The EU and Soft Power: The Iron Fist Behind the Velvet Glove

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Drawn up by the European Commission in 1997, only a few years after the Cold War had concluded, Agenda 2000 outlined the EU´s intention to play an enhanced role in global affairs. This objective was to be achieved through ‘soft power’ and multilateral partnerships with other States and regions. However does the EU really rely on soft power to obtain `consensus´ with partner States to advance its foreign policy objectives or has it been only too willing to resort to more coercive methods, particularly with weaker States?

The concept of soft power was first developed in 1990 by the former Assistant Secretary of Defense and Dean of Harvard University, Joseph Nye, in his book Bound to Lead. He further clarified what he meant in his article “Soft Power”. Soft power is the capacity to “get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments” and depends on three types of resources: the State´s culture, its political values and its policies. These resources become effective when they appeal to others, are seen to have legitimacy and are morally authoritative.

Soft power is therefore understood as a means to achieve international policy objectives through co-operation and partnership. While the staple of hard power is coercion, soft power relies on attraction.

While some commentators view hard power as more or less synonymous with military force, Nye includes economic power, depending on its manner of deployment. Economic sanctions and the application of commercial power to compel other States into adopting particular policies can therefore also be regarded as the exercise of hard power.

For many analysts, the EU´s decision to promote its foreign-policy objectives through soft power is directly attributable to its negligible hard-power resources, particularly when compared with those of the US. They argue that the EU has been obliged to rely on negotiation, multilateral partnership and `contractual agreements´ to achieve its foreign policy aims. At the same time, the EU´s impetus to pursuing international policy objectives through soft power fits nicely with its declared support for values such as human rights, the rule of law, good governance, `free´ trade and social justice.

In fact, the EU employs a range of mechanisms to advance its foreign policy goals. A major pillar in this area consists of the EU´s provision of development and humanitarian aid. Including Member States’ contributions and overall EU development-assistance allocations, the EU is by far the largest provider of aid globally. However, although the EU has committed to allocating 0.7% of its budget to development assistance by 2015, it is not likely to attain this target

The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is used to enable the EU to speak and act in a unified manner on international issues. At the core of the CFSP is an official commitment to the use of soft power, by means of diplomacy. However, where necessary, recourse is made to trade, aid and the provision of peacekeepers to resolve complicated conflicts and `promote´ international understanding.

The  EU also avails of a range of trade-related mechanisms to further specific policy goals. For example, the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP), provides preferential market access to `developing´ States, including duty-free and quota-free entry benefits for many of their exports. GSP plus extends this market access even further for vulnerable developing countries that have ratified and introduced what the EU esteems to be critical international conventions on issues such as good governance, human rights, environmental protection and labour rights.

Arguably the greatest attraction of the EU for other States is the prospect of preferential access to the largest single global market. The EU has thus made ample use of trade agreements to promote its foreign policy objectives. The Union enjoys trade agreements with virtually every State worldwide and has considerable persuasive power as to their final formulation, given the carrots of preferential access to its internal market, inclusion in a free trade area or even potential membership of the EU, it can dangle at the negotiating table. These trade agreements have therefore become a formidable weapon in the EU´s foreign policy armoury.

The efficacy of this approach, in promoting EU policy goals, is clear from even a cursory examination of the Stabilisation and Association Agreements that were entered into with countries in South-Eastern Europe (SEE). By inserting a range of conditions in these agreements, in return for certain economic inducements, the EU was in a position to exercise influence over the policy-making processes of SEE States.
In this respect, the 2000 Cotonou Agreement between the EU and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) State countries is perhaps the most illuminating. Set up to replace the Lomé Agreements, which had been in force since 1976, Cotonou now includes 79 ACP countries and the 27 EU Member States.

Under the four Lomé Agreements, the ACP were granted trading preferences with the EU that they did not have to reciprocate. However, the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 led to calls for the Lomé Agreement to be revised to conform with WTO policies, primarily driven by the principle of reciprocity.

At the same time, the demand to remove non-reciprocal preferential EU market access from the ACP coincided with the EU´s own foreign policy objectives, in particular the promotion of free trade and greater market access. In effect, the EU has used Cotonou to introduce trade liberalisation amongst the ACP faster and deeper than that required by the WTO. For the ACP, whose economies are comparatively fragile and thence less able to compete on the international stage, the introduction of Cotonou has been far less favourably received.

Under Cotonou, the ACP States’ non-reciprocal trade preferences are to be replaced by Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). These EPAs introduce reciprocal trade arrangements whereby ACP countries would no longer benefit from duty-free entry to EU markets for their products and services without similar access being provided to the EU.

Although the EU holds that these EPAs are being negotiated in equal partnership with ACP members, this is not so. Firstly, the ACP countries’  negotiating capabilities are, compared to the EU, extremely weak. Several ACP States are heavily dependent on EU aid and this undermines their bargaining position. Moreover, the EU funds many of the negotiators representing African States and its officials frequently attend regional African meetings as well as national negotiating preparatory meetings. Finally, the EU has refused to enter into EPAs with ACP members until they break up into smaller regional groups, so decreasing their overall negotiating weight.

While the EU has consistently promoted Cotonou as a partnership with the ACP States, commentators such as Robert Cox characterise this as a mixture of coercion and consent, that is soft power backed by hard power. As Stephen Hurt writes:

“…(t)he language of the Cotonou Agreement cleverly blends ideas of consent and coercion… Consent is achieved through notions of ‘dialogue’, ‘partnership’ and of ACP States ‘owning’ their own development strategies. Coercion is present in the EU’s presentation of Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) as the only viable alternative and also through the implementation of frequent reviews of aid provision that have conditionalities attached. Hence we see consent in the first instance with the coercion coming later”.1

While they may facilitate the EU´s policy objectives, Cotonou and the EPA could seriously hinder the economic development of many of these ACP countries. Whereas today´s wealthier nations applied a range of protectionist and interventionist instruments and measures to nurture strategic infant industries and develop their economies, these options have now effectively been eliminated. According to the Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang, `developed´ States are now preventing `developing´ nations from availing of measures similar to those they themselves used to foster economic growth.

As the President of Botswana, Festus G. Mogae, stated at the 2004 ACP-European Commission Meeting of Ministers:

“You will understand, therefore, if we are apprehensive about the proposed Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which are currently being negotiated… We fear that our economies will not be able to withstand the pressures associated with liberalization”.2

It is hard to see how EU foreign policy of this sort can be held up as an exercise of soft power, or one whereby consensual agreement on issues of importance is arrived at through genuine partnership with interlocutor states. In reality, the EU´s approach is an amalgam of soft and hard power. As Robert Cooper the current Director-General for External and Politico-Military Affairs at the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union candidly writes:

“Hard power and soft power are two sides of the same coin… Soft power is the velvet glove, but behind it there is always the iron fist”.3

Instead of relying on the soft power `attractiveness´ of its culture, political values and policies in order to obtain sufficient legitimacy and morally authority to convince others of the desirability of its foreign policies, the EU has proved only too willing to apply hard power economic coercion, particularly in the case of weaker `partner States´.

Bibliography

1. Hurt, S. R. (2003) Co-operation and Coercion? The Cotonou Agreement between the European Union and ACP States and the End of the Lomé Convention. Third World Quarterly, 24(1). P. 163

2. Ochieng, C. & Sharman, T. (2004) Trade Traps: Why EU-ACP Economic Partnership Agreements pose a threat to Africa’s development. Action Aid International: Johannesburg, South Africa.

3. Cooper, R. (2004) `Hard Power, Soft Power and the Goals of Diplomacy.´  American Power in the 21st Century (Held, D. & Koenig-Archibugi, M. eds.)