The EU has been side-lined in conflict management in its regions of interest

The European Union and its Member States have been participating in conflict management in various parts of the world, such as in Ukraine, where France and Germany were discussing the Minsk Protocol. However, as the frozen conflict at Nagorno-Karabakh in the EU’s border region ignited again in September 2020 and a ceasefire was negotiated by Russia in November, the EU was seen as a loser in the conflict due to its lacking agency. Similarly, in Libya, the EU has played a minor role, while states such as Russia and Turkey have been able to do as they please. It is time for the EU to take a more active role in conflict management.

Given that Nagorno-Karabakh is geographically located on Europe’s borders, it could be expected that the EU would be involved in the peace efforts in the conflict that has been looming for over 30 years. The conflict can be seen as a direct threat to Europe’s security: if it had escalated, there could have been a large-scale war happening on Europe’s edges. While the EU, and especially France, has certainly had some involvement in the area, it was largely absent during the 44-day war in the autumn of 2020, and the conflict engendered little discussion in the European capitals.
The EU has been seen as the biggest loser in the conflict. It did little to settle the situation in its own periphery, was unable to broker peace, and played no relevant role overall. Instead, Russia was able to negotiate a trilateral ceasefire. The EU’s lack of substantial role thus plays into the hands of Russia, and President Vladimir Putin, as Russia has now been able to install troops in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The EU did issue statements calling for the conflict parties to cease hostilities, and Angela Merkel telephoned Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders. Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, talked about the need to manage the peace process under the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). These reactions, however, did not lead to any substantial results.
Another conflict where the EU has been much side-lined is Libya. So far it seems that Russia and Turkey have been able to do what they wish in the country, which could have serious consequences for Libya as well as for Europe’s own security. Libya, like Nagorno-Karabakh, is located in a geopolitically important place for Europe.  If the country’s naval bases should fall permanently under the control of Russia or Turkey, this could pose security challenges for Europe. Libya has also been a transfer route for jihadists, posing another security threat to Europe. Regardless of these threats, the EU has not been very active in settling the Libyan conflict either. Again, France has been the most active Member State, while the Union’s common approach lacks unity.
The EU’s foreign policy has been successful in the past. Despite the fact that the war in Eastern Ukraine has not been settled, the EU did still have some success there as it took part in negotiating the Minsk Protocol. The Union was also able to contribute to the negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. However, recently the EU has lacked a common, unified approach to conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, and especially the largest Member States have acted on their own. France under President Emmanuel Macron is trying to be an active power in the settlement of these conflicts as well as, for example, in the war against jihadists in the Sahel. It has tried to get the other EU Member States to become more active, with varying success.

What should the EU do?

It is clear that the EU should become more active in conflict management, especially in its own neighbourhood. The EU is known for using softer approaches to conflict management, and this ability to rely on means other than military is an advantage for finding solutions. In contrast, for example Turkey’s approach in Nagorno-Karabakh was to offer arms and training to Azerbaijan. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU could also be seen as less partial and biased than Turkey, which is a historical ally of Azerbaijan and an adversary of Armenia. Turkish-Armenian relations are still strained by the Armenian Genocide of 1915.
Another crucial point is that the EU is a democratic actor that seeks to promote human rights, democracy, and humanitarian principles, which are always important concerns in conflict settings. The EU’s involvement in peace processes can improve the humanitarian situation in conflict zones, as well as democratic development in the areas once the conflicts are finally settled.
[bctt tweet=”The EU needs to become much more invested in conflict management, and it needs a unified approach among Member States.”]
The EU needs to become much more invested in conflict management, and it needs a unified approach among the Member States. While discussions on the matter have now been taking place in the European Council, they should be taken to all relevant EU institutions under the leadership on Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel, and Borrell. This guarantees that the whole EU is involved, all interests – both those of the Member States and of the institutions – are considered, and all the EU’s foreign policy tools are appropriately used.
While there is now a ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh, the EU should be an active actor there to make sure that the conflict does not ignite again. It should not be further side-lined by countries such as Russia and Turkey. In Libya, the EU also needs to step up its game. These regions are of importance to European security, and as such they should not be managed without the EU. And aside of the security concerns, the EU should be there to help the people in the conflict areas.
TEXT Peppi Heinikainen

The author has a BA degree in European Studies from the Maastricht University and a MA degree in International Peace and Security from King’s College London. The author has specialised in the EU defence and security policies, peace processes and negotiations, and Russian politics.