Ring of fire or ring of friends? The future of Europe and its neighbours through a foresight lens

Reflections on a foresight retreat held 10-14 August 2015 with among others representatives of the US, UK and Austrian Ministries of Defence, the National Defence Colleges of the US and Sweden, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the German government’s international development unit, and officials from the European Commission and Parliament.

What do the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean, Russian assertiveness in Ukraine, and the crumbling of state control and national borders in the Middle East have in common? To the eyes of a number of European foreign ministries and policy teams at the EU’s External Action Service (responsible for EU diplomacy), this battery of threats at Europe’s periphery is ominous. Some have referred to it as a “ring (or arc) of instability”. Carl Bildt, Sweden’s last foreign minister called it a “ring of fire”.

Are such images apt? Or do they reflect the self-doubt and lack of coherence of a political block under increasing strain?

At least one issue, that of migration into the EU, is clearly a serious external and internal matter for Europe. But some elements of Europe’s current malaise are to a large extent self-inflicted. Parts of Europe are struggling with high debts and underperforming economies, problems exacerbated by an inflexible common currency. On the level of national politics, the malaise is reflected in the growth of political movements that contest the rules imposed by Brussels, as well as the actions of their own governments.

Might then the perceived threat from a “ring of instability” simply be the projection onto its neighbours of an internal crisis of European confidence – this confidence having already been shaken by the lack of effectiveness of EU institutions in dealing with crises?

In one area of EU policy – external affairs – confidence and effectiveness have always been at a premium. Yet the voice of Europe is needed now, to reassure its citizens as well as to deal with regional and global crises. The question remains, what will Europe say?

Looking beyond the immediate crises – the role of foresight

In June, seeking to build a stronger platform for the EU’s external policy, Federica Mogherini (High Representative for External Affairs) launched a year-long strategic review, calling for inputs and analysis from Europe’s foreign policy experts and think-tanks.

Commentary from this community so far has tended to consist of views on the severity of the threats at Europe’s borders, together with an assessment of the capacity of the EU and individual Member States to deal with them. Some have called for a tougher stance against Russian aggression, but disagree on whether the EAS or Member States should lead the way. Some call for policing and even military action to stem the flow of migrants into the EU; others propose aid be provided to the countries the migrants are leaving.

It is of course essential that the review addresses these ‘burning questions’. But the EAS team also wanted to make sure that the review would reflect what was at stake for Europe over the coming years and decades, not just weeks and months.

They therefore asked the School of International Futures (SOIF) to apply a future lens to the topic at its annual retreat in mid-August. The conclusion of participants who joined this week-long event from 16 countries was that Europe’s foreign policy and security should be framed more broadly, and more creatively.

awkBI7uwdF0i6wLoGvEvU9qkUIqN_mBagdbPyxlwERkTheir conclusions took account of presentations from 18 experts with very different views – ranging from the head of Russian foreign policy think-tank to a member of the Tunisian Pirate Party – and were formed during a foresight exercise in which participants scoped out and developed a set of contrasting scenarios for Europe’s future.

The idea of a closed Europe was rejected as neither achievable nor desirable. Europe’s neighbours were ‘not going anywhere’, links of all kinds had and always would exist and need to be managed. The interdependency created by today’s infrastructures created a level of exposure that could at times be uncomfortable, but which also offered huge opportunities in trade, investment, and scientific and technical co-operation.

Insights and reframings

l0qiezoJ8iImtFsYUfOU2Io2v_HuzR5lAds0qoymi5MOne of the counterintuitive findings of the group was that instability should be tolerated or even embraced, as a necessary condition of interconnectedness. It might even be seen as a positive mechanism for surfacing tensions early, where they could be addressed before they became deep-rooted and intractable. The alternative of ‘clamping down’,whether through pre-emptive military action or the erection of razor fences, assumed that the clamp could be held down indefinitely. “Does stability orientation lead to stability?” as one participant put it.

Two other pleas to reframe the debate were made. The first, we should adopt a viewpoint on Europe from outside the “ring of instability”. What does Europe look like to an observer in North Africa, Russia, even the US? What does this outsider perspective reveal of Europe’s under-recognised strengths and unacknowledged weaknesses? An external observer can by definition better explain the EU’s “soft power” than an official at the European Commission, but how often is he or she asked?

Finally, in the words of another participant, “Europe lacks a convincing vision.” It is ironic that the EU, an entity that could be said to have been created out of a vision should have so little left in its vision chest. Managing crises and putting out fires is an essential role for a foreign and security policy, but just as important for the future of Europe and of its neighbours is that there exists a positive idea of Europe, that can inspire people inside and outside its borders.

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