Friday 10 May 2013

MEPs size up BRICs: but who are they both?

In a typically impenetrable EU document, meant as a press release but written more like an insurance policy, the European Parliament has given an insight into how it regards the emerging BRIC bloc as a potential foreign policy actor. The question seems to be “are they partners, or rivals … and who are they anyway?" while their very long answer seems to go to the heart of who or what the EU should be as a global foreign policy power for the next decade which makes it quite interesting as Europe starts to consider who should replace the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, who has announced she will be stepping down next year.

The EU has a foreign policy?

The EU’s own evolution as a foreign policy actor is frequently talked about from a negative starting point. There are, after all, no shortage of examples from Yugoslavia, the on-going games of nuclear footsie with the Iranians and a failure to predict or respond to the Arab Spring to illustrate its weaknesses.

Yet the recent Serbia-Kosovo accord, for which High Representative Cathy Ashton was rightly lauded, is not easily dismissed and suggests that when the EU plays to its strengths then breakthroughs in the most irreconcilable situations can become possible.

What’s the big picture?

Foreign policy analysts tend to look at the EU’s evolution from three perspectives. A realism perspective holds that this is all about balancing: pure power politics in this case aimed at giving Europe enough weight to push back against the dominant US. Liberal theorists think this is an outdated view and suggest that it is instead a collaborationist venture with partnership and trade at its core. While normative thinkers bewail the EU’s abandonment of its original aim of being a civilian power, projecting values instead of soldiers, and suggest that this is all now part of a journey towards supranational statehood with the acquisition of accoutrements of statehood along the way, such as the Common Security & Defence Policy.

Whichever is closer to the truth probably depends on who you ask, but the emergence of an alternative power, trading or value system in the form of the BRICs is a direct challenge to any and all of those agendas, so no surprise that the European Parliament has been giving it some thought.

Martin Schulz
Why should we care what the Parliament thinks?

The European Parliament has long been a paper tiger, with MEPs unable to exert any influence between the two extremes of a) nothing and b) Armageddon. The Armageddon option has only been used once, triggering the resignation of the entire Commission, so they rarely present a major challenge to Berlaymont.

So who cares, you might ask.

The answer is that in recent years the Parliament has grown in bargaining power vis the other three elements of the EU – the executive arm of the Commission, the Member State Council and the European Court. This can be observed by the likelihood that the budget recently agreed by the Council and Commission will be rejected by the Parliament and be re-negotiated, while the current President of the Parliament Martin Schulz is widely regarded as the incoming President of the Commission.

Put that power next to the forthcoming 18 months of jockeying for position to replace Cathy Ashton as the next High Representative, and you have a Parliament entering and shaping the debate about what that replacement should actually be doing. In other words, what is the role of the EU as an actor on the global stage for the next decade? So they matter, for once.

Altogether now
What do they think of the BRICS, then?

It makes interesting reading. If you separate out some of the ridiculous demands, such as the Parliament should be represented in bilateral meetings between the EU and BRIC countries (what other foreign ministry would do that?) and the mundane, then you have some very pertinent observations that are worth dwelling on. There are too many to list exhaustively, but three stand out for me.

First, the BRICS are not a coherent group. The MEPs note:
“major differences characterise them in political, economic and social terms; … in particular, that their political systems vary from strong authoritarian regimes to credible and stable democracies; [and calls on] the EU to step up relations and develop synergies, in particular, with those BRICS that genuinely share and respect democratic values and strive for a social market economy.”
So, roughly translates as develop relations with India and Brazil, while taking Russia and China to task over civil liberties. Big ask.

Secondly, the EU’s power is not on the wane in the new multi-polar world, represented by the rise of the BRICs, or “emerging powers”:
“…with the emergence of new economic and foreign policy powers, the EU will not see its leverage reduced but has an important role to play in promoting a common understanding on policy choices and should show leadership in tackling global challenges; … the EU and its transatlantic partners should focus on achieving the necessary economies of scale and develop concerted efforts to enable them to interact with the emerging powers constructively and effectively both in a bilateral and multilateral fashion, and in a spirit of true partnership and good cooperation; [there is a] need to develop an inclusive system of global governance, based on cooperation and coordination with the BRICS and other emerging countries, as appropriate, for the benefit of all; [which] points further to the key role of the EU and its transatlantic partners in promoting an inclusive system of global governance; [and] that the EU should act more strategically so as to bring Europe's true weight to bear internationally, in particular by managing the implications of interdependence, instigating reforms of global governance, and mobilising collective action in areas such as the rule of law, sustainable environment and regional security, through constructive interaction with the BRICS and other emerging powers”
Bit of a long one that but I thought it worth quoting in full – they seem, in classic liberal terms, to be calling for a new world order based on collaboration (note “with our transatlantic colleagues” interestingly, no realist balancing of the US here), free trade and the rule of law. Not a bad goal, if a little lofty.

And thirdly, despite all this new world order stuff, we’d quite like global governance to pretty much stay as it is, please:
"[The Parliament] believes that the current sovereign debt crisis will be an important test for the G-20 as an effective forum for strategic political dialogue able to promote a truly global system of economic and financial governance reflecting the interdependence between developed economies and emerging ones, creating the foundations for the elimination of systemic unbalances which can be particularly damaging both for developed economies and, in a longer-term perspective, emerging ones, and promoting solidarity in international financial fora such as the International Monetary Fund”
Ignoring the fact that the G20 does not include many nations who would, both by population size and GDP, surely equal those who are members (such as Indonesia) the Parliament is here calling for things to stay as they are. Indeed the reference to the IMF is also interesting – especially since the Director is always European, by tradition. So no great difficulty working out what’s going on there.

So what do they want?

Looking at these three it seems the Parliament want a) to be at the negotiating table, b) a bit of new world order based on liberal trade and c) for the EU’s foreign policy goal to be to defend Europe’s grip on at least some of the levers of global governance. A cocktail of liberal free trade with a dash of power politics.

Will they get it? Doubtful, but as a contribution to the debate over how Europe's role as a global foreign policy actor in the next decade, it’s not a bad starter.