The EU’s chequebook diplomacy is bound to backfire

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The EU has struggled to exert the remotest foreign policy influence over the Afghanistan debacle, despite the efforts by the legion of eurocrats employed by the EU’s Foreign Policy bureaucracy, the “European Union External Action Service”.  Yet since even the U.S. seems impotent to influence events on the ground in that “graveyard of empires”, EU failure should come as no surprise. 

Therefore, one may think, perhaps, “Europe” should focus its efforts closer to home or where it can actually exert some influence. Often, if not always, the way for the EU to exert foreign policy influence is by throwing around cash. Still, even here, things are not going swimmingly.  A 2021 report by Carnegie Europe lambasted the EU for its foreign policy spending, stating that “its current funding of various authoritarian-leaning regimes overseas sits uneasily with the EU’s internal efforts to condition funds on political values and clashes with the union’s goals for international development and foreign policy.” 

Direct EU budget support to crony governments

The Carnegie report highlighted how “in 2018 and 2019, just over 84 percent of EU funds went to authoritarian and hybrid regimes, up slightly from the previous five-year period. The EU remains wedded to the use of direct financial assistance to partner governments around the world”, as according to EU Commission estimates, budget support “accounts for about 40 percent of [EU] national cooperation programmes with partner countries.”

Governments on the receiving end of EU budget support are the likes of Egypt, Laos, Morocco, Myanmar, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Uganda, and Vietnam. All of them are guilty of significant human rights abuses. 

To have the EU providing these governments with direct budget support weakens the EU’s leverage in places where it can actually have any influence, such as Albania, where the government has consented to allowing EU magistrates to veto the appointments of judges at all judicial levels. However, why would Albania make an effort to improve rule of law standards, when it can witness all kinds of crony governments receiving EU cash without much conditionality?

Another region where the EU is able to exert some proper influence, is the South Caucasus. The three countries there, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, are together with Belarus, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine part of the so-called “Eastern Partnership”. Only a few weeks ago, the European Commission decided to increases financial assistance for these Eastern Partnership countries from 40 million euro to 75 million euro to ‘deploy safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines and speed up the vaccination campaigns.’ This comes on top of the Covax support these countries receive and is only a part of the large sums of European taxpayers money transferred over there, in the hopes of improving the situation on the ground.

“EU ‘ring of friends’ turns into ring of fire”

Unfortunately, two of the three Caucasus states, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have been involved in conflict for years now. Only last year, the so-called “Nagorno-Karabakh war” flared up again, leading to almost 7000 deaths. Reuters commentator Paul Taylor has recalled how “the European Union’s dream of building “a ring of friends” from the Caucasus to the Sahara has turned into a nightmare as conflicts beyond its borders send refugees teeming into Europe”, stating that “the European Neighbourhood Policy launched in 2003 has been a spectacular flop” and that the “EU ‘ring of friends’ turns into [a] ring of fire”.

Then perhaps EU funds have perhaps made it better, one could argue? At least Christian Danielsson, head of the European Commission department for neighborhood policy and enlargement, did not believe so in 2015, as he stated: “The idea was to have a ring of friends who would integrate with us but not become EU members. That was rather patronizing, with the European Union telling everyone what to do because we believed they wanted to be like us.” 

That was in 2015, but that hasn’t stopped the EU from continuing with the same, failed strategy of transferring cash, in the hope of getting different results. In July, EU Council chairman Charles Michel visited Azerbaijan, stating “The EU is ready to play a constructive role as an honest broker with Azerbaijan and Armenia”. But money speaks louder than words. More or less at the same time, the European Commission offered Armenia an aid package of 2.6 billion euros over five years, 62 percent more than previously promised. Here, Armenia’s share far outweighs the 140 million Azerbaijan will receive.

Is this wise, when one intends to act as an honest broker? Questions need to be asked. Obviously, to transfer more European taxpayer resources to energy-rich Azerbaijan may not be wise either, but it illustrates how the EU’s chequebook diplomacy can backfire. This may be extra sensitive because the Azeris are already wary of French President’s Macron vocal support for Armenia in this conflict. Out of the 2.6 billion euro Armenia will receive, 600 million euro will reportedly be used for transportation infrastructure, which apparently means towards a new north-south highway to the Iranian border. This may not be the worst way to spend money, but when it happens in a context of trying to improve relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, surely it would be more wise to spend scare EU taxpayers resources on improving connections between those two countries? Certainly because the peace accord between Azerbaijan and Armenia spelled out the need to reopen borders and establish transport and logistics links between the two. 

This accord obliges Armenia to provide Azerbaijan with a safe transport link through Armenian territory, to the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan, which borders Turkey. Azerbaijan is planning to build a railroad to the Armenian boarder, to transport goods to Turkey. It involves restoring a few tens of kilometres of disused Soviet era rail tracks running near its eastern border, would apparently also enable Armenia to simultaneously open its borders for trade with both Iran and Azerbaijan, whilst putting itself at the centre of the fastest land freight route for EU-East Asia trade.

Good intentions

There is a rather complex history to this conflict, and as with most conflicts, it is better to stay out of it. In any case, both countries are neighbours and interdependent, particularly given the existence of the exclave. If the EU is spending cash, it should perhaps try to reinforce this interdependence, to reduce the chance of conflict. 

Surely EU officials will retort that its cash transfers are well-intended and meant to help pacify the region. Then, when you start throwing money around, it’s hard to not end up with accusations of problematic spending.

Therefore, one of the conclusions of the Carnegie report is that “EU officials must avoid a reflexive desire to link EU influence solely to money as this does the EU a disservice from the outset and wrongly conflates foreign policy with aid. Regardless of aid levels, the EU will retain a robust level of soft power and will remain a major trade partner to states in all corners of the world.”

It’s hard to disagree with that.