Action by Reaction: Assessing the EU’s Response to the Syrian Crisis

Written by | Sunday, October 6th, 2013

As with the Libyan intervention or the recognition of Palestine as an observer state of the United Nations, the EU has again failed to get its acts together in one of the most pressing challenges of its immediate neighbourhood – in Syria. But beyond this unsurprising statement, the Syrian crisis also reveals a few truisms and unexpected consequences of Europe’s foreign policy.

The Syrian civil war can easily become the cornerstone of future developments in the region. All major international powers acknowledge its geostrategic centrality, the influence of external actors and its potential spill-over effects, hence paving the way for a cautious and often hesitant approach towards the conflict. In this high-politics scenario, the response of the EU has unveiled at least two truisms of Europe’s role in the world.

On the one hand, the “Big Three”, are the ones calling the shots in any major foreign policy issue. The position of the UK, France and Germany has set the agenda of other EU member states and that of the High Representative, Catherine Ashton. France and the UK – until the vote against the intervention at the House of Commons – led the most vociferous action against Al Assad’s regime. Germany, on the contrary, has always pushed for more involvement of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and a cautious approach towards military intervention.

The rest of the member states have bandwagoned towards the position of one of the “Big Three”, with Denmark backing the French, Italy, Spain and Belgium demanding more UNSC involvement and the Netherlands clearly behind Germany’s hesitation over a military response. Catherine Ashton, more by reaction than action, has brought to the central stage the middle ground agreed by Berlin, Paris and London on the occasion of the Foreign Affairs Council informal meeting in Vilnius, whereby the EU asked for a strong response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria but encouraged more UNSC discussion.

On the other hand, the Syrian civil war has shown a reluctant European public opinion towards international military involvement. The ‘Transatlantic Trends’ reveals that most Europeans (71%) are in favour of a strong European leadership in world affairs. However, most of them – about 70% – are also against the military intervention in Syria, which clearly demonstrates the Europeans’ overwhelming preference for the EU acting as a world power but without the military force that this entails. European public opinion – and not only the Germans – has become more vegetarian than their states in a world of carnivores.

But despite both truisms, the Syrian crisis also reflects a series of unexpected consequences for European foreign policy. Firstly, the negative effects on the credibility of EU member states in dealing with the Syrian crisis have been mostly self-inflicted. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, encouraged the unexpected consequences of bringing the UK’s parliamentary system to the fore by requesting a vote on the Syrian intervention. His defeat forced Number 10 to capitulate, thus damaging Cameron’s international stance and its relationship with the White House. France’s President, François Hollande, also compromised his credibility when he encouraged a military intervention despite the strong opposition of the French public opinion and an uncertain backing of the Assemblée Nationale.

Secondly, the reaction to the chemical weapons attack in Syria has configured a bizarre triangle between France, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The transatlantic alliance between Washington and London has suffered from Cameron’s strategic missteps. France’s strong opposition to the U.S.-led Iraq war of 2003 has been replaced by the most explicit European support to the U.S.’ policy towards Damascus.

Yet, Hollande’s backing has not come without risk, given Obama’s step backwards regarding a military strike and the lack of an explicit alliance between Washington and Paris. All in all, the erosion of the special relationship between the U.S. and the UK and France’s romance with Washington can only be perceived as temporary, albeit unexpected, consequences of the complex diplomatic scenario created by the Syrian crisis.

International diplomacy towards Syria has somehow favoured the middle ground reached at the EU. While a strong response is not off the table, more dialogue at the UNSC will preclude immediate military action. Yet, Europe’s diplomatic position has not been the consequence of an active involvement or mediation among the great powers. It has rather shown the EU’s limited capacity to call the shots, mostly reacting to what others agree. If the EU wants to keep a high diplomatic stake in its immediate neighbourhood, it can start by pushing for a multilateral approach to Syria in which all major players – including Iran – sit around the negotiation table.

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