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Appealing to his Eurosceptic domestic constituents, Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent proposal for a UK-wide referendum on Britain’s membership to the European Union has been declaimed by EU supporters as an easy, if irresponsible, exit strategy. While the UK has a history of ambivalence towards European integration, Cameron’s official speech has placed the EU at a strategic inflection point in its development.

Using his speech to ask ‘tough’ questions about the future of the European project, Cameron rejected the argument that a Europe in crisis ought to eschew such introspection.  Instead, he declared that this is the moment to “examine thoroughly what the EU as a whole should do and should stop doing”, with nothing “off the table”. Although Cameron’s announcement raises anew the long-standing ‘widening versus deepening’ debate for some, the context of Cameron’s pronouncement ought to bring new scope to these questions.

EU proponents would do well to heed Cameron’s urging for a critical assessment of the role of the EU and its activities. Rather than kowtow to a fated irrelevance, as ‘Brexit’ might indicate, Cameron’s proposal actually offers the EU an important opportunity to reflect on its core purposes. Yet instead of reopening conventional commentary on continental enlargement and institutional consolidation, the EU needs to broaden its debate and realize that while regional in membership, to avoid doomed irrelevance, it must become global in concern, action and engagement. This means that it must ‘widen’ to reflect real interests outside the continent that require concordant ‘deepening’ of focus and coordination on key issue areas.

Cameron suggested that the central purpose of the EU “has been achieved” – to secure peace – and “today the main, overriding purpose of the European Union is … not to win peace, but to secure prosperity”. Accordingly, the PM’s speech was devoted almost entirely to increasing the EU’s economic competitiveness. Even so, the Prime Minister acknowledged, current “challenges come not from within this continent but outside it”.

In the midst of alarm and exasperation across European capitals concerning the security situation in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) – from the still unstable Libya to the worsening Syrian crisis, and from the Mali insurgency to the Algerian hostage crisis – Cameron’s proposal should not be seen simply as domestic demagoguery. It is influenced by a wider geopolitical context.  Indeed, in contrast to Cameron’s rhetoric in this speech, the PM’s other recent statements have made clear that peace is far from secure.  Speaking in the wake of the Algerian hostage crisis at the In Amenas gas plant, Cameron cautioned his listeners to recognize the links between events in Algeria and Mali as proof of a growing threat posed by al-Qaeda’s spread across the region. These crises, he announced, were “a stark reminder” that affected parties need to work together for years, if not “decades”, to combat the scourge of global terrorism. Combined with his recent trips to Libya and Algeria, dire descriptions of the Sahel as “ungoverned space” and the “existential threat” of militant Islamist groups, and indications that the UK defence forces might find a new role in the MENA as they unwind from their commitment in Afghanistan, Cameron has actually revealed an opportunity for the EU to take a larger role.

The EU should bear witness to the state of peace and prosperity in the wider geopolitical context.  Continental myopia will be difficult to sustain when immigrant flows reach Greece and other weak European economies as high unemployment, combined with political turmoil pushes MENA youth abroad. In particular, this is an opportunity for the EU to harness the capabilities of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) to serve the purposes of the Union by developing a concerted focus on the reigning insecurity and development challenges in the Sahel. This task would not be a new direction for the EU. It builds upon established CSDP activities.  Beginning with the 2003 European Security Strategy, EU leaders outlined the major security issues shared by member states and underscored the importance of combating these largely non-traditional threats[1] with an interplay of military and civilian prevention, response and management strategies. As recently as March 2011[2] the European Council channeled this concern in a comprehensive security and development approach[3] to the MENA in a new mission,the European Union Strategy for Security and Development in the Sahel. This recognized that the EU has “a longstanding interest in reducing insecurity and improving development in the Sahel region”. Both the Sahel Strategy and the CSDP projects are young.

The latter is controversial. But, the links between Sahelian development and security and EU peace and prosperity cannot afford to be ignored for the sake of debates about sovereignty and burden sharing in European defense.  Cameron’s proposal offers a fitting opportunity for the EU to take stock of its Sahel Strategy. In so doing, the CSDP can do exactly as Cameron has suggested: “help them to make them safer but to make us safer too” by taking a bolder role in a region in which it is already engaged and to which it has already established welcome overtures of development and security support.

At this juncture, the EU faces several choices. It can meet Cameron’s challenge to undertake deep reflection about the purpose of the institution and build on it even further by recognizing the value in enhancing its commitment to the MENA region. This can pay particular attention to the interlinked development and security issues currently fueling the spread of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM). Second, it can ignore Cameron’s challenge. Third, it can follow the US in strategically pivoting to Asia.[4] NATO Secretary General Rasmussen remarked the other day at the Munich Security Conference that he saw “an arc of crises stretching from the Sahel to Central Asia”, not all of which NATO can capably respond.The US, meanwhile, has embarked on a cautious strategy of “leading from behind” in all theaters save its prioritized Pacific Command [5] and Cameron is calling for an “intelligent approach” to dealing with AQIM factions across the MENA.

If the EU is to make good on its first purpose of securing peace, it should honor the goals of the European Security Strategy, establishing “a secure Europe in a better world” by strengthening its development-oriented counterterrorism Sahel Strategy. The choice should be clear: the first purpose of the EU has not been achieved; with peace and prosperity insecure without, the EU faces challenges to these same within.

Amalia Feld is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at Oxford. You can also follow her on Twitter @AmaliaFeld.

This originally appeared on EUspeak.eu. It is re-published here with the permission of the author.

[1] These include terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts, failed states and organized crime.

[2] At the height of the Arab Spring.

[3] There is some agreement that combating terrorism requires not primarily a military approach. David Cameron, for example, recently stated that “what is required in countries like Mali, just as in countries like Somalia on the other side of Africa, is that combination of a tough approach on security, aid, politics, settling grievances and problems.”

[4] On his recent trip to Europe US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta actually called on NATO to join the US in its “Asia Pivot.”

[5] While the US claims AQIM doesn’t pose a specific threat to the US, it has demonstrated a clear concern for the growth of terrorism in the region, having begun its own military counterterrorism project in the Sahel in 2003. The original Pan Sahel Imitative has now been transformed into the interagency Trans-Sahel Counter-Terrorism Initiative, which combines development, aid, and military programs. Having recently acknowledged its limitations in dealing with regional terrorists groups (see here and here) and revealed concern for military burden sharing (note, for example, the US’ discussion that France reimburse it for the cost of providing troop transport aircraft for its recent Mali intervention), the US will likely find appealing the prospect of EU leadership in this arena.



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