, the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteie Brussels (IES-VUB), the Institut d’Etudes Européennes at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (IEE-ULB) and Egmont, the Royal Institute for International Relations –, plus the United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS). Having such an eminent organising committee, the conference gave rise to great expectations: there were many applications from potential paper-givers and eventually the programme included a wide variety of panels. Moreover, keynotes and roundtables gave space to EU-institutions’ and agencies’ representatives as well as to other international organisations’ officials. The event started with David Malone (UN Under-Secretary-General), who presented a reflection on the EU’s role within the UN system vis-à-vis the emerging crises, and ended with Karel De Gucht (EU Trade Commissioner), who stressed the importance for the Union of defining a comprehensive strategy – integrating both foreign/defence policy and trade policy – in order to increase its space for manoeuvre in the neighbourhood (podcasts of the keynotes are available here).
The EUIA programme was rich and heterogeneous in its composition, and they involved researchers at different stages of their career coming from many different institutions. Not surprisingly, the panels revealed a huge attention for the ‘hot’ issues that are currently troubling EU officials dealing with CSDP as well as those having to cope with the effects of the apparently never-ending global financial crisis. Trade was a well-represented issue-area, as well as the intraregional dynamics of adaptation to the post-Lisbon reforms and the present and future of interregional cooperation with great powers or with other regional organisations. Many paper-givers focused on the Eastern neighbourhood – particularly on Ukraine and Russia – as well as on the prospects of the EU’s external relations towards Asia – not only China and the ASEAN, but also the Republic of Korea, to which a round table was dedicated –, while the presentations devoted to the investigation of the Arab Spring events were rare and generally did not include any significant analysis of policy implications. Curiously enough, the Syrian, Libyan and Malian crises were almost completely neglected and likewise the issues related to the management of EU borders under the pressure of immigration waves from troubled regions across the Mediterranean and Sub-Saharan Africa popped up from time to time only during post-presentation discussions and they were quickly dismissed as they were off-topic. Similarly, the hardening in the relationship with Turkey was barely mentioned. Even more surprisingly, all the ethical pillars and the long-term effects on the global system that the Lisbon Treaty outlines for the EU’s external action were left on the background, as if their precise meaning was uncontested and their enactment in the Union’s action was self-evident (according to the article 3.5 of the TEU, the Union in its external relations shall “contribute to peace, security, the sustainable development of the Earth, solidarity and mutual respect among peoples, free and fair trade, eradication of poverty and the protection of human rights”).
Fair enough, an IR international conference is not at all an assembly of field reporters; therefore, one should not expect to find in its programme a review of current events, least of all of those particular events that normally keep at the margin of European public debate as they do not arouse a huge media buzz. Though, the silence of an academic crowd on these and other thorny problems – such as the concrete meaning of terms like ‘solidarity’ and ‘neighbourhood’ for an actor that two years ago won a still-questioned Peace Nobel Prize – is telling of a certain EU-style ‘distraction’ for the sore spots of a slowly evolving foreign policy.
To be sure, an encouraging first step in the direction of adopting a reflexive and comprehensive approach to investigate the EU’s action in international affairs was made during the 2014 EUIA Conference. For instance, the discussion about the ambiguous status of the EU as an actor in international politics and the difficult task of investigating it was the main focus of the panel Theoretical Perspectives on EU External Action; moreover, the issues of the EU’s distinctive (international) identity and of its external projection was addressed in several seminar rooms – especially by the participants of the panels European Strategic Culture: Quest or Chimera? and Creating a New European Narrative, but also by some of the scholars that have presented papers dealing with the EU’s mixed record of efforts in the areas of democracy building and development. However, critical and reflexive approaches were not so well represented at the EUIA 2014, confirming a trend that characterizes the wider discussion within the IR community.
To sum up, the Conference provided many elements that seem to strengthen some common views about the Union’s role in international affairs: the EU appears as an ambiguous actor, that has a role to play in the current global context but – with the significant exception of the promotion and protection of its own trade sector in the face of a liberalised global market – it has not yet figured it out. The suspicion emerging hither and thither during several post-presentations discussions is that, at least in part, the limits to the EU’s external action are ascribable to internal dynamics that thwart the Union’s own capacity to set a clear, coherent and ambitious strategy for affecting global dynamics. The matter, one might guess, is not only a long and muddled post-Lisbon process of reconfiguration of CFSP/CSDP tasks and assets; as the silence of EU-policymakers and academics on certain failures concerning the Union’s own identity and self-representation suggests, the real problem might turn out to be the lack of a meaningful, shared, forward-looking vision that could eventually produce the ‘divine spark’ to set in motion the dormant giant.
*Elisa Piras is PhD Candidate in Politics, Human Rights and Sustainability at Sant’Anna School for Advanced Studies (Pisa). Her research focuses on Political Theory and IR Theory. She is writing her dissertation on the external dimensions of political liberalism between theory and practice and the conceptualisation of transformative foreign policy.