January 25, 2013

Time to clear the confusion around the Comprehensive Approach

Posted: 15:08 PM CEST

by Andrew Sherriff

in Conflict, security and resilience, EU Foreign and Security Policy, International assistance and aid effectiveness, Peace-building

The EU’s “comprehensive approach” in external action policy has provoked a range of responses  - but the most widespread seems to be confusion. Ask 10 people from across the EU institutions to define the comprehensive approach and chances are you’ll get 10 different answers. While the basic premise is simple enough to grasp, it’s hard to find consensus, common language or any sense that the EU is actually acting comprehensively. Current developments in Mali have made the necessity for clarity even more pressing. This blog seeks to explore the key questions needed to frame the comprehensive approach. A joint Communication from the Commission and the High Representative is expected in the next few months, with  Council conclusions tentatively scheduled for the end of May 2013. It is crucial that they answer the why, who, what, when, where and how of the comprehensive approach to clear up the confusion surrounding it.

Key questions

The first question that needs to be addressed is why does the EU need a comprehensive approach? Is its purpose crisis management, conflict prevention, peacebuilding and statebuilding? Is it all, or none, of the above? How does this relate to the EU’s stated values and its, often less-stated, interests? Without clarity on the “why” the rest gets muddled from the start. The EU’s usual approach is to compile a shopping list of answers designed to please as many people as possible and reflect the widest range of interests, but providing little real clarity.

The “who” question is also a “with whom” question. On the first level it’s about who’s involved within the EU institutions themselves, given their infamous rivalries and turf wars – not to mention competition between divisions and units within each EU institution. The second level concerns EU member states and how much they are bound by the comprehensive approach. There’s also a third level involving the EU’s partners in the UN, African Union and NATO, together with civil society and national authorities in the recipient countries.  Where do they fit in? It’s critical to determine who are the ‘driving forces’ that would be behind the approach in the design and implementation stages.

Regarding the “when” question, it would seem logical that a comprehensive approach would be about both short-term and long-term engagement, with a clear link between the two. It should also cover the thorny issue of exit strategies. When has the comprehensive approach done its job? How can the EU best disengage or transform its engagement?  However, the question of whether the comprehensive approach going to be primarily driven by short-term political considerations is still very much on the agenda.

The “where” question is about geography.  It is also about responding comprehensively at local, national, regional and continental level, and about the links between these different levels of engagement. Although the most likely answer to the geography question is likely to be in the EU’s close neighbourhood and Africa, it’s worth noting that the EU’s most successful comprehensive approach engagement to date was in response to conflict in Aceh-Indonesia (jump to page 45). That raises the question of whether there should be a geographic priority to the comprehensive approach, or is the EU prepared to act in this way in any fragile or conflict-affected country?

The “what” question covers the type and scope of activities included under the comprehensive approach.  Is it a narrow issue of civil-military relations? Does it cover wider security and development activities, or even comprise the “3Ds” of defence, diplomacy and development, as favoured by some EU member states in their own approaches? Some have suggested it could be even more comprehensive, mobilising the full range of external activities at the EU’s disposal from trade to public diplomacy.

Finally the “how” question – perhaps the most difficult to answer. How to make this all a reality? What institutional mechanisms, chain of command, strategy, resources, operational plans, incentives and disincentives are going to be put in place? Without the answers to these questions, the whole approach is merely conceptual.

From concept to action

A real EU comprehensive approach would of course effectively answer all those questions. It would also seek to blend the answers and actions comprehensively (see diagram below). The danger is that the comprehensive approach will be too wide to be meaningful, or so narrow (such as structured only around CSDP missions) that it fails to tap into the EU’s potential added value.

To a large extent, the comprehensive approach looks like rebranding of the “integrated approach” that was at the heart of the EU institution’s commitment to conflict prevention since 2001 and is entirely in line with the spirit of the 2003 European Security Strategy. Yet parts of the EU seems to have developed a sort of wilful amnesia in failing to reflect on the lessons of past practice despite these being available. That could help somewhat answer the questions hanging over making the current approach a reality.

Of course framing the comprehensive approach is highly political. There are various interests trying either to impose themselves as crucial components of the comprehensive approach, or seeking to be kept apart from it. Rhetorical commitment on paper and public but limited follow-through in practice is another danger.  This is the dance being done in public and private across the EU institutions and member-states at the moment. Once again however, the broader question is not whether the EU can frame and mount a comprehensive approach, as difficult as that may be. The bigger question is whether it can really tailor this comprehensive approach to the dynamics of the complex political, economic, development and security context it is trying to influence.

Implementing the comprehensive approach will require genuine and sustained commitment from the EU institutions and member states to a process of “change management” if it is not to be more of the same. Without that, the upcoming Communication will end up as yet another paper exercise. That may delight the think-tank community but it would be little use to those sweating in political or operational sections of EU Delegations in the midst of complex conflicts in West Africa or quietly working in less high-profile situations. Nor would it offer any hope to the people in fragile and conflict situations who should be the final beneficiaries of a truly comprehensive approach.


\"Andrew Andrew Sherriff is Head of Programme EU External Action. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @AndrewSherriff



He wrote this post drawing on past work in this area particularly completed while part of the ADE team evaluating the European Commission’s Support to Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding 2001-2010.  ECDPM will be continuing to follow the development and implementation of the EU’s comprehensive approach in 2013. Its next Talking Points blog will focus on the issue “fear and the comprehensive approach”.

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

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Jaap Langhenkel February 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm


Just a few notes, if I may.
First, I think it is rather obvious that using an expression (comprehensive approach) without defining it, leads to confusion.
Second, it appears to me that EU member states are not all that unhappy with the confusion, because that will allow them to apply their own interpretation in an attempt to further their own national goals.
Thirdly, I suggest to start a discussion with the question “Comprehensive approach? … with respect to what?” That may clarify where member states see a comprehensive approach being applied, which may then help to clarify what they actually mean when using this particular expression.
And finally, I don’t think we will be able to draft an all encompassing document that clarifies the who, what, when, where and why, thus covering all aspects and angles of the topic, while at the same time getting approval from all EU member states. I would, therefore, advise to go for a “minimum paper” which outlines the (few) principles member states are willing to endorse.


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