The most important lesson that the still infant European External Action Service should take from the ‘Arab Spring’, according to Professor Michael Smith, is that it failed to do ‘on the ground humanitarian work’ and did not manage to produce agreement between the member states on strategic diplomatic initiatives. In an interview by Cristian Nitoiu from Loughborough University, Professor Smith evaluates the development of the External Actions and the goal of creating a coherent strategic diplomacy within the European Union’s foreign policy. The interview covers the European Union’s engagement in the recent revolutions in North Africa and its relations with China.
‘Strategic diplomacy is designed to position the European Union as an international power’ and manage effectively its relations with third party states. Professor Smith argues that North Africa is a region of strategic importance, where ‘conflict and political turbulences’ can have direct effects on the European Union. He adds that the European External Action Service has been particularly week in engaging in the Arab Spring, and will require continuous reassessment and strengthening in order to deal with future crises.
In defense of Baroness Catherine Ashton, who currently heads the External Action Service, and has been subject to considerable criticism for her lack of ambition in setting the foreign EU’s foreign policy agenda, Michael Smith argues that her cautious approach might, in the long run have positive effects on the development of a coherent strategic diplomacy:
‘If it had been [Ashton’s foreign policy approach] much more preeminent, public or dramatic, then the dangers of failure and of making a false start are very much present… In fact I think she’s been really good in developing the infrastructure of the External Actions Service … but partly that has been done at the cost of pursuing a more active diplomacy.’
Looking at EU-China relations, Professor Smith highlights that both actors view each other as important strategic partners, where economic and commercial interests dominate. As a consequence, the EU has often failed in pursuing a set of normative goals towards China, like the promotion of human rights and democracy:
‘China, let’s be fair, is a country that the European Union doesn’t want to offend’
Michael Smith is Professor of European Politics and Jean Monnet Chair in the Department of Politics, History and International Relations at Loughborough University. Currently he is also Co-Director of two centers based in the Department: the Centre for the Study of International Governance and the East Midlands Eurocentre, a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence.
This interview was recorded at UACES New Frontiers in European Studies conference, which took place at the University of Surrey between 31 June – 1 July 2011.