It breaks if you don’t try: EU Foreign and Security Policy

  • February 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

It breaks if you don’t try: European Foreign and Security Policy

An EU that fails to act to defend its interests and values on the world stage is an EU that fails voters through passivity and inaction.

Source: CSDP EEAS Flickr


The recent Munich Security Conference (MSC) had the tagline “Westlessness”, which was met with some confusion by non-native English speakers. The intention was to suggest that the West’s was in retreat – even decline – and that the prospect should be causing policymakers a certain restlessness. Not particularly easy to translate.


However, it is an important concept. There was a clear division on show at the conference within the West – between Europe and the USA – not just over security and defence tactics, but over what the threats actually were. Republicans and Democrats in the USA agree on very little at the moment but are united in the belief that Huawei should have no place in 5G infrastructure in Europe. Europe, as ever, has almost as many viewpoints as it does countries.


Henry Kissinger, a former US Secretary of State, is said to have asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” The EU claimed to have resolved this conundrum with the advent of the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a position currently held by Josep Borrell.


Borrell, to his credit, has recognised that he simply does not have the power to be the go-to man for all of Europe. At the MSC, he expressed a desire for the EU to move beyond simple statements and expressions of concern. He wants a Europe that is comfortable with talking in power terms and using its power to get what it wants. For Borrell, unanimity is a stumbling block to action, and the majority must be able to act in its absence.


It is the absurdity of unanimity that has led the EU into its current predicament. Until recently, it was in the frankly embarrassing position of having a naval mission with no ships. This was a direct result of Italian intransigence about sea rescues conflicting with the general will to maintain Operation Sophia. What it now has is yet another lowest-common-denominator compromise where there can be a naval mission against arms trafficking, but only as long as nobody has to rescue any migrants from drowning.


This lowest-common-denominator tendency seriously weakens the EU’s foreign policy and its reputation. It provides other countries with a very easy way to influence EU foreign policy: China and Russia know that they need only convince one Member State to disagree in order to block or limit EU action on a particular topic. Macron, despite showing questionable judgment on seeking reconciliation with Russia, has correctly identified the need for Europe to start taking its own security seriously.


His solution has been a separate group, outside of the EU and NATO, called the European Intervention Initiative. It is essentially a ‘coalition of the willing’ to prepare and respond to crises together. France, which has become the only nuclear power in the EU after Brexit and whose army is among the strongest in Europe, is ready to lead the coalition. As positive a development as this is, it does not address the fundamental problem. It is the EU, not its members, which is not taken seriously as a foreign policy actor. The rest of the world approaches Member States instead if they want to get anything done, with the ‘implication […] that Europeans need to get their act together if they want outsiders to take them seriously.’


The true mark of success for EU foreign policy would be the ability to shape events in its neighbourhood. The sheer size of its market gives it the capacity to do so, but the political sensitivities surrounding the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) mean that this potential is largely wasted. The Eastern Mediterranean is afflicted by a number of crises, but the EU’s foreign policy priority has been migration control. European conflict resolution efforts have been ineffectual and marginal, and there is no real strategy on Libya or Syria that goes beyond keeping refugees out of Europe.


The EU’s new naval mission is, again, emblematic of its broader foreign policy failings.  To actually enforce the Berlin Agreement’s arms embargo, it would need far more capacity than European countries would be willing to supply. Stopping the flow of arms would require ground troops on the Egyptian-Libyan border and total control of Libyan airspace with European fighter jets. It could enact sanctions if it were capable of getting all Member States to agree to them.


Eastern Mediterranean crises have, arguably, got as bad as they are because of the power vacuum left by American disinterest and European paralysis. Other countries have seized the opportunity to fill the gap with both hands, developing conflicts into proxy wars. The European public [including the UK, as the survey linked was carried out in 2019] supports a common EU defence and security policy and a common foreign policy (74% and 66% respectively.)


An EU that fails to act to defend its interests and values on the world stage is an EU that fails voters through passivity and inaction. The only way forward is for the Commission to continue working to convince Member States to introduce majority voting on the non-military aspects of CFSP. With unanimity still in place, decisions will continue to be held hostage by single Member States, other actors will have a simple way to disrupt European foreign policy, and the EU will remain toothless and unable to act on the global crises that the public want it to address.

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Why can’t you be more like Estonia? : Creeping Illiberalism on the European Internet

  • February 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Why can’t you be more like Estonia?


Source: Pixabay

Creeping Illiberalism on the European Internet


At the recent Masters of Digital conference, one of the panels looked ahead to the future of the digital world in 2040.  One of the topics arising was the future of online freedoms 20 years from now. The Internet Society’s Regional Vice President Europe, Frederic Donck stressed that we need to respect internet freedoms in addressing internet policies, we should not discard them while addressing other issues. In English, we would call this ‘not throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. In other words, don’t throw out something good while attempting to get rid of a problem.


The UK is not paying much attention to this concept of digital freedoms. In a previous CFEP blog, Otto Ilveskero told a cautionary tale about overstepping the mark on regulating fake news: “regulators can sidestep much of the accusations regarding silencing the freedom of speech[…] by regulating not offensive content, but content that is harmful to the safety and wellbeing of others.” With its Online Harms White Paper, the UK has used the same language about protecting the safety and wellbeing of others, but as a defence of giving the state more power to decide what is harmful ‘enough’ to require regulation.


It seeks to create a new regulator to handle disinformation, trolling, selling illegal items, non-consensual pornography, hate speech, harassment, promotion of self-harm, and content uploaded by people in prison. Said regulator would be able to issue fines or hold senior management staff liable for breaches of its codes of practice. Notwithstanding that this is a very long and varied list of issues, there’s another, similarly idiomatic, issue. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.


The promotion of self-harm category is a case that sums up the delicate issues of freedom and of protection at play online. Instagram has increased its efforts to remove material relating to self-harm and suicide following the death of a British teenager. That had an unintended effect on other young women worldwide, who were finding photographs of themselves removed because their scars were visible. For them, that was a value judgment that their appearance was unacceptable and potentially damaging to others. Ethical debates can be had to weigh up these kinds of issues, but when we talk about online content filters, that nuance is gone. All an algorithm can tell you is that it has detected a picture containing scars.


It is not just Britain that has rushed to solve social ills without considering the nuances and the potential impact on the online freedoms we have all come to cherish. France has enacted a law to tackle ‘fake news’. In short, it allows judges to order the removal of articles within three months of an election. Upon getting a report from a public prosecutor, political party, or individual, the judge has 48 hours to decide whether it constitutes ‘fake news’. To qualify, it must be obviously false, deliberately spread on a large-scale, and lead to a disturbance of the peace or the fairness of an election.


Sounds reasonable? Imagine such a law in the hands of a country where the judiciary has been captured by the ruling party. Where the leader has a tendency to deem any inconvenient story to be manifestly untrue, to be spreading because of the media and the political opposition, and to suggest that these actions are fuelling violence. When moderate politicians grant themselves additional regulatory powers, they should consider whether they are truly comfortable with what those powers would look like in the hands of populists.


On an entirely unrelated note, Hungary has also been known to use otherwise innocuous measures in negative ways. Privacy rights are more important than ever in a digital age, where everything we do can be filmed and everything we say can be recorded and held against us. Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law, István Tiborcz, may have had a similar thought when the Supreme Court ruled news site 444.hu violated his privacy rights – as a non-public figure – by publishing a video interview of him without his explicit consent. Tiborcz’s company had contracts with local governments that the 444 and other investigative media outlets found suspicious. Potentially, as a man facing corruption allegations, he may have been even more relieved about limiting his exposure to public scrutiny.


Even Germany is not immune to this trend of creeping illiberalism cloaked in defending rights or resolving social problems. Its domestic law, the Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), is arguably the precursor to EU efforts in tightening up content removal rules. The NetzDG requires removal of ‘obviously illegal’ content in under 24 hours, and within seven days for non-obviously illegal content. An entire satirical magazine lost its Twitter account, albeit temporarily, to NetzDG enforcement. Companies have an incentive to remove first and ask questions later: they might get fined up to €50m for non-removal, and incorrect removals have no real consequences.


We see the same policies creeping on to the EU stage with the Regulation on Preventing the Dissemination of Terrorist Content Online (TERREG) and the Copyright Directive. TERREG goes hand-in-hand with online filters, with the same problems regarding algorithms and context. A key example relates to the wrongful deletion of YouTube videos that served as evidence of war crimes in Syria. The Copyright Directive also raises the spectre of algorithms detecting violations and is out of touch with a new wave of young voters who want to see better from their European Union.

There’s a country getting it right, according to Freedom House. Estonia, keeping up its good reputation for all things digital, has protected its people’s online freedoms. They punish truly harmful actions. If someone incites hatred, violence or discrimination on the basis of particular characteristics they can be fined. If those actions lead to death, negative health impacts, or other serious results, they could find themselves spending up to 3 years in an Estonian jail. Any blocks that do exist mostly revolve around unlicensed gambling sites. They opposed the Copyright Directive and are using their technological reputation to lead on cybersecurity efforts.

Overall, the Internet does bring both strife and success. They are fundamentally intertwined. As long as there are debates online, there will be bad-faith participants. As long as e-commerce exists, e-criminals will too. If governments fail to balance freedoms strongly enough, they will throw out the heart of the internet and may merely be left holding a bucket of straggling criminals.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gibraltar and Brexit

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Gibraltar and Brexit

Gibraltar, English, Rock, Coast, Mediterranean

Source: Pixabay

Despite voting 96% to Remain, Gibraltar now faces Brexit: nothing short of a fundamental challenge to what it means to be Gibraltarian, British, and European.

As the UK hurtles towards Brexit, its people have been swept along for the ride whether they voted for it or not. The CFEP has extensively covered the Scottish situation, but the Gibraltarian situation remains under-discussed.

Gibraltar’s story is as, if not more, complex than Scotland’s. A disputed territory between Spain and the UK, its culture, society, politics and economics all stem from its geopolitical situation. As such, it voted 96% to Remain in the European Union. Despite that decisive result, it now faces Brexit: nothing short of a fundamental challenge to what it means to be Gibraltarian, British, and European.

The BBC has a brief explainer of Spain and the UK’s claims. In short, it revolves around a 1713 treaty ceding Gibraltar from Spain to the UK. Anglo-Dutch forces captured its fortress in 1704, and it was then ceded to the British in the Treaty of Utrecht. Spain maintains that the treaty limits British sovereignty to particular areas of Gibraltar. It does not recognise the airport and the territorial waters as UK sovereign territory. The UK maintains that the whole of Gibraltar was ceded to it forever, with no exceptions.


In more modern times, the two states have resorted to different doctrines of international law. The UK relies on the idea of self-determination: the people of Gibraltar have chosen to remain linked to the UK and have rejected shared sovereignty with Spain, and their will should be observed. For Spain, non-interference with the fixed borders of another state (the territorial integrity principle) matters far more than self-determination, particularly for a community which it decries as the result of colonialism.

Gibraltar has been listed as a Non-Self-Governing Territory with the UN since 1946. This is another point of contention between the UK and Spain. In the UN decolonisation process, the UK maintains that Gibraltar is for all extents and purposes decolonised, having responsibility for everything except foreign affairs, defence and internal security. Spain pushes for a solution based on territorial integrity instead of self-determination, citing previous UN resolutions which supported that position. This leaves Gibraltar in limbo. It has a democratically elected government that has the capacity to make its own policy on the vast majority of topics. However, it exists in a liminal space: colonised-on-paper-but-not-in-reality. Under the Treaty of Utrecht, if the UK ever relinquishes Gibraltar, it reverts back to Spain. Even if Gibraltar wanted to be independent – which it does not – it could not be.

Gibraltarian identity is fundamentally shaped by the dispute. During the Francoist period, the border was closed, separating families and leaving a traumatic mark on Gibraltar’s collective memory. One woman recently told Spain’s El Periódico: “My grandmother was very sick in La Línea [the Spanish city bordering Gibraltar] and to go to see her, my mother had to get a ferry to Morocco and from there another to Algeciras. It took over a day and by the time she arrived my grandmother had already died. She never forgave them.” This history has coloured perceptions of Spain to the point that some view its persistence in claiming Gibraltar as borderline totalitarian.


As detailed in a House of Lords report on Brexit and Gibraltar, many Gibraltarians thank Spanish accession to the European Economic Community for reopening the border. Building on that achievement, the Brussels Process began in 1984. It sought to set up UK-Spain discussions, reduce restrictions on moving goods and people over the land border (Gibraltar is not in the Customs Union or Schengen) and provide reciprocal rights for Spanish people in Gibraltar and Gibraltarians in Spain. It failed to directly include Gibraltarians and collapsed in 2002 when they voted against shared sovereignty.

In 2004, the UK, Spain and Gibraltar set up a Forum for Dialogue. This had more success, making deals on pension payments to retirees who had worked in Gibraltar, easing border crossing, Gibraltar dialling codes, cross-border economic cooperation, allowing Gibraltar’s Airport to take part in EU aviation measures, and permitting civilian aircraft to use Spanish airspace.

Finally, in 2007, the Treaty of Lisbon discussions resulted in text setting out Gibraltar’s unique status as a European territory with a Member State responsible for its external relations. Trilateral talks collapsed in 2011 when the hard-line Partido Popular governed Spain once more. During intense border disruption in 2012-13, the UK was able to appeal to the European Commission on Gibraltar’s behalf. It did not find Spain in breach of EU rules but wrote to both Member States with recommendations and kept up ‘soft’ pressure through subsequent inspection visits. More recently, the UK received a preview of what may be to come. One of its MEPs was forced out of his rapporteur position, for resisting Spanish attempts to footnote Gibraltar as a colony.


Post-Brexit, Gibraltar faces economic losses as well as political. Returning to the House of Lords report, Gibraltar is a diverse service-based economy. Financial services and online gaming provide 40% of its GDP and 25% of total jobs. The right to offer financial services in other European Economic Area countries (Passporting Rights) is vital to the industry and will need to be negotiated as part of the future free trade agreement. Ending the transition period without such an agreement could have a serious impact on Gibraltarian businesses. What’s more, almost 33% of finance jobs are held by frontier workers.

It isn’t just Gibraltar that would suffer from increased border controls. Gibraltar is the second largest employer in the Campo de Gibraltar region, the first being the regional government of Andalucía. Andalucía’s government has calculated that Brexit could cost it between 500 and 1200 million Euros, and proposed that it be granted special access to the European Solidarity Fund to cushion the blow.

What else can be done for Gibraltar? Chief Minister Fabian Picardo recently floated the idea of negotiating passport-free travel with the EU post-Brexit. The UK government rapidly reiterated that it would make the final decision. This scenario would be no threat to the Schengen zone: there are border checks between the UK and Gibraltar, and so the idea is worthy of serious consideration. In the past, more headway has been made while the Partido Socialista Obrero Español is in power in Spain, and it has recently formed a coalition with the left-wing populist party Podemos. This party has expressed little interest in the territorial dispute over Gibraltar, focusing on unemployment in the surrounding area and accusing it of being a tax haven.

It remains to be seen what will happen during the transition period, in previously uncharted political territory for both Spain and Gibraltar. The last word should go to Gibraltarian MP, Marlene Hassan Nahon, who highlighted a key problem with the ideas underlying Brexit.

She expressed the fear that “the interests of a much larger British population will displace those of Gibraltarians in the UK government’s dealings in exiting the European Union.” In light of the UK government’s tendency to privilege the desires of Leave voters over those of Remain voters, she may, unfortunately, be correct.

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CFEP in Porto

  • January 2020
  • Hannah Bettsworth

CFEP in Porto

An update on our work with our friends at the TRAIN project


Last week, the Centre for European Progression headed to Porto for a seminar with the Tracing Integration Policies through Structured Dialogue (TRAIN) project team. The project aims to get young people and politicians together to talk about common European legal migration and integration policies. Based on these discussion events, the partners will come together to develop recommendations to the EU institutions.

The project carries out local and international activities, and we will be organising the final activity in Brussels to present the recommendations. Young people can also participate in the project online, and that was the main topic of the Porto seminar. First, we discussed which topics to select for further dialogue both in person and on the forum. Splitting into groups of two, we then spent hours researching, discussing and writing recommendations on our chosen topics.


The CFEP worked on migration with the Law and Internet Foundation (Bulgaria), and used our institutional knowledge to come up with policy recommendations. For example, we participated in the European Council of Refugees and Exiles’ annual conference in October 2019. While there, we learned about examples of good practice on integration. As such, we could recommend that other countries copy Belgium’s DUO for a JOB, pairing over 50s with young jobseekers of a migrant background.

In order to launch our new forum, we visited the Colégio Internato Claret with the help of our partners at Geoclube. There, we presented the project to the students and sat down with them to discuss their ideas. They were an articulate, socially aware group of young people who were full of ideas. The group the CFEP worked with had a particular passion for helping the homeless, having volunteered to distribute food to them. We spoke about how, in the UK, Indian restaurants often open on Christmas to give free dinners and company to people with nowhere else to go. We also decided that food was a way for people to get to know each other’s cultures. In Britain, Meghan Markle worked with the Hubb Community Kitchen – run by and for Grenfell Tower survivors – to produce a cookbook together with women from 12 different countries. Here in Belgium, there is also a Syrian refugees’ catering group in Antwerp.



The groups then posted their ideas on the forum, and we would invite all our followers to do the same! All you need is an email address: there’s no need to make yet another new online account. On the last day of the seminar, we exchanged project experiences with each other, finalised our policy recommendations, and then tackled the francesinha, a local sandwich filled with meat, covered in cheese and a beer sauce. It does come in a vegetarian version, but even then it’s a real challenge to finish!

All in all, we had a good, productive time in Porto and are looking forward to the next seminar in Malta!

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