Climate, Conflict and Culture in EU’s diplomacy: Which way forward?

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The June 2021 Council Conclusions on  the EU approach to cultural heritage in conflicts and crises, the  January 2021 Council Conclusions on Climate and Energy Diplomacy and the December 2020 Council Conclusions on EU Peace Mediation represent the ongoing evolution of the EU’s foreign policy thinking. Together, these documents present an interesting combination of  ‘’the three Cs” – Culture, Climate and Conflict – at the forefront of the EU’s diplomacy. The question however arises namely how much can the EU afford to prioritise such complex “value driven” policy agendas in a rapidly changing world with more competition and uncertainty?

Important links between climate change, security and culture have been long noted by experts. Climate change is recognized as a ‘threat multiplier’ putting multiple pressures on societies including those countries and regions where the potential for conflict is high, for example in Africa or in the Middle East. At the same time, culture plays a unique role in climate change adaptation and mitigation and also in conflict mitigation and crisis management. The cultural component adds an important human dimension to the more technical aspects of climate policies and the military and security aspects of conflict management. 

At first glance, this makes a lot of sense for the EU to step up this integration of culture, climate and crisis-management in its external relations. The focus on the three Cs would provide for a truly European approach in international relations. This vision also corresponds closely to the EU’s self image of a soft normative power. The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an important reference, as the EU frames its external action as complementary to the achievement of SDGs. By taking on board these UN SDGs commitments and integrating culture, climate change policies and crisis management into a coherent course of diplomatic action, the EU raises expectations for a more sophisticated external action with a potential for tangible progress in conflict-prone regions in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The question is what can the EU realistically deliver? This is not an issue for the EU’s diplomatic branch (European External Action Service – EEAS) only but also for the entire architecture of the Union and its member states. When looking through the lens of the EU’s strategic autonomy (the most important debate on the premise of EU’s foreign policy currently taking place) and through the lens of the EU’s institutional capacity, expectations need to be tempered. 

The three Cs and EU’s strategic autonomy

The concept of strategic autonomy i.e. the strive for the EU’s self-reliance and resilience in the areas of defense, trade, technologies, digital and industrial policies, can be interpreted as the basis for a more limited diplomatic action. Less of ‘the EU making the world a better place’ and more of ‘the EU trying to protect itself from external threats’.  Potentially this can limit EU’s diplomacy in all of the three policy areas be it climate, culture (people-to-people contacts) and security (peace-building). Experts like Michael Youngs, for example, warn of the risk of a ‘strategic autonomy trap’. The more the EU strives for ‘self-sufficiency’, the less it will be inclined to invest into complex partnerships with other actors. Culture, climate and peace-building are precisely those policy areas that require such genuine investment. 

Take for example EU-China-Africa relations and the issue of rare earth elements. The logic of strategic autonomy suggests that the EU should decrease its imports of these strategic raw materials from China and diversify supply by significantly increasing trade on rare earth elements extracted in Africa. Some experts warn that if this move is perceived by China through the lens of geopolitical competition, it might hamper EU-China cooperation on climate mitigation. Furthermore, as the International Energy Agency report points out, ‘tackling the environmental and social impacts of mineral developments will be essential, including the emissions associated with mining and processing, risks arising from inadequate waste and water management, and impacts from inadequate worker safety, human rights abuses (such as child labour) and corruption’. This means that the EU will need to reconcile the idea of strategic autonomy with the realities of international interdependencies and interlinkages between climate, security and cultural, or societal factors constituting these inexorable interdependencies. 

Institutional and political limits 

Translating this understanding into effective diplomatic action is not going to  be an easy task for the EU. Culture, security and climate are to be found scattered around the EU’s EEAS. For example, climate diplomacy is assigned to the department for economic and global affairs, whereas culture is mainly treated as part of a rather vaguely defined ‘public diplomacy’. Climate security does not appear to have a clearly defined space in the structure of the service or in the minds of the EU’s diplomats. 

A study conducted by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute – SIPRI provides ample evidence that the lack of a coherent approach to climate, security and culture in EU’s external relations is not just an issue of the EEAS. Several Directorates General and services of the European Commission such as DG CLIMA (climate), DG INTPA ( international partnerships, DG ECHO (humanitarian aid), DG NEAR (neighbourhood and enlargement), DG HOME (migration and home affairs), DG ENV (environment), DG DEFIS (defense industry and space), and the Joint Research Centre of the Commission deal with climate, security and cultural issues in different often disparate ways. The question could also be raised whether a purely institutional improvement i.e. better coordination or integration between different units across the Commission will solve the problem. 

The SIPRI study points out to the essentially political nature of the problem. The authors suggest that there is an ‘action gap’ when it comes to the EU’s readiness to employ preventive (as opposed to reactive) diplomacy. One explanation that the study offers is that the European policymakers (including member states that have the upper hand over EU’s foreign policy) have paid little attention to ‘the potential for risks emerging domestically, as well as the risks that EU action may pose to others’. Assessing potential environmental, security and culture-related impacts of the EU’s external policies (including those policies that have the EU’s strategic autonomy as their objective) on third countries could help reducing the action gap. Political will would be needed to work out a genuinely preventive diplomacy. 

Steps forward  

It would  be a missed opportunity for the EU not to use the full potential of combining climate, culture and peace-building into a coherent, effective and what’s more – a diplomatic action that can prevent and not only react to crises. Three steps are worth considering in this regard:

First, the EEAS needs to coordinate better these various strands of ‘climate plus’ agenda, i.e. policy areas where climate change becomes a new variable (e.g. climate security, development, people-to-people contacts, migration, humanitarian issues, cultural rights).  One practical step towards dealing with climate-related issues holistically could be establishing of a post of the EU special representative on climate diplomacy with a broad mandate that goes beyond the ‘traditional’ climate diplomacy (focused only on emission reductions and the international climate negotiations). 

Furthermore, the EU’s crisis management missions and the EU delegations abroad should be equipped with climate and culture advisors to ensure that the different strands of EU’s work in the field are properly integrated.  Adequate training of personnel is needed also across the EU institutions. Some of these training can be done with the help of member states which run courses in civilian crisis management, for example in Finland.

Second, in designing its policies, the EU should build on the advice of the experts advocating for a  human-centered approach. This approach means recognizing root causes of insecurity. For example,  threats to cultural heritage lie in people’s hardship and vulnerabilities. Climate change has already become one of the most serious factors affecting communities and individuals including their access to the public goods such as culture. In a concrete sense, the proposed horizon-scanning system mechanism to identify external pressures that could derail in a significant way EU’s partner country’s development process or security should be complemented with the rolling check-list of impacts of EU’s own policies on third countries. In the current context this work is done under the EU’s Better regulation framework where impact on third countries are assessed in the ex-ante context as part of preparing the Commission’s legislative proposals. A more operational regular assessment of ongoing policies would be welcome.

Finally, the EU needs to speak more clearly about how it is going to bring these different strands of its external policies together. The Council conclusions mentioned in the beginning of this text, as well as numerous other documents are replete with promises to safeguard European values, draw on best practices, create indicators and build prospective partnerships. Much of it is intended to be defined at a later stage by various internal services as well as external experts. However for any progress to be made, the EU needs to start making concrete steps which would then be subject to a thorough and open assessment.


Author: Vadim Kononenko is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Europe in the World Programme, Egmont Institute for International Relations

The author is grateful for the feedback and support provided by Geert Laporte, ETTG Director and ECDPM Deputy Director

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash.

The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ETTG.

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