Five paradoxes of the EU’s crisis response

The EU seeks a more prominent role in peace and security worldwide. One means is smaller-scale peace operations – three of which are in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali. Our research suggests that despite good intentions, results are mixed. These are five paradoxes that hinder greater impact on the ground.

The EU’s crisis response

Since 1992, the EU has launched more than 35 civilian and/or military missions abroad. The EU seeks, ideally, to prevent conflicts before they erupt. However, it has also been involved in ongoing, violent conflicts as well as post-conflict scenarios. Engaging in ongoing conflicts brings with it – naturally – a set of extraordinary challenges.

Bottom-up approach

Research conducted as part of the EUNPACK research project has combined an institutional perspective on the EU with a bottom-up approach. We have interviewed key people from local and international organizations and agencies, and we have surveyed people on the ground in areas where the EU operates.

From this research, we find that five paradoxes characterize the EU’s actions. In short, while it has good intentions, results are mixed.

Five paradoxes

(1) Local vs. national ownership

The EU strives to make its programs locally owned. However, building local ownership is challenging, as the examples of Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali show. Most often, this involves ensuring support from political elites. Widespread support among citizens has proved much more challenging. The result is interventions that may be in line with national priorities, but which are not always the same as the wants and needs of people on the ground.

(2) Conflict sensitivity vs. Brussels-based design

Another paradox is that while the EU aims for conflict sensitivity in its crisis response, interventions tend not to be based on an in-depth analysis of local dynamics and root causes of the conflict. Hence, responses are not tailor-made to the needs in question. Instead, the EU’s response is very much made in Brussels based on limited consultations with those whose rights it wishes to protect or promote.

(3) Demand vs. supply-driven crisis response

The EU seeks a demand-driven crisis response, where the needs of the population living in the conflict-zones are priority. Often, however, it is the interests of the EU that drives its response. The EU gets involved on its own promises – building state authority or halting migration – which are not always what local stakeholders need.

(4) State-building vs. militarization

The EU intends to do state-building, most notably in the building of state capacity to deal with various armed groups in Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali. However, the approach is becoming increasingly militarized, which instead of solving root causes in many cases enhances existing problems.

(5) Long vs. short-term solutions

The EU preaches long-term solutions and seeks to build sustainable peace. In practice, however, it often does short-term conflict management. This happens for example through the strengthening of the security apparatus, without deep-rooted changes in the management culture. Without these, the EU risks building the capacity of countries with limited legitimacy.

Concluding remarks

The above-mentioned paradoxes are key reasons for which the EU’s impact is limited. They were identified in the research on Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali, but we also find them in other contexts. It is also important to note that the EU is not alone; many other international engagements frequently suffer from these shortcomings.

Going forward, the EU should make efforts to address these paradoxes. Cooperating more constructively with local actors and designing operations increasingly based on local needs are important. So is it to think more long-term. While some actions may be favoured in the short-term, the EU must consider more carefully what consequences these may have later down the line.


Picture: EUTM Mali