The EU’s scope for preventive diplomacy in the coming years will be determined by the implementation of the EU Global Strategy (EUGS). And while the EUGS is big on prevention, the direction the Member States are giving it appears to be setting the bar low. How can the peacemaking community support the European External Action Service (EEAS) in keeping the ambitions high, and delivering on a preventive agenda? By Stine Lehmann-Larsen, Anouk van den Akker and Ingrid Magnusson

The necessary gamble

Preventive diplomacy has become something of a buzzword – it appears more often in tweets and strategies than it is visible in the field. As argued in a previous post, it is a difficult concept to put in practice. One main obstacle is the speculative nature of prevention – it is difficult to know for sure that a crisis is in fact about to break out. Another issue is linked to results and outcomes: how can we know that a crisis was averted? It is not as tangible as the signing of a peace agreement. We also have to think about the sensitive issue of sovereignty - in the absence of a crisis, states have stronger arguments for keeping outsiders out of “their” business. Nevertheless, according to the EUGS, the EU is ready to get into this risky business - at least on paper. What are the pitfalls for prevention in the political context of the EU, how can the vision outlined in the strategy be turned into some much needed action?

A political affair

A recent article by Natalie Tocci, the godmother of the EUGS, describes how the strategy was not entirely spared from EU and Member States’ love for track changes. This was despite the fact that the document was officially and explicitly a non-drafting document. In a process which sought to go “outside the box” of EU foreign policy, consultations with Member States’ officials became more focused on the specific wording and details of the text during the final stages of the drafting process. Keeping in mind that every word counts when setting the trajectory for action, Tocci was able to maintain the document’s reach and ambition while satisfying Member States’ detailed suggestions.  

And indeed, the EEAS’ ambitions for what is to be achieved under the EUGS are high, evident through the proposed integrated approach to conflicts and crises. Still a somewhat fuzzy concept to some, the integrated approach is meant to incorporate all of the EU’s conflict prevention and management tools, including diplomacy, as well as those of the EU’s Member States, during all phases of a conflict cycle. It thereby takes the comprehensive approach one step further.  

Existing within a European foreign policy context, however, the EUGS – and the integrated approach as such – is subject to the will of the Member States. They are the ones who will largely dictate what parts of it are prioritised, by channelling money and political support to those areas they deem most important. A case in point was the Foreign Affairs Council in October, where the Ministers discussed the strategy’s implementation. From a conflict prevention perspective, the conclusions from that meeting are somewhat disappointing. While they hold strong emphasis on migration, anti-terrorism and hybrid threats, there is no mention of preventive diplomacy – or even conflict prevention – despite the fact that both concepts feature prominently in the EUGS itself.

A pragmatic approach to prevention

How can this political context be turned into fertile ground for preventive diplomacy? For external peacemaking actors, EU-linked preventive diplomacy should not be seen as an activity in and of itself, but as an integral part of the EU’s current foreign policy priorities. In other words, principled pragmatism, an expression used in the strategy itself, should be adopted to get the prevention ball rolling. Such a pragmatic approach would include three key considerations.

First, the regional focus needs to be targeted and realistic. This is an obvious yet often overlooked issue. Preventive diplomacy is highly political, due to the perception that it threatens the sovereignty of states and regions. This dynamic is exacerbated in a context each of the 28 Member States needs to authorise interventions. Advocates for more preventive diplomacy need to be aware of this context to avoid fighting a lost battle. For example, an early pilot analysis from the EEAS’ own Early Warning System, which is built upon a scientific methodology, indicated that Russia should feature on the prevention watch list. Needless to say, due to diverging interests and priorities, EU Member States would find it almost impossible to find common ground here. Analysis may be objective, but action can never be. Peacemaking actors should therefore think carefully about the balance between preventive diplomacy interventions in regions which are too peripheral to elicit interest, and regions which are too “hot” to act upon. For example, the extended neighbourhood is a priority and likely to draw attention, but that interest also carries with it intense scrutiny and sensitive diplomatic toes.  

Second, preventive diplomacy must be able to target high-profile thematic issues. Prevention is not the highest priority of European taxpayers, the constituency that ultimately determines what European member states push for when they negotiate the direction of EUGS. This is not surprising, as more urgent crises are unfolding on their doorsteps, moulding their perceptions of what is more important. A solution to this dilemma is to frame prevention as part of the thematic political priorities of the day. For example, as the October Council Conclusions focused on migration and counter-terrorism, a pragmatic response would be to undertake preventive diplomacy in areas sensitive to large migratory flows or radicalisation waves. By targeting rather than competing with the highest political urgencies of the European public, and thereby of the EEAS and EU Member States, a space for prevention can be created. 

Third, the essence of the EUGS – and the integrated approach – is to undertake an ambitious yet pragmatic foreign policy, staying within the remits of the EU’s and its Member States’ existing tools and structures. This also goes for preventive diplomacy, which should be integrated throughout rather than undertaken as an add-on. A prime example is the recent EUGS Implementation Plan on Security and Defence, presented by High Representative Mogherini at the Foreign Affairs Council in November. Although focussing on the areas of security and defence, one of the first terms the plan mentions is prevention – subtly setting the tone for the integrated approach. The EU needs support in developing the capacity to achieve just that, and can work with strategic partners to act in areas where it does not have the resources or scope to do so. This bring us to a fourth point of the pragmatic approach: the role of external actors. 

The enabling role of external actors

If the EUGS is to be interpreted pragmatically, there is a clear-cut role for external peacemakers to support the EEAS in conflict prevention. Such partnerships already exist, but can be further extended. Notably, the means that are not readily available within the EEAS or among the Member States should still be accessible as an option in their toolbox. This concerns especially:

  • Generating and sharing knowledge on effective preventive diplomacy. Compared to mediation, preventive diplomacy has been awarded relatively little attention in terms of analysis and refinement. At the same time, the EEAS is a responsive, and in many cases oversubscribed, service. They have little time to develop new approaches and concepts on preventive diplomacy for identifying, developing and labelling opportunities for prevention.
  • Developing effective knowledge management systems. The EEAS undertakes substantive preventive work through its diplomacy, but without systematic evaluation it is difficult to learn the right lessons. This is unfortunate, as diplomacy can achieve a great deal when it is applied, by well-situated actors, at the right time and in a professional manner. Unaffected by institutional rotation systems that can derail learning, and with expertise on the matter at hand, external actors can provide the EEAS with the necessary knowledge management structures. 
  • Mobilising experts for preventive interventions, when the EU’s own resources are not available, oversubscribed, or benefit from being complemented. In some thematic areas, such as engagement with proscribed groups, it may make little sense to develop in-house EEAS expertise whereas external actors are well-equipped to play a supporting role. 
  • Undertaking discreet preventive interventions that flank and complement the activities of the EEAS, EU delegations or Member States. This is useful in those areas where preventive action is deemed necessary, but preferably kept at an arm’s distance due to political sensitivities. Prevention, which by its very nature is often seen to be at odds with sovereignty, is a political arena in which external actors, who possess more flexibility in their activities, may be useful.

Of course, pragmatically approaching prevention can include many other options than those outlined here. Nevertheless, these suggestions demonstrate the range and possibilities to place preventive diplomacy more prominently on the agenda. And although the dynamics that make up EU foreign policy are tricky and, by their very nature, highly political, the EUGS demonstrates the EEAS hierarchy’s – as well as many Member States’ – desire to invest more in conflict prevention.

In the current political climate, imminent security threats are taking precedent over long-term stabilisation and preventive efforts. This is not likely to change anytime soon. We should therefore respond to the call for prevention with some degree of pragmatism and political clout. There is a wealth of strong arguments for preventive diplomacy, but little action on the ground. Pragmatism will not kill the noble cause of preventive diplomacy for its own sake, but make it happen in practice.