Peacebuilding should be central to the EU’s global strategy

Federica Mogherini opens the European Defence Agency annual conference in Brussels, 2016. European External Action Service (Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0)

The increasingly bitter debate over the United Kingdom’s exclusion from the military aspects of the European Union’s Galileo project is another stark reminder of how urgently both parties need to address peace and security in a post-Brexit and increasingly divided world.

It is hard to discuss the scale of changes sweeping the world without the risk of sounding hysterical by pointing to brutal figures, the global rise in violence and polarisation and the loss of faith in multilateral conflict prevention responses. But this, along with Brexit and diminishing resources, makes it even more important to discuss how the EU’s global strategy, launched in June 2016, can deliver sustainable solutions for Europe’s security challenges now and in the future.

High Representative for the EU Federica Mogherini’s vision for the European Union is that of a champion for conflict prevention with an increased focus on dealing with the root causes of violence. She has repeatedly stressed the importance of an approach that integrates military, diplomatic and development elements to address conflict and crises.

The challenge is getting the right balance. Under the EU’s current global strategy, conflict prevention risks being little more than an afterthought. Only by addressing the underlying reasons why people fight can we sustainably end conflict. But the current policy debate appears to focus almost entirely on hard security responses.

Yet the EU, arguably the last woman standing with a belief in values-based multilateral action, human rights and inclusion, has the credibility to emphasise an ambitious conflict prevention and peacebuilding agenda, weaving in defense, diplomacy and development. By transforming the new proposal for a European Peace Facility into a full-spectrum approach, the EU can help set that forward-looking global narrative.

Make peacebuilding the EU’s security niche

Prioritising and leading the narrative on conflict analysis, prevention and peacebuilding would create a clearly defined niche for the EU, among a range of security actors all pursuing similar approaches that have so far been unable to deliver sustainable solutions that would, for example, prevent the next ISIS.

A focus on tackling the root causes of conflict would also build on the EU’s comparative advantages. The EU does practice peacebuilding, but it should do more, with larger resources and long-term commitments.

While it is true that various military and security sectors around the world do require training and capacity building, the EU should devote equal attention and resources to dealing with the root causes of conflict, and building military and civilian capacity.

In Mali and the Sahel, for example, one of the EU’s strategies is to support the G5 Sahel, the counterterrorism force drawn from five regional armies. However, International Alert’s research in Mali found that a lack of trust in state and security forces, plus injustice, self-protection and economic hardship, are the primary drivers of some citizens’ decision to take up arms, very often to protect themselves and their families from armed groups or abuses from security forces. Scaling up the EU’s peacebuilding interventions in Mali with an inclusive approach to peacebuilding in the region is central to success.

In January, I met with representatives of farmers and foresters, women, teachers, youth and traditional leaders in Mopti, central Mali. Also at this table were representatives of the security forces – the Malian army, police and forest guards. The exchanges were sometimes heated, particularly when discussing injustice and the tough methods of the security forces – who in turn shared their difficulties in keeping the area safe from the armed groups. Such dialogue sessions show how important it is to rebuild relations that are shattered by violence and mistrust.

The Brexit factor

The UK also has a strong interest in seeing the EU play a greater role in conflict reduction and prevention. In fact, it will be part of the UK’s legacy, having championed the EU’s early focus on dealing with the drivers of conflict during the birth of the European External Action Service.

The UK’s current contribution to the European Development Fund (EDF) could, for example, be translated into a flagship bilateral peacebuilding and conflict prevention partnership between the UK and EU. This would enable the UK to retain some of the global reach and influence it gained from membership, while also nailing down conflict prevention as a feature of the EU’s security response. In turn, the EU would retain funds for its security agenda at a time of shrinking resources, and help align future cooperation with the UK on security issues.

The UK should also work with France, the only other European state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, to realise the UN secretary-general’s conflict prevention agenda.

It is deeply within the UK and EU’s interests to create a counterbalance on the global stage and step up to fill the ever-growing gap in international leadership left by a US administration in foreign policy freefall. Close coordination to achieve common goals and build a robust conflict prevention agenda is needed now more than ever.

This blog was originally published by Peacebuilding Deeply.