The EU and the risks of inaction

Development Policy24 Jun 2011Ellen Lammers

Yesterday I attended a meeting, organized by Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) and IKV PaxChristi, about the role that the European Union could and should play in conflict prevention and resolution in ‘situations of fragility’. A clear euphemism for the current realities in Libya, Yemen, Ivory Coast and many more. And that’s why this meeting was very timely indeed.

Emmanuel Bombande, chair of the GPPAC and one of the invited speakers, spoke critically and from years of experience: ‘The EU has huge leverage to contribute to conflict prevention, but often this leverage is not used, or frankly, it is wasted.’ The crisis unfolding in the Ivory Coast is a case in point. The EU contributed generously to what were the most expensive national elections ever in African history, held on 28 November last year. But the EU failed to actively engage when, days after the election, it was already clear that the incumbent president Gbagbo – who according to the UN, EU, African Union and the West African body Ecowas had lost the elections – would refuse to move as much as an inch from the presidential palace in Abidjan. Four months later, today, the country is on the brink of another civil war. The thousands of deaths of the past weeks – most of whom died unnoticed with news cameras rolling 24/7 in Libya, the Middle East and Japan – could have been prevented.

Bombande: ‘We have a proven capacity to anticipate emerging crises. But we lack the political will to act.’ Genocide was in preparation, he says, ‘but we simply stood by’. Apparently president Gbagbo and the first Lady called on their supporters to ‘Rise up and sweep the forest!’ A metaphor for ‘cleaning’ the North of the country, the support base of Ouattara. A metaphor that is strikingly reminiscent of the Rwandan media campaign in 1994 to ‘exterminate the cockroaches’.

Yes, after months of political inertia the UN and the French military are now flexing their muscles. But in many ways this response is too late. It is as simple as this: ‘A good response is a preventive response’. Bombande urges the EU to shift its costly energy from conflict resolution – which is often an impossible mission once ethnic or religious divides have led to full-blown violence – to conflict prevention.

There are some hopeful signs that this message is being heeded. The exact duties and tasks of the European External Action Service (EEAS), established on 1 January 2011 as part of the institutional reform process that follows the Lisbon Treaty, may still be shrouded in mystery. But Commissioner Baroness Ashton has been very clear that ‘conflict prevention will run as the silver thread through the EEAS’. Marc Van Bellinghen, deputy head of the new Peacebuilding, Conflict Prevention and Mediation Unit within the EEAS, is one of many speakers yesterday who applaud this commitment. He is also ready to admit that the EU has quite a lot to learn here: ‘We are not too bad at early warning, but we are not too good at early action’, he says.

Hopefully this will change. But to be realistic, how the EEAS will implement its said commitment to conflict prevention is as yet unclear. Catherine Woollard, executive director of the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO), has asked Commissioner Ashton for some clues. Woollard: ‘In June 2010 her answer was ‘trust me’, and we did. But today our trust is thin.’ Why? Because the EU Action Plan for Situations of Fragility and Conflict, which took two years to prepare, has suddenly been shelved. And because the planned 10-year review of the EU’s Programme for the Prevention of Violent Conflict (generally known as the Gothenburg Programme) – which could and should have led to a new comprehensive strategy – has been halted for reasons unknown. Woollard asks state secretary Knapen whether the Netherlands will push for explanations on both points, but she gets no clear answer.

The Netherlands did make itself heard yesterday in Brussels though. During the Council discussion on the EU’s response to events in Syria, the Netherlands suggested, says Pieter-Jan Kleiweg de Zwaan (Head of External Affairs, Directorate of European Integration at the Dutch Foreign Ministry), to put the EU’s Association Agreement with Syria in the fridge and to freeze EU development monies to Syria. The Netherlands found supporters in the British, Swedes and Danes, but at the end of the day the conclusion was that ‘to cut off money means to cut off dialogue’. No clear and firm standing by its norms and conditionalities; a watered-down compromise statement will most probably be released on Monday, Kleiweg predicts. ‘The risk of inaction should be our fundamental benchmark,’ said Marc Van Bellinghen, but adherence to such benchmark seems a long way away. The EU has leverage but is afraid to use it.