May 25, 2012

Another paper tiger? New commitments to joint EU action in response to fragility

Posted: 15:30 PM UTC

by Simone Gortz on May 25, 2012

Andrew Sherriff co-authored this article.


Fragility is notoriously and closely related to human suffering, volatile security situations and to ineffectiveness of traditional aid. The continuum of fragility – conceptualizations which characterise the relative strength or weakness of states on a continuum with state failure and collapse at one extreme and states characterized by serious vulnerabilities at the other - is high on the global political agenda.

EU Foreign Ministers acknowledged that some countries are facing increasing fragility and committed to target their resources at countries in situations of fragility as one of their priorities in their latest Foreign Affairs Council’s Conclusions adopted on 14 May. The primary determinant of resource allocation will be the needs of those living in situations of fragility.

Identifying the needs of people, however, might be difficult in fragile settings. Lack of legitimacy, capacity and authority of governments, or government-like actors, are common problems external actors face when engaging in situations of fragility. These problems give rise to policy dilemmas that involve tradeoffs between multiple imperatives where there are no obvious solutions.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council’s conclusions note that these common challenges require a common response and recognize the need for a “coordinated and coherent approach when engaging the range of instruments available to the EU and its Member States”. So far, there was not much joint action.

Further, EU Member States referred to past Council Conclusions which, inter alia, call for an EU Action Plan to implement agreed commitments on security, development and fragility. Such an action plan was actually drafted in 2009, but was put on hold when the EU’s new Lisbon Treaty entered into force, largely due to a lack of political sponsorship and little institutional enthusiasm. Specific responsibilities for tackling the issues around fragility have now been allocated to the European External Action Service and European Commission. A recent review of EU development cooperation carried out by the OECD-DAC also recommends the EU finalise its action plan on security, fragility and development in order to “provide an appropriate approach to engage effectively in fragile contexts”.

The same review also recommends the EU to build on a recent evaluation of the European Commission’s support to conflict prevention and peacebuilding, and to be guided by the “New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States”. The New Deal is a policy document set out to guide priorities and engagements in fragile states and was agreed by the G7+ countries (a group of 19 ‘fragile states’) and several OECD members (including thirteen EU Member States and the EU as an institutional actor) last year.

Shelf or teeth for the paper tiger

While the Council Conclusions show a level of EU political commitment, they are not legally binding. It remains unclear how the EU will tackle the issue of fragility and what the next steps will be. This is a sensitive issue among EU Member States and EU institutions alike. Yet the EU’s political leadership has to take action. The following are examples of possibly paths that could be taken:

1) React to situations of fragility in an ad-hoc manner
This has already proven to be the least efficient EU response. It would not give much confidence to the new EU external action architecture to deliver a step change in outcomes. Also the risks of this approach are too high considering that they involve the physical integrity and security of both EU and non-EU citizens.

2) Completely align to the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States
While the New Deal is a good outcome of Busan, not all EU Member States nor all countries in situations of fragility have signed up to it. Moreover, the length of the process and the large number of actors involved led to some dilution of the objectives of the New Deal. This gives rise to some skepticism. There remain substantial issues that need to be addressed in order to arrive at a genuine policy and practice-oriented dialogue about how to effectively address questions of fragility.

3) Adopt an EU Action Plan on situations of fragility
This would offer an opportunity to start a new process built on new information in a post-EU Lisbon Treaty context. Yet there is a risk that once agreed, an Action Plan would end up on the bookshelves of policy-makers, just giving the “illusion of progress”.

4) Mainstream the issue of fragility and enable creative responses to it
This option would be particularly relevant if action is taken now. The programming process for the EU’s 2014-2020 financial instruments under negotiation is currently underway but so far only the Instrument for Stability dedicates more than a paragraph of attention to fragility. There is an opportunity to further mainstream the dealing with the topic into more EU financial instruments. Political support from EU Member States, the European Parliament and EU Delegations is needed for this kind of mainstreaming.  Also political backing from their hierarchies will allow the already skilled units and divisions dealing with fragility within the European External Action Service and the European Commission to apply their creative approaches to more conflict-sensitive EU external action. The benefit of mainstreaming lies in the long-term nature of the endeavor to tackle fragility and its drivers and root causes. The risk of mainstreaming is that the whole topic of fragility gets lost.

5) Not deal with an EU approach towards situations of fragility or to marginalize the topic
From our perspective this would be the least efficient and least desirable path the EU’s political leadership could take. Yet not to deal with the issue also represents a choice.

All these paths entail opportunities and risks that the EU’s political leadership would need to address. Institutionally, it would be advisable to provide space for a culture of creativity to enable innovative solutions, such as those from a complexity perspective to the ‘wicked problem’ of fragility. With the new institutional set-up and its skilled Divisions and Units the EU now has an opportunity to close the gap between the EU’s stated objectives in relation to fragility and past performance and outcomes.


Simone Another paper tiger? New commitments to joint EU action in response to fragility Simone Goertz is Policy Officer Conflict, Security and Resilience at ECDPM.




Andrew Another paper tiger? New commitments to joint EU action in response to fragility Andrew Sherriff, who co-athored this article, is Head of Programme EU External Action.



This blog post features the authors’ personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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