Is Europe moving away from soft power? – EURACTIV.com

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In this week’s edition: EU’s shiny new Strategic Compass and beyond, Belarus sanctions and Ukraine in spotlight.


“Europe is in danger”, and the time for the bloc to be a soft power is over, EU’s chief diplomat Joseph Borrell proclaimed this week as he previewed the EU’s latest geopolitical endeavour.

“In a world in which everything can be turned into a weapon, it is not enough to pretend we can just be a soft power,” Borrell said, referencing the crisis on the EU’s border with Belarus, which would once again make clear that the challenges have long been global and that Europe can only solve them jointly.

If anything, Afghanistan has highlighted that Europe in its current state is not militarily capable of dealing with crises on its own. Secondly, geopolitical players around the globe are slowly beginning to realise it, he warned.

For a year and a half, his team, in consultation with the member states, have developed a blueprint of the EU’s future military strategy.

Speaking about the ‘return of power politics’, Borrell painted a picture of an EU that needs to step up and find a response to new threats, preferably with more consolidated military capabilities, new partnerships, and better crisis management.

The draft seen by EURACTIV includes a range of new ways and means to enhance the ability to tackle hybrid threats, including the pledge to create EU Rapid Hybrid Response Teams, ensure cyber deterrence, and address risks and incidents in space.

“The classic distinction between war and peace has become increasingly difficult,” Borrell said.

The change in language and attitude has been slowly approaching since European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proclaimed her ‘geopolitical Commission’ at the start of her mandate. This is the first time the actual ambition was put on paper.

Most of the proposals come with ambitious deadlines. But many EU diplomats and experts see the first draft proposal, currently 29-pages long, as a mixed bag – for some too ambitious, for others not going far enough.

“The jury is still out on whether the Compass should steer the EU’s institutional ship into immediate and short-term action as the envisioned timeframe is rather limited, most proposals having the target date of 2025,” Raluca Csernatoni, European security and defence expert at Carnegie Europe told EURACTIV.

So how much bandwidth is there for an ambitious military doctrine plan for the 2030s or 2040s? 

“Naysayers will latch on to the fact that the document is just another technocratic exercise with little bearing on the hybrid threats and hard military challenges facing the bloc,” Csernatoni said.

“Indeed, the tendency in EU security and defence is to stick to the tried-and-true, such as lowest-common-denominator unanimity decision-making among all EU 27 member states and ad-hockery in CFSP and CSDP,” she added.

Significantly, the discussion about the EU’s Rapid Response Mechanism, a 5,000-strong force that seems to be the flagship of the new strategy, lays a typically European chicken-and-egg problem bare. What should be there first, the ‘tool’ or the mechanisms and decision-making processes for using it?

“The big question is, would the member states be any more willing to use the new Rapid Reaction Capacity if it’s indeed created than they have been to use the battlegroups,” Niklas Novaky, EU security and defence researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, told EURACTIV.

Another open question remains whether the EU’s new strategy could become a new irritant in EU-US-NATO relations over the long term.

Speaking to reporters in Brussels, Borrell insisted on seeing the concept instead of going into the direction of ‘strategic responsibility’, largely avoiding using the EU’s shiny ‘strategic autonomy’ catch-phrase seen critically by Washington and NATO.

“I expect the US to welcome the Rapid Response Capacity if it ends up boosting the EU’s ability to manage crises in its neighbourhood, particularly the ones in which the US doesn’t have a direct interest at stake,” Novaky said.

“In general, the US welcomes Europe’s willingness to shoulder more responsibility for its own security because Washington wants to focus its own attention and resources to the Indo-Pacific,” he added.

A first indication of how much tension there is over the new proposal will be when EU foreign and defence ministers discuss the proposals early next week, including at a lunch session with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. 

The document is likely to be adopted by EU leaders in March next year, under the French presidency.

The EU’s chief diplomat now has to negotiate a middle ground between member states eager to add some priorities or missing links they might see, into the document. One EU diplomat jokingly characterised the next step as a “Christmas-tree-approach by member states, mixed with a lack of strategic imagination by the EU side”.

In the end, it will come down to the political will of the member states. 

Borrell made it clear he regrets that threats continue to be interpreted through a primarily national lens, depending on the geographical and historical position of each country, rather than threats to the EU as a whole.

The bottom line beyond the proposals, it seems, is whether Europeans can find a common ‘strategic culture’.

For a more deep dive, read our coverage of the upcoming document here:

And the interview with the EU’s chief diplomat here:


SANCTIONS ARE COMING | The EU is considering sweeping sanctions against Belarusian officials over the escalating border stand-off with Minsk, EU diplomats confirmed to EURACTIV over the weekend. The latest draft, to be considered by EU foreign ministers on Monday, was also set to include the airport in Minsk (though it remains unclear how this could be translated to practice) as well as a hotel hosting refugees.

In the past days, the EU has escalated its language towards Belarus as tensions at the Polish-Belarussian border are rising, accusing strongman Alexander Lukashenko earlier this week of an ‘inhuman, gangster-style approach’ in luring migrants under the false promise of easy entry into the EU.

The EU’s executive has also established contacts with various airlines in an effort to cut the Minsk-facilitated migration route, the EU executive said, as several airlines confirmed they will restrict certain practices that could benefit human trafficking.

COP26 OUT | UN climate talks ended Saturday night with a ‘compromise’ deal that for the first time targeted fossil fuels as the key driver of global warming, even as coal-reliant countries lobbed last-minute objections. But the pledges don’t go far enough to limit temperature rise to 1.5C.


FATEFUL POLLS | The outcome of Bulgaria’s general elections this weekend is set to impact the pace of Albania and North Macedonia’s EU accession path, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said during a visit to the region. We’ve looked into the latest here.

BALKAN ALLEGIANCES | When they were in opposition, Greece’s New Democracy and North Macedonia’s VMRO party, both members of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), rejected the hard-fought solution to the two countries’ long-standing name dispute. What a difference being in power makes.

Meanwhile, North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev, who announced his resignation over poor results in a local vote last month, will stay on in the job until the political situation stabilises.


MEDIA KILLED | The Kyiv Post, Ukraine’s oldest English-language newspaper, has been abruptly shut down in a move that staff describe as an “act of vengeance” by the publication’s owner. Staffers decry an ‘act of vengeance’ by the paper’s owner.

UKRAINE WAR | The US has warned Russia against making another “serious mistake” on Ukraine as it sought clarity about troop movements near the border. Ukraine’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba will touch down in Brussels on Monday for a diplomatic offensive to secure assurances from EU and NATO.

MEMORIAL DOWN | Memorial, Russia’s oldest rights group, said it was notified by Russia’s supreme court that prosecutors had filed a demand to dissolve the group over systematic violations of “foreign agent” legislation, a step deplored by European Commission, Council of Europe as “devastating blow” to civil society in the country.



We’ll keep you updated on all relevant EU foreign affairs news, as Europe’s looks towards a busy finish of this year. Here’s what’s coming up next week:

  • Foreign Affairs Council on Belarus, Western Balkans + joint session with defence ministers
    | Monday, 15 November 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Eastern Partnership foreign ministers meeting
    | Monday, 15 November 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • US President Biden, China’s Xi Jinping summit
    | Monday, 15 November 2021 | virtual
  • Commissioner Schinas on Belarus outreach tour
    | Monday, 15 November 2021 | Bagdad, Iraq
  • European Parliament’s SEDE Committee on Ukraine, Afghanistan
    | Monday, 15 November 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) on Strategic Compass, EU training missions, NATO
    | Tuesday, 16 November 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • European Commission presents EU Global Gateway Initiative (tbc), Communication on ex-combatants
    | Wednesday, 17 November 2021 | Brussels, Belgium
  • Foreign Affairs Council (Development) on Central Asia, water, exchange with USAID
    | Friday, 19 November 2021 | Brussels, Belgium

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