The EU as a Strategic Actor

The EU makes for an easy target these days when it comes to being considered a strategic actor in global affairs. Many analysts, myself included, have a tendency to explain that by pointing to the union's lack of security bona fides. But there's more to it than just the question of how many divisions Europe has, to paraphrase Stalin, or of who to call when you want to call Europe, to quote Kissinger. EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy himself put it best when he observed, only half-jokingly, that the EU has plenty of strategic partnerships -- now all it needs is a strategy.

Now, despite the mountains of criticism Van Rompuy has taken since being appointed to head the EU Council, it looks as if, here again, his quiet, behind-the-scenes influence is making itself felt. The shift is subtle but significant, and can be seen in the way the EU approached its summit with South Africa at the end of September, just after the EU heads of state summit discussed the very question of strategic partnerships. There's also some evidence of it with regard to the union's preparation for upcoming climate change summits, following the Copenhagen fiasco that saw the EU frozen out of the crucial, if disappointing, negotiations that delivered the meeting's non-binding agreement.

The consensus takeaway from Copenhagen was that it demonstrated the EU's lack of influence in today's shifting global power structure. But I'd argue that what it really demonstrated was the EU's lack of preparation for how to effectively exert influence in today's shifting global power structure. Europeans have long tended to overestimate the effectiveness of their soft power based on "moral authority." I think it's safe to say that the EU has begun to wake up to that fact, as well as to the fact that, even without hard power in the form of force projection, there are ways of wielding the soft power it does possess in a "harder" way. And if it manages to figure out how to do that in a coherent way, there's no reason why the union can't establish itself as a credible strategic actor whose interests, rather than its moral judgment, need to be taken seriously.

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