Joint Communication: ‘A Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s external action’ – An opportunity for more political, long-term EU engagement in volatile contexts?

By Dr Laura Davis


The EU Global Strategy (EUGS) marks a shift in how EU leaders see the EU’s role in the world. The 2003 European Security Strategy – for all its flaws – emphasised EU contribution to a better world by promoting values in its external action. The EUGS defines the EU’s external action in terms of defending the EU’s interests, without clearly articulating what these are. External action was always interest-based, of course, but this shift in discourse – and particularly the important position of the interests of the European arms trade in the EUGS – reflects a political climate in which external action is subordinated to stemming migration to the EU as fast as possible, and not necessarily by addressing the causes of forced migration.

In this broader political context, the Joint Communication: ‘A Strategic Approach to Resilience in the EU’s External Action’ offers some opportunities for addressing the root causes of conflict and suffering, common causes of displacement. It offers a very broad definition of resilience, which covers individuals, communities, societies and states – but two important characteristics stand out. First, it recognises the need for a political rather than purely technical approach to external action. Second, it recognises ‘the need to move away from crisis containment to a more structural, long-term, non-linear approach to vulnerabilities, with an emphasis on anticipation, prevention and preparedness.’

The Communication also gives some cause for concern. Women and girls get a couple of mentions, but gender equality has not been integrated. We know from thousands of years of experience that unless women’s rights are explicitly included in human rights, they are quickly overlooked, while the rights of gender and sexual minorities are rarely included from the outset. As with other EU policy documents, men and boys are absent and gender-less: their agency is assumed and their contribution to gender equality is not required. The underlying assumption is that women and gender minorities have to free themselves from oppressive social norms to bring about equality.

The emphasis on conflict prevention and the long-term, non-linear needs for building resilience in the Communication is welcome. There is, however, implicit tension with these and the short-term roles foreseen for Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions.

A particular area of concern is the ‘capacity building’ of state security services in fragile contexts. When divorced from reform programmes that ensure civilian oversight, centralised command and control and robust accountability mechanisms, ‘capacity building’ risks reverting to old-style ‘train and equip’ projects. The danger here is that abusive security agents become more resilient to reform and better equipped to abuse civilians and engage in organised crime, including trafficking migrants.

Finally, civic space is crucial for resilience. The “Arab Spring” has shown how brittle authoritarian regimes can be when faced with opposition. It has led to a cultural paradigm shift in which young men and women are more willing to express their dissent. Yet civic space is closing fast – and faster for women than for men. If civil society organisations’ main roles are as service providers, this is a sign of inadequate civic space and therefore poor resilience. Civic space is a mark of resilience.

As with all other policies, the value of the Communication will be proven in its implementation. Above all, the EU needs political leadership at every level to guide interventions based on rigorous analysis that integrates gender analysis as a matter of course. The challenge for EU external action has never been inadequate tools – when it has had clear objectives, it has used its available instruments and created new ones as needed. Without clear political leadership, based on the Treaty principles that govern external action, the instruments will never be fit for purpose no matter how carefully they are designed.

Dr Laura Davis is the Senior Associate responsible for EPLO’s work in pursuit of its Policy Objective 4 (To strengthen the implementation of a gender-sensitive approach in EU policy and practice which enables the EU to be more inclusive and effective in promoting peace).

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