Jan Salie was a Dutch nineteenth-century literary figure who held back his entire family by shiftlessly clinging to the past. His looking back made it impossible to do what the family business needed when international and economic relations changed. Only when his family cut all ties with him did their business prosper again.

In a way, Europe suffers from a Jan Salie attitude. Like the Salie family, Europeans should not cling on to what they were, but should think about what they want to be. Denying the need to adapt to new circumstances will help neither Europe nor the rest of the world.

For Europeans, the decades after World War II were not easy. Europeans east of the Iron Curtain had to suffer Communist rule, while the Cold War cast a shadow of uncertainty and insecurity over the whole continent. But Europe’s economic power, alongside that of the United States, was largely uncontested. And NATO offered Western Europe security and stability.

As a child in the 1970s and ’80s, I was convinced that states and their institutions would prevent further “hot wars” and that, with some ups and downs, Europeans would become ever wealthier. The early 1990s brought increased optimism: as a student, I was convinced that the fall of the Iron Curtain had brought about the end of history.

But I was terribly naive. With the Balkan wars came atrocities unseen in Europe since World War II. New and serious threats arose: terrorism and related instability, and cyberthreats. On September 11, 2001, the West realized that maintaining its security would require continuous efforts. The terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 brought terrorism to the heart of Europe. On the economic front, it gradually became clear that the rise of Asia, Latin America, and Africa and unfavorable demographic trends were undermining Europe’s relative economic strength. The financial crisis catalyzed this process.

Now, how can Europeans in this posthistorical era best contribute to stability, security, and wealth—in their own interest and that of others? As most European states can no longer take care of their foreign interests alone, they should join forces and act as foreign policy leaders together. Not working together will come at a price.

Europeans need to focus on their current strengths—of which there are many.

First, the EU now has a structure for acting together. The Lisbon Treaty offers the EU ample foreign policy latitude. At the same time, European leaders have intense relations with virtually all countries of the world. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Foreign Policy High Representative Catherine Ashton run countless summits and dialogues.

Second, the EU has a clear set of standards and values. The entire world knows that the EU stands consistently for democracy, human rights, and respect for international law. Third, the EU’s activities benefit from an impressive budget: the EU and its member states are the world’s biggest donor, and they have inventive ideas on how to spend that budget. The EU also concludes successful economic partnerships with third countries, and trade treaties with the bloc are in high demand.

Finally, the EU benefits from integrated security capabilities. Few actors are able to provide high-end staff for all sorts of civil and military missions and operations. The EU is. What is more, it has the capability to tune the use of these soft and hard power instruments through integrated policymaking.

Europe’s Jan Salie spirit causes an effort gap. The EU underuses its foreign policy clout. If Europeans don’t make full use of their weight soon, the gap will disappear—not because their efforts will match their weight, but because their weight will shrink to the size of their efforts.

It is time for the EU to show a strong will to capitalize on its strengths. Europe’s main foreign policy actors—starting with High Representative Ashton—try their very best. But they’re only as strong as the EU member states allow them to be. If the member states empower them with robust mandates, Europe’s combined strength will pay off for the good of the EU and its partners, including NATO. First and foremost, the EU is expected to firmly take responsibility with respect to the countries in its Eastern and Southern neighborhoods.

Ashton’s relentless and successful efforts to convince Serbia and Kosovo to agree on the future of North Kosovo are a case in point of what Europe can achieve. The Kosovar and Serbian leaders knew that failure would have considerable political and economic consequences—and they acted accordingly.

Another example of what the EU can do by joining forces is Mali. A senior UN official, when asked how he saw the EU’s role in Mali, answered plainly that the EU made indispensable contributions, and that it thought too little of itself. The EU’s counterpiracy efforts in the Horn of Africa are outstanding.

Ashton’s leadership enables the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany to hold substantial talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Negotiations will hopefully lead to a final agreement that builds on a recent interim deal.

Unfortunately, the EU does not unite often enough to secure other successes. Not because it doesn’t care, but because it’s not prepared to genuinely join forces on foreign policy. It’s not a question of whether Europe can adapt—it’s a question of whether it wants to, and is ready. Jan Salie must not be allowed to hold Europe back.

 

Carola van Rijnsoever is the ambassador of the Netherlands to the EU Political and Security Committee.