Welcome to the first EoB Retrospective, a series of posts looking at our previous debates. We will begin with our debate on “The EU, a (failed) peace actor in the world”. The debate took place in the light of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the European Union (EU) for its contribution to peace in Europe. However, the prize drew several strong criticisms from both academic and civil society observers. As such we considered it a very appropriate topic and it managed to become one of the liveliest exchanges of opinions so far. So what points were exactly raised during our debate? The atrocious situation in Syria, was, as it remains today, a blemish on the EU’s foreign policy and consequently attracted a lot of attention. The arguments and criticisms that we are confronted with today were present also at the time of the debate. The major question on everyone’s mind was “Why won’t the EU intervene as it did in Libya?” While important differences between the political, military and geostrategic situation of both countries were immediately presented, the debate then took a turn towards the possible difference between the EU and USA mentality on intervention. The latter is often perceived as interest based, while the EU’s is couched in the framework of human rights, rather than openly admitting ulterior motives. However, the existence of a “benevolent” position of the EU was quickly questioned, as the willingness to enter the Libyan conflict was juxtaposed to the reticence of the EU not only in responding to the Arab Spring, but to the years of collaboration with repressive regimes in Northern Africa. An uneasy interpretation had to be contemplated by the participants of the debate. Are human rights forced upon weaker partners, but forgotten when it becomes convenient for security or immigration policy?
The discussion then moved on towards Iran and its perceived quest for the nuclear bomb. In addition to the argument of classic power play and realist geopolitics, another interpretation from the “outside” was presented. It was not primarily an issue of pragmatism of Western powers, but their legitimacy, more precisely, lack thereof. Due to the rather uneasy history that Europe and the USA have had with that part of the world, Western reticence is perceived more as Western belligerence, making it far more difficult to come to a negotiated settlement. The fact that the West doesn’t have a clean record is making things difficult for the EU in trying to get its point across.
This issue of perception smoothly led the debate into the field of European values themselves. In trying to navigate between the rock of self-interested foreign policy and a hard place of virtuous defence of human rights; which direction should the EU take to both protect its interests and keep intact whatwe most hold dear? An alternative way of looking at human rights in the field of development was brought up. Official development assistance coming from Brazil, India and especially China, contrary to the EU, doesn’t contain conditionality clauses and in countries where basic social and economic rights are sorely lacking, is it truly appropriate for the EU to be pushing for civic and political rights? Could opening a door of cooperation even to countries that violate human rights be a better alternative to exclusion, with Burma and ASEAN being a case in point? In the classical European tradition, we came to a dialectic conclusion. The EU should not give away its core values, such as human dignity, however it must be able to admit its non-altruistic positions and allow a certain amount of flexibility when allowing for societal development to catch up to our standards. This, together with the differences in the definition of values, were the two core conclusions of our debate.
The EoB team hopes that you have enjoyed this first entry in our retrospective. Feel free to leave comments, ideas or suggestions. We are always glad to receive student feedback. Until next time.
The EoB Team