The Geneva II Talks and the Syrian civil war assessing the EU common foreign policy

The Geneva II talks, aimed at implementing the homonymous Communiqué, have recently finished without either a definitive or satisfying outcome for all the parties involved. Concerning the Syrian contenders, the dialogue between the opposition and the government representatives lagged due to the mutual blaming for the attacks of the very last weeks. The government, specifically, accused the counter part of spreading terrorism and refused to discuss on transition[1]. Regarding the other players on the stage, another cleavage divided several actors from the same ‘party’, namely the European Union.

In fact, the Geneva II talks presented the umpteenth case in which the EU common foreign policy demonstrated its fragmentation. In the occasion at stake, while some European states, like France and UK, were oriented towards reaching a definitive political solution, others – like Italy – were more focused on the humanitarian emergency and on the proclamation of a ceasefire[2]. Italy’s former Foreign Ministry Ms. Bonino demonstrated a strong commitment on this issue, for instance through her declarations on a recent meeting with Greece, and on the ground as well, having she visited the refugee camps.

Despite the lack of a joint European position, and given the ongoing truces within Syria and along the borders, the UN Security Council recently adopted a resolution, no. 2139, which

called all asides, particularly the Syrian authorities, to immediately allow humanitarian aid to reach the humanitarian agencies of the UN and its partners quickly, safely and unhindered, including through “conflict” lines and across borders. The Council members stressed the need for all sides to cease attacking civilians, which includes random use of weapons in populated areas, denouncing the “wide-scale violations of human rights and international law[3]“.

This resolution was the only possible answer to the Syrian bloodshed given the probability of the Russian veto in case of whatever stronger standing taken by the pro-opposition International side[4].

As ever, the EU failed in presenting as a strong and united front face to a crisis more or less directly interesting all the European Member States, no one excluded. In fact, while there is no doubt that countries like Italy are the geographically immediate stop for the refugees, they are not the last one, though. For instance, many refugees would like to move to Germany as their final destination. As the former Italian Foreign Ministry Bonino appropriately underlined, we cannot imagine a long term solution without an immediate ceasefire, without stopping a tragedy that sooner or later will be likely to affect all the European countries’ future as well[5]. On the contrary[6], the UK and France, probably afraid of appearing less dynamic than the US, strongly supported the transition option and almost bypassed the humanitarian side of the thing. Consequently, the EU position as a whole resulted fragmented.

Actually, this is neither the first nor the last time in which the European Common foreign policy failed to be common. Just to mention but a few examples, in 2003 the EU was divided over the Iraqi war; no common position was adopted with regard to possible sanctions to apply to Iran regarding the nuclear issue. Indeed, ‘if the example of Libya served to bolster the idea that European states could significantly impact the trajectory of democratic uprising in the southern neighborhood, the case of Syria has rapidly shattered this illusion’[7]. In this situation, the European Union firstly agreed on imposing embargo on arms, Syrian oil and oil imported products in 2011. Likewise the European Project itself, it was relatively easy to find a common ground agreement on economic-based sanctions even because Syria was not considered an essential trading partner for Europe[8]. On the contrary, the EU Member States (MS) were quite divided over the lifting of the arms embargo, particularly after the chemical weapons issue. France stressed that, basing on its national sovereignty, it would be allowed to act independently from the CFSP, together with the UK, in lifting the arms embargo. It was also France and the UK – despite the latter’s parliamentary refusal later on – those who backed the US initial proposal of a military intervention following the chemical weapons crisis of August last year. Germany, instead, opposed the lifting option as providing weapons to the opposition would bring to a second ‘Mali case’: it refers to the fact that the jihadists and the islamist militias that invaded the northern part of that country were equipped with weapons used during the war in Libya[9]. Only after the Russian and Chinese vetoes regarding a possible military intervention in Syria, and US change of mind as well, the EU jointly supported, also financially, a program of the chemical weapons destruction.

Taken into consideration these prior events, it is clear that the advancements that the Lisbon Treaty brought to the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) as well, are not yet enough. Actually, a European Council’s Decision of December 2013 signed a progress in the latter area while the former continues lagging into intergovernmental and much divided waters[10].

While foreign policy has been kept for a very long time a matter of national sovereignty, it is now necessary to revolutionize the decision making process in order to make it smoother, faster and more effective for the sake of the EU’s world-wide standing. If really ‘the EU is desperately struggling to get out from under the US’ shadow and show it can act on its own’[11], it is not anymore up to the sole Germany, France or the UK – because of their remarkable and imperial past- to decide for the whole Union while other – and more directly involved – countries’ voices are being neglected and ignored. It is the writer’s opinion that a more communitarian decision process should take in primary consideration the opinion of the most affected states, although those being relatively small, and develop a common-grounded solution in order to face the other international actors from a stronger position.

Furthermore, also the European economic-driven and functionalist approach with regards to the relationship with Mediterranean countries needs to be revised, starting from the crisis ‘preventive’ approach.  In fact, the partnership with Syria evidently did not match the European expectations: this is one of the inconvenient of stipulating trading/cooperation agreements with undemocratic governments. The same discourse is valid for the crisis management stage.  It is undoubtedly very generous from the EU to provide €1.3 billion for humanitarian purposes, but there is firstly the necessity to permit the aid to arrive to destination[12].This is the exact logic behind UN resolution no. 2139[13]. Furthermore, there is another point to rise: how can the EU afford donating such a big amount of money while the economic crisis (besides other aspects) is allegedly one of the reasons preventing the shaping of a real common foreign policy (and defense) policy? In fact, beyond the strong EU nationalism, the lack of funding and the increasing cuts to defense budgets is one of the reasons for the shortage of political unity within the CFSP.

The old ‘good’ imagine of a powerful Europe has long gone while new subjects, like  Brazil and India, have energetically entered the international scene, thanks to their economic growth which improved their political and military standing as a result. At the same time, new and more insidious threats have arisen and spread around the globe, as the European Council decision of December 2013 well acknowledged. France and UK alone, perhaps altogether with Germany, are not able to do everything on their own if considering their declining economic power and their relatively small demographic and territorial size. Instead, a real United Europe could make the difference for the benefit of its member states and of its neighboring people’s future.

Francesca Azzarà

Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

[1] The Guardian, ‘Syrian government and opposition trade accusations at Geneva II talks’, 10 February 2014. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

BBC, ‘What is the Geneva II conference on Syria?’, 22 January 2014. Available at. Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[2] Al Monitor, ‘European officials divided over Geneva II priorities’, 22 January 2014. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[3] Syrian Arab News Agency, ‘UN Security Council unanimously approves Syria aid access resolution’, 22 February 2014. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[4] Ibidem, note 2.

[5] Radio, ‘Intervento alla Geneva II Middle East Peace conference del Ministro degli Esteri Italiano, Emma Bonino’, 22 January 2014. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[6] Ibidem,note 4.

[7] LSE Blog, ‘Europe is struggling to play a meaninful role in the Syria crisis’, 29 March 2012. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[8] Raffaele Borreca, ‘The EU and the Syrian civil war: common policy and states’ responses’, Middle East Flashpoint Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East & Islamic Studies, U n i v e r s i t y o f P e l o p o n n e s e, 15 October 2013. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[9] Ibidem, note 8.

[10] European Council, 19/20 December 2013. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[11] Sergey Strokan, ‘Syrian conflict: Europe’s new role as a policeman’, in RT, 27 August 2013. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[12] European External Action, ‘Syria’. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.

[13] Euronews, ‘UN approves Syria aid access resolution’, 23 February 2014. Available at: Accessed: 24 February 2014.