The EEAS: reacting consistently for conflict prevention?

By Benjamin Denis | 31 October 2010

To quote this document: Benjamin Denis, “The EEAS: reacting consistently for conflict prevention?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 31 October 2010,, displayed on 02 April 2023

Under the Lisbon Treaty, conflict prevention is for the first time explicitly stated as a purpose of the Union's external action, alongside democracy, the rule of law, human rights, poverty reduction, global trade integration, environmental protection, disaster management and multilateral cooperation. However, conflict prevention, in its long-term, structural form, is linked to all these objectives. Will the European External Action Service (EEAS) be able to ensure that the Union's external relations are more coherent and efficient at preventing conflicts?

The EU and conflict prevention: right instruments, wrong functioning?

What is conflict prevention? Traditional conflict prevention can be defined as the action to fight the escalation of conflicts and prevent them from taking a violent turn. This approach is criticized for being more ‘reactive' than ‘proactive', i.e. initiated after the escalation towards a violent situation. Some of the instruments invoked are sanctions (or the threat of), diplomatic mediation and civilian observers to neutralize a conflict zone.

On the contrary, structural (or long term) conflict prevention is based on the idea that no long lasting peace can be built without tackling root causes of the conflict. Wealth gap, access to scarce resources, ethnic or religious tensions are not resolved by the traditional conflict prevention instruments. Therefore the idea of a long term conflict prevention policy implies the coordination of instruments such as development aid, trade and diplomacy within a coherent structural foreign policy. It can take place before the emergence of an open conflict and prevent its outburst, or after a peace-enforcement mission in order to work on structural issues for a durable solution.

The EU has had some success in conflict prevention, for instance in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).  During the crisis that broke out in 2001, but which can be traced back to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the EU, making use of its unique range of instruments, has proved to be an efficient peace broker. The Rapid Reaction Mechanism allowed the reconstruction of houses destroyed in the region of Tetovo and Skopska Gora. It was combined with the lure of a Stabilization and Association Agreement - both FYROM's and Croatia's Stabilization and Association Agreements set out membership perspectives in their preambles, recalling EU's "readiness to integrate to the fullest possible extent" the associates and recognizing their "status as a potential candidate for EU membership". Through diplomatic intercession this led to the signature of the Ohrid peace deal and ended violence between state forces and Albanian groups. The Ohrid framework provided for representation of the Albanian ethnic minority and a decentralized government. An additional aid envelope - the 2001 Confidence Building Programme - was released in exchange for the final signature of the corresponding amendments to the Macedonian constitution. Apart from the subsequent Operation Concordia, the instruments used by the EU during this crisis are typical of its ‘unique range' of diplomatic and civilian tools.

But their efficiency mainly came from trading membership, and only after the conflict outburst. Even if efficient in preventing a further escalation of the conflict and brokering an agreement between the parties, it is argued that the EU's policies towards the FYROM have failed in terms of stricto sensu conflict prevention. Guido Lenzi points out the lack of early action of the EU in the FYROM: "concerned as they are by the many crises occurring (...) the European public, politicians and analysts seem hardly to recognize other conflicts in Europe that have not happened and need not happen. Crisis prevention and peace-building have been sidelined by conflict management and peacekeeping". A Spillover Monitoring Mission of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and a preventive mission of the United Nations were set up as early as 1992. They gave the international community regular reports about the field situation. After the Albanian uprisings of 1995, it is a mediation of the US that led to the signature  of an interim agreement. And even after the 1998 uprisings, the EU action was insufficient - it was arguably sidelined until 2001. Why was the EU so slow to respond? Its reaction was initially hampered by disagreements on the recognition of the FYROM's independence (declared in 1991). Greece lost its border with Serbia and was therefore reluctant to recognize the new State, especially under the name of ‘Republic of Macedonia'. But overall, the framework of the CFSP was not efficient enough either to generate a common position or to have structural conflict prevention programmes implemented before the late 1990's.

EU structural conflict prevention instruments may be taken beyond these limits through increased ‘consistency' and ‘adaptability'.  The shortcomings of EU intervention in FYROM illustrate the limits of its conflict prevention to date: it has been efficient in the long-run (in diffuse structural conflict prevention and post-conflict situations) and when it can rely on its ‘power of attraction', but it is deficient when a timely and specific structural conflict prevention response is needed. In addition to the need for consensus in the second pillar's decision process, one of the possible explanations to this inefficiency has been a perpetual fragmentation of competences: before 1999, conflict prevention was kept separate from External Relations, in two different Directorate Generals (DGs) of the Commission, Development and External Relations (RELEX). After 1999, it was the other way round: conflict prevention competences were kept separate from development cooperation. Less attention is paid to poverty reduction and structural stability in DG Relex and in the Council, the two main elements that are about to form the EEAS, and this may hamper the ability of the EEAS to work on structural issues of wealth in its long-term conflict prevention policies.

In addition, a lack of consistency can be pointed out between structural conflict prevention objectives and the objectives of the trade and agricultural policies. For instance, human and societal security on the one hand and the promotion of free trade agreements on the other hand are conflicting in some states that have a fragile economic structure. The experience of societies being disintegrated or feeling "marginalized as a result of the external pressure of globalisation and Westernization", to use Keukeleire's words, and thus subject to risks of conflict, should be an incentive to develop real dialogues with partner countries. The adaptability of EU's instruments still proves insufficient in these situations. Systemic doctrines such as the promotion of free trade have to be examined on a case by case basis and adapted to geographically specific objectives that are not related to trade but to structural stability - this is where the challenge lies for the EEAS. Can the new Service become a clearing house for all external actions? Can it cross-check all their implications and arbitrate between priorities?

What the EEAS will and could do?

The EEAS will bridge across pillars to get the components of structural conflict prevention together. Indeed, the EEAS will be in charge of programming across a large range of instruments. Producing a consistent overarching strategy for the EU's external action should thus become a matter of mere internal coordination under Catherine Ashton. In addition, her Strategic Policy Planning Department will be in charge of defining the broad orientations. If it is able to set a clear hierarchy in external action objectives and to get it accepted by the 27 Commissioners and member states, the ability of the EU to prevent the outburst of latent conflicts in its priority regions will be enhanced. Thanks to its single geographical and thematic desks, the EEAS could concentrate the consistency checks globally, regionally and thematically, acting as a clearing house for European external action. Essential for conflict prevention, the ‘Policy Coherence for Development' and ‘Do No Harm' principles would gain from this unique location. The idea of ‘Policy Coherence for Development' was developed to ensure that no other EU policy would hamper the efforts made to alleviate poverty in developing countries. Likewise, the ‘Do No Harm' principles were drafted in order to avoid situations where development cooperation programmes (or their withdrawal) generate additional tensions and conflicts. Instead of being implemented across multiple services, these programming guidelines will now concern a single institution. In addition, the division between Common Security and Defence Policy missions and development aid programs will be reduced, with bodies such as the Committee for Civilian Aspects of Crisis Management (CIVCOM) and the EU Military Staff getting closer to the programming of the Development Cooperation Instrument and the European Development Fund, under the authority of Catherine Ashton.

This represents a real opportunity for the EU to enhance its conflict prevention work.

With the EEAS in place, the programming of multiple external action instruments will be brought together.But the EEAS will divide the decision-making process on development cooperation and its  instruments: the EEAS will be in charge of the country allocations, strategic papers and indicative programmes, while the rest of the decision-making cycle will be executed by the Commission's services. The European Parliament fought hard to preserve the community method and obtained that in several areas where the EEAS contributes to the programming and management cycle, any changes in the basic regulations or documents shall be prepared jointly by the EEAS and the Commission under the responsibility of the relevant Commissioner. Disagreements would be resolved by the College of Commissioners. Nonetheless, this additional split in the decision-making process will create difficulties for conflict prevention objectives to be mainstreamed.

The root causes of conflicts are extremely diverse. Structural conflict prevention implies early identification of these causes and the mobilisation of numerous instruments to contain them. The EEAS could ensure that all EU's external actions work in the same direction in fragile regions. Under the current plan though, Ms. Ashton's Service would have no say on trade policy. Trade is generally considered to be the main channel of EU's influence abroad, but also to be one of the most problematic policies in terms of poverty alleviation. Policy coherence for development will continue to apply separately on trade, as it will on agriculture policy: this represents a missed opportunity for a more coherent European external action, especially in pursuing conflict prevention objectives.

The EU's structural diplomacy is increasingly focusing on countries and regions outside its neighbourhood. As a consequence, it can rely less and less on trading membership to prevent conflicts and instead, it has to get all its other instruments together to help solving the structural causes of tensions. The Lisbon Treaty and the EEAS could to some extent remedy the fragmentation and discrepancy between structural conflict prevention components within the EU. But in order to do that, the Brussels turf wars that occupied most of the discussions on the making of the new service have to be left aside for more strategic thinking: how can the External Action Service gather programming competences without creating new division lines within the policy-making processes?


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To read

  • Clément, Sophia, "Conflict prevention in the Balkans: case study of Kosovo and the FYR of Macedonia", Chaillot Paper 30, Paris, Institute for Security Studies of WEU, 1997.
  • Hill, Christopher, "The EU's Capacity for Conflict Prevention", in W. Rees & M. Smith, International Relations of the European Union, volume IV, London, Sage, 2008, pp.87-104.
  • Keukeleire, Stephan, "EU Structural Foreign Policy and Structural Conflict Prevention", in V. Kronenberger & J. Wouters (eds.), The European Union and Conflict Prevention, Policy and Legal Aspects, The Hague, TMC Asser Press, 2004, pp. 151-172.

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Source image: Union européenne, 2010