Leaving the EU would ‘trap us in the 20th century’

The ‘warts and all’ novelty of the EU as an institution means it has a vital role to play in addressing global problems, writes Mary Kaldor

25th May 2016

global insecurity

What never seems to be discussed in the debate leading up to the referendum is the nature of the European Union as an institution. The EU is not a super-state, as Boris Johnson claims. But nor is it a classic inter-governmental organisation since it involves majority voting on many issues and a much denser set of interconnections than most inter-governmental institutions. It is better understood as a new 21st century type of political institution – a model of global governance, perhaps, that has the capacity, even if not or not much currently used, to address global challenges like financial speculation, climate change or war so as to protect local autonomy.

The EU represents a different conception of power. The nation-state was the typical political form of the twentieth century. It could be described as the archetypal example of a ‘modern’ institution, characterised by binary distinctions and a range of methods for compartmentalising and categorising various aspects of society and geography. Twentieth century nation-states involved a sharp distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ power. Outside power, as International Relations scholars explain, was based on national attributes of power such as economic wealth, military strength, or communicative capabilities – Joseph Nye’s notion of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power. Inside power was based on politics, law and legitimacy. In the context of globalisation (interconnectedness in all fields), it is no longer possible to sustain that distinction. The EU acts more like an inside power, not only in terms of the relations among its members, but also in its relations with the rest of the world, especially its neighbours.

This difference between the EU and nation-states is well illustrated by security policy, spelled out in the European Security Strategy (ESS) A Secure Europe in a Better World of 2003. EU security policy is not based on the military defence of borders. Rather it is about addressing global risks like conflict, transnational organised crime, terrorism, or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction using a variety of instruments. Since the establishment of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), there have been over 30 missions under UN mandates both civilian and military aimed at preventing atrocities, public security especially during elections, establishing a rule of law, anti-piracy and humanitarian missions. The EU is the biggest aid donor in the world and this includes, for example, the financing of the Palestinian Authority. The plethora of association and membership agreements about such issues as trade, dialogue and human rights can be regarded as mechanisms for spreading the inside outside.

This is not to say that EU policies are effective; indeed they are very imperfect. I use the term ‘hybrid peace’ to describe what happens when 20th century methods of peace-making are applied in 21st century conflict contexts. EU policies towards conflict are mostly directed at stabilisation on classic peace-making lines; they involve the provision of humanitarian assistance, mediation among the warring parties, and ‘post-conflict’ reconstruction. Where the warring parties are extremist criminalised groups, such policies are easily subverted. Humanitarian assistance is channelled into a predatory war economy; top-down mediation ends up entrenching the positions of the warring parties; and reconstruction provides further opportunities for those parties to enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens. While hybrid peace may be preferable to hybrid war or the War on Terror, nevertheless these situations are characterised by continuing crime, human rights violations and the ever present danger of reverting to war. EU missions and programmes are also weakened by lack of political backing both nationally and EU wide as well as by increasingly muscular counter terror policies adopted at national levels and by the United States and the reversion to geo-politics embraced by nation-states and NATO.

At present the High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy is conducting a global strategy review, designed as an open and inclusive consultative process (see also #EUGlobal Strategy). At the June 2015 EU Summit, she presented a document The European Union in a changing global environment: A more connected, contested and complex world that provides the foundation for the review. As Sabine Selchow shows, it is an interesting document that draws attention to some of the novel aspects of the EU as an institution. It talks about the blurring of the internal and the external; it explains why classic intergovernmental institutions are no longer fit for purpose; it argues that concepts like ‘borders’ and ‘polarity’ no longer capture reality and that the EU represents a new meaning of power that no longer ‘resides within actors but circulates among them’; it talks about a world of mobility and a world that is ‘complex, contested and connected’.

Leaving the EU would leave us caught in 20th century understandings and practices that no longer work in in our globalised context and, indeed, backfire and make things worse. Hardening borders will merely increase the dangers for migrants; criminals and terrorists who are supposed to be excluded will always find ways to circumvent borders. Air strikes against terrorists merely provoke more attacks in Europe. Arming against foreign ‘threats’ like Russia and China will result in a dangerous arms race and encourage the proliferation of weapons. The EU, for all its imperfections, is the only alternative to being stuck in 20th century ways of doing things. As long it exists it is possible to argue for ‘another Europe’.

Mary Kaldor is Professor of Global Governance and Programme Director at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit at the London School of Economics