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The EU in a complex and contested world

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The EU in a complex and contested world

by Francesca Metsovitis and Leo Goretti

In the changing and complex landscape of contemporary international relationsthe European Union is faced with a variety of challenges in terms of foreign and security policywhich represent a fundamental test bed for European ambitions to become a global player. Three factors make the formulation of an effective foreign policy at the European level particularly problematic: the internal contestation resulting from the lack of unity of views among member states, the fragmentation at regional and state level in areas characterized by conflict and the high levels of multipolar competition . These obstacles are at the center of the new special issue of The International Spectator – the IAI’s English-language refereed magazine – entitled Re-imagining EU Foreign and Security Policy in a Complex and Contested Worldedited by Riccardo Alcaro and Hylke Dijkstra.

Contrary to the dominant narrative which sees these contextual challenges as a decisive brake on EU action, as the editors point out in the introductory article, the special issue invites readers to delve deeper into the spaces of agency available to states and community institutionstesting the effectiveness on a case-by-case basis capacity of the European actors In the mitigate internal contestation and systemic pressures. The issue in fact includes eight case-studies, which range geographically from South America to the South China Sea, focusing on the European policies in front of some of the major conflicts and crises of the last fifteen years.

In this way, the file paints a vivid picture of the panorama of European foreign and security policy, recognizing the situations in which adaptation and mitigation strategies have been successful and, conversely, those in which they have encountered obstacles. In analyzing the governance responses of the EU and its member states in the face of contestation, fragmentation and multipolar competition, the articles in the special issue focus on three main types of mitigation measures – institutional, functional and diplomatic – and their effectiveness in the different cases examined.

Overcoming intra-EU disputes

Pol Bargués, Assem Dandashly, Hylke Dijkstra and Gergana Noutcheva analyze the European position with respect to the complex issue of the statehood of Kosovo. In this case, it was crucial to identify strategies to circumvent the obstacle of intra-EU contestation, in particular of countries reluctant to recognize Kosovar independence for internal political reasons such as Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain, delegating the task of supporting the nascent Balkan state directly to the community institutions.

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Kosovo is not the only example of success: in his article, Riccardo Alcaro analyzes the case of long-term loans negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program from the early 2000s until the agreement reached in 2015, in which internal divisions were overcome thanks to the leadership of three fundamental players, namely France, Germany and the United Kingdom, subsequently supported also by the EU High Representative for Politics foreign and common security.

Positive implications were also obtained in case of Venezuela where, as the article by Anna Ayuso, Tiziano Breda, Elsa Lilja Gunnarsdottir and Marianne Riddervold explains, internal divisions were overcome by delegating to community institutions the task of providing humanitarian aid and carrying out electoral monitoring functions, even if managed to define a common long-term strategy to resolve the crisis.

The internal dispute, however, proved to be extremely damaging in the case of Israel and the conflict in Palestine. As Sinem Akgül-Açıkmeşe and Soli Özel explain, European efforts to resolve the conflict were compromised, as the Union, in an attempt to defend its unity, continued – at least on a superficial level – to bind its commitment to solutions that appear dated, such as that of “two peoples, two states”.

Regional fragmentation and the failures of the Union

The second challenge for European foreign and security policy, that of regional fragmentation, is the focus of two other articles included in the dossier. Caterina Bedin, Tiffany Guendouz and Agnès Levallois present the case of Syria: Despite an initial attempt to mitigate the conflict, the increased flows of refugees from the region have pushed the European Union to focus on strategies strictly aimed at containing the arrivals.

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Francesca Caruso and Jesutimilehin O. Akamo instead focus on conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, highlighting the European difficulties in fully grasping the complex dynamics of an intra-state conflict which saw the involvement of a great variety of internal and external actors. In both cases, limiting the negative effects of high levels of regional fragmentation has proven difficult and the EU has overall failed to mitigate its consequences.

Multipolar competition: stories of coexistence and transformation

The third contextual challenge discussed in the paper is that of multipolar competition, analyzed through several case studies. Focusing on tensions in the South China Sea regionZachary Paikin observes how the European approach – centered on multilateralism and the selective engagement of local partners, ASEAN above all – can coexist with the strong competition that affects the region today.

Kristi Raik, Steven Blockmans, Anna Osypchuk and Anton Suslov analyze how the European Union has had to cope with increased geopolitical competition following the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine. If before February 2022 European responses to Russian geopolitical initiatives had appeared insufficient, the Russian invasion pushed the Union and member states to take firm action to protect Ukrainian integrity, which ranged from the political to the financial dimension and military, leading the EU to transform itself into a geopolitical actor.

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