Rethinking Europe

EU Strategic Autonomy in Afghanistan? The View from Delhi

The EU’s foreign policy approaches to Iran and Afghanistan demonstrate the challenges for the world’s middle powers.

Takeaways


  • EU’s policy approach and success in foreign affairs has been largely determined by following its “senior” partner, the United States.
  • Can the the EU develop more autonomous room for maneuver going forward, in particular with regard to the emerging situations in Iran and Afghanistan?
  • In Afghanistan, the US-NATO troop pull-out is threatening to undermine all the hard work the EU has put into the region for the last two decades.
  • Since 2002, the EU has contributed €4 billion in development aid to Afghanistan which makes the country the largest recipient of EU development assistance globally.
  • The EU's development-focused form of diplomacy could finally come to the fore if the Afghan government’s security apparatus is able to survive following an inevitable political arrangement with the Taliban.
  • In Afghanistan, the EU will once again have the need to work with China and Russia, both of which are seeking to enhance their role after the U.S. withdrawal.
  • The world is clearly in a phase where middle powers can play a bigger role. This opens strategic space for the EU.

Until now, the EU’s policy approach and success in foreign affairs has been largely determined by following its “senior” partner, the United States.

As the Biden Administration pulls back from various trouble spots, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, a question of global interest, including to us in India, is whether the EU can develop more autonomous room for maneuver going forward, in particular with regard to the emerging situations in Iran and Afghanistan?

Successfully dealing with Iran

In Iran, the EU played an important strategic role in curbing Tehran’s nuclear program. In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States), plus Germany.

In that process, the EU served both as guide and facilitator.

United States playing spoiler

The JCPOA was an important breakthrough in normalizing relations between Iran and the West. However, once President Trump came to power, the United States withdrew from the agreement, effectively ruining much of the hard work done by the EU.

The Biden administration is re-engaging with Iran, but Teheran is understandably skeptical about the consistency of policy in Western capitals every time an election in Washington changes the tune of the leadership there.

Strategic vs. moral objectives

Moreover, the EU has also annoyed Iran by implementing sanctions against the country in the context of human rights issues. In response, in April 2021 Iran suspended comprehensive talks with the EU on human rights, terrorism, drugs and refugees.

The challenge for the EU in Iran, as elsewhere, is to find ways to balance its strategic and moral objectives.

Afghanistan and the EU

In Afghanistan, the US-NATO troop pull-out is threatening to undermine all the hard work the EU has put into the region for the last two decades.

Since 2002, the EU has contributed €4 billion in development aid to Afghanistan which makes the country the largest recipient of EU development assistance globally.

Now, with the power vacuum that has resulted from the US-NATO withdrawal, the Taliban is resurgent. Just how negatively this will impact the current regime in Afghanistan is still unclear. It is likely to be significant.

New opportunity for the EU?

Until now, the emphasis on the military/security dimension of the Afghanistan situation has kept the EU in the shadows. Although some 20 EU countries had troops in Afghanistan, they were all under the NATO umbrella, which denied the EU direct leverage.

The withdrawal has created a new opportunity for the EU.

Of course, the EU is not capable of preventing political disintegration in Afghanistan. However, if the Afghan government’s security apparatus is able to survive, following an inevitable political arrangement with the Taliban, the EU could have a new opportunity to make a difference.

Its development-focused form of diplomacy could finally come to the fore.

Development diplomacy vs. strategic role

In Iran, the EU had indeed played a strategic role, helping to carve out a nuclear agreement. However, it did not invest substantially in the country’s development.

In Afghanistan, the opposite is true. While the EU has not had much strategic influence, it has provided substantial developmental assistance.

The Russia and China factors

In Iran, the EU had collaborated with Russia and China in negotiating the JCPOA. Now in Afghanistan, the EU will once again have the need to work with China and Russia, both of which are seeking to enhance their role after the U.S. withdrawal.

It isn’t clear how the EU will be able to navigate this necessity, particularly in its dealings with Russia.

Challenges: Engaging the Taliban

The U.S. talks with the Taliban led to the U.S. withdrawal. Alas, the political role of the Taliban post-withdrawal was left uncertain. The EU, for its part, sees the Taliban as having “degrees of legitimacy.” That implies that it is open to dealing with the Taliban under certain conditions.

But what conditions exactly? And how will that be conducive to its value-based strategy?

Conclusion

The world is clearly in a phase where middle powers can play a bigger role. This opens strategic space for the EU.

The future of the international order requires stability, something the EU can help provide. Its role could be helpful in the turn of events in Afghanistan.

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About Gurjit Singh

Gurjit Singh is former ambassador to Germany, Indonesia, Ethiopia ASEAN and the African Union Chair, CII Task Force on Trilateral Cooperation in Africa.

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