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The Afghanistan crisis and the question of European Union’s strategic autonomy

Should the EU build up its own EU-based security apparatus in light of the US withdrawing from Afghanistan without truly consulting its EU allies?

The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan is a tragedy perpetrated by the West and its effects are likely to haunt it. The European Union’s (EU) decision-making remains ambiguous and this lack of autonomy in decision-making could derail their attempt at the evacuation of its citizens in Afghanistan. The EU also remains divided over the Afghan asylum seekers as the bloc at a meeting of EU Interior Ministers in Brussels on 31 August adopted a text promising financial support to relevant international organisations and neighbouring countries of Afghanistan to provide a safe and dignified livelihood for the newly displaced refugees. The financial support offered by the EU reflects their goal of keeping the Afghan migrants away from the bloc to avoid the reoccurrence of the 2015 migrant crisis, which was caused due to civil war and insurgency in Syria and Iraq. The EU is determined to prevent large-scale illegal migration from Afghanistan, hence boosting aid to Afghan’s neighbours remains the EU’s priority. Europe’s reluctance in accepting asylum seekers and refugees would reignite its World War II moniker, “Fortress Europe”.

 

"The EU is determined to prevent large-scale illegal migration from Afghanistan, hence boosting aid to Afghan’s neighbours remains the EU’s priority."

 

France, Germany, and the United Kingdom demanded more time to complete evacuations of their citizens and Afghan nationals as French President Emmanuel Macron proposed establishing a safe zone in Kabul despite the Taliban’s deployment of forces outside the Kabul airport. The evacuation of the EU citizens remains a priority despite the US’ departure from Kabul. The five-hour meeting conducted by the EU Interior Ministers agreed on avoiding a migration crisis as a repeat of large-scale illegal migration movements like the one witnessed in 2015 poses a grave threat to the European sovereignty. As the foreign and defence ministers of member states gather in Slovenia for the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) to discuss the EU’s roadmap to tackle the Afghan crisis, differences in formulating a unilateral policy on Afghanistan remains a key challenge for the EU due to conflicting views presented by the member states. The EU has depended on the US troops to airlift the evacuees which demonstrated a lack of unity and preparedness on the EU’s front.

The European Council President, Charles Michel, has called for ‘European Strategic Autonomy’ by urging the bloc to invest more in its security capabilities after the withdrawal of western troops. Germany and France have often reiterated their desire towards establishing a true European Army having a common foreign policy and shared interests. Such rhetoric has regained support in the wake of Afghanistan’s takeover by the Taliban. The EU’s growing dependence on the US has been absolute; therefore, the pressure on the EU to fill in the void left by the US has been exacerbated after the latter’s withdrawal from Kabul. NATO, for long, has supported the idea of investing in European deployable troops but the lack of unison within the member states derails the creation of a European army. The EU relied on the US-led NATO in the 1990s during the Balkan wars as the EU’s inability to intervene and stop the bloodshed became apparent.

 

"Germany and France have often reiterated their desire towards establishing a true European Army having a common foreign policy and shared interests."

 

The Afghan withdrawal serves as another wake-up call for Brussels as Europe must invest in its strategic and security capabilities to act independently, regardless of Washington’s decision. The voices on the other side of the Atlantic had advocated for the US’ indefinite engagement in Afghanistan but President Biden’s decision to recommit to Trump’s original peace deal with the Taliban without consulting his European counterparts signalled Biden’s failing interest in nation-building. The lack of consultation with the EU highlighted the strategic autonomy the US flexes at the expense of its transatlantic allies. America’s withdrawal meant other western allies would soon follow its trail, thereby, giving the EU minimal time and flexibility to truly grasp the situation in Afghanistan. The US did not alter its course as they successfully withdrew on 31 August, meanwhile the EU leaders remain highly dependent on the Taliban to allow safe passage from the Kabul airport. Europe will feel the heat of the withdrawal from Afghanistan more profoundly than the US primarily due to the geographic proximity. The European leaders are grappling to avoid the nightmares of the 2015 refugee crisis, which resulted in destabilised European politics as the refugee crisis aggregated the rise of extreme right-wing political parties across Europe.

Afghanistan has unlocked newer fault lines in the functioning of NATO as the US’ foreign policy is shifting under the Biden Administration. Hence, the European reliance on the US is likely to wane as leaders aim to invest in and build their own security. Joseph Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, advocated for EU’s autonomy—a willingness to protect the European interests in absence of the Americans. The Afghan crisis serves as a wakeup call for the European policymakers to look beyond their transatlantic ties and build up its own security while maintaining cordiality with the US.

 

"EU will have to enhance its crisis prevention and peacebuilding troops because the inability of Europeans to stabilise the region would bring instability closer home."

 

The EU is working on a European Strategic Compass, a document that lists out the EU’s defining ambitions for security and defence for the next 10 years. A strategically autonomous EU would allow the regional bloc to address the challenges in the European neighbourhood. The need for such an establishment could not be more urgent as the Taliban’s reclamation of Afghanistan is accompanied by renewed terrorist threats, the influx of irregular migration, drug trafficking, and most importantly threat to human rights.

The ability of the West to prevent Kabul’s fall now puts the onus on its ability to carefully weigh its options and work on a coordinated international approach to strike a mutually agreeable deal with the Taliban. Soon, the EU will have to enhance its crisis prevention and peacebuilding troops because the inability of Europeans to stabilise the region would bring instability closer home. The European Commission has quadrupled its humanitarian aid to 200 million euros while stopping development aid; however, the major challenge beckoning the EU is finding effective ways to deliver the humanitarian aid in absence of any external presence within the Afghan borders. The EU finds itself caught in the major geopolitical unfolding amidst other regional actors such as China, Pakistan, India, and Russia who are trying to negotiate with the Taliban. The EU needs to coordinate with other actors at the earliest and be an influential force in the region to enhance information gathering, decision-making, and avoid a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

 

"The EU mission’s functionality in Afghanistan would continue to work from Brussels while waiting for a conducive environment before returning to Afghanistan."

 

However, the EU is in no hurry to establish ties with the Taliban or recognise them. The EU aims to communicate with the Taliban to influence their ideals while not rushing into recognising the Taliban as the legitimate representative of Afghanistan, said Gunnar Wiegand, the European Commission’s Managing Director for Asia and the Pacific. He further emphasised the list of conditions, namely, respect for human rights and unfettered access for aid workers, to be agreed to by the Taliban before establishing formal ties. The EU mission’s functionality in Afghanistan would continue to work from Brussels while waiting for a conducive environment before returning to Afghanistan.

The EU must achieve consensus within its member states before implementing their action plan towards Afghanistan, from tackling the migration issue to cooperating on the development-security nexus. The EU’s internal concerns are prevalent as upcoming elections in Germany would see a change of guard in Germany and Macron faces re-elections in France next year. The two are the strongest advocates of the European army. Nonetheless, with uncertainty looming over the European leadership combined with the Afghan crisis, the EU’s need for achieving strategic autonomy while looking away from its traditional transatlantic relations increases significantly. “America is Back” for Biden, but for the Europeans, they need to find a way back from Afghanistan.

Rahul Kamath (ORF)
10 September 2021

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