Columbia : A missed opportunity for Europe?

Article published on July 28, 2003
community published
Article published on July 28, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

The EU has admittedly had an impact in Columbia. But its over-ambitious objectives and the absence of a common marked political goal have driven any progress to be counterproductive. Lessons for the future.

In October 2000, the European Commission launched an ambitious Community Support Programme for the peace process in Columbia. It was in response to what President Pastrana had asked European member states, that is to invest for peace in his country. Political, diplomatic, commercial and developmental support, all the nascent foreign political instruments, were censored contributing to this effort. Many European governments further invested to encourage a dialogue between the guerillas and the Columbian government. Europe, it was said, was betting on peace and negotiation. Just three years later, despite the continuation of some European programmes, most notably the peace laboratory financed by the EU, Europe is no longer a principal actor in Columbia. In the most recent news, Europe has confirmed its political support for President Uribes new efforts (who has been engaging in a merciless war against the guerillas and has just announced a demobilization accord with the so called paramilitary groups, described by most member countries and European NGOs as having committed numerous human right violations). The EUs actual measured position, which others might qualify as ambitious, and its optimism can no longer be considered appropriate. Europes action concerning Colombias conflict always seems to be in parenthesis. Many factors have contributed to this European retreat. Most notably, reasons include the interruption of the peace process by President Pastrana, the discrediting of Colombian opinions negotiated agreement, and the subsequent election of a strong man with one of the largest majorities in Columbias recent political history. All these factors are taken into consideration, in addition to the increasing fight against the global war on terrorism, the challenges of enlargement, and reform of the European institutions. Overall, these actions towards Columbia seem to clearly reflect the ambiguities and the weaknesses of a European foreign policy. It also illustrates the transatlantic tensions and the insufficient ways in which it tends to unravel.

An example of the European Doctrine

The Colombian conflict has given the European institutions an occasion to test without danger the development of a common political objective and especially its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). It may be necessary to mention it: no major strategic interest has justified Europes involvement in Columbia other than through the use of traditional instruments via developmental aid and economic cooperation. In regards to its political involvement, Europe more often tried to differentiate itself from the United States, involved in military and economic collaboration with Colombia, principal promoters of the entitled action.

America saw (and continues to see) the Columbian situation through a national interest prism: drug trafficking, trade, the stability of a region where its regime is questionable. The United States has used hard means of influence in Columbia, notably military aid and political pressure. The US is guided by a clear identification of who its ally is, the government, and of its principal enemy, the guerillas. Following a logic of power the US acts through forceful means to pry out negotiations or to obtain a military victory.

For Europe, on the other hand, Columbia was an opportunity to have a political role based on three factors; its unique doctrine to manage conflicts, favoring diplomatic and economic means, emphasis placed on bringing parties closer together rather than being constrained to negotiation, and it less manipulative vision of the Columbian conflict.

Americas wager of repressive tactics on the Columbian situation.

The Union could have therefore appeared as an important actor, clearly opposed to the American logic of force. And this despite the official contradictions of both sides of the Atlantic whatever the opposition of strategies: Europes more or less explicit political objectives (promoting a negotiation destined to finish with a military confrontation, but also dealing with battling economic and social injustices of the country) was in reality a relative contradiction to the American wager of reinforcement of the Colombian governments repressive tactics.

Now, the European enthusiasm based on the possibility of bringing closer together the conflicts actors proved quickly to be idealistic. On the one hand, the weakness of Europes means of influence placed it in an inferior position. But, overall, the EU never realistically took into consideration, when managing its efforts, the most important factors; the economics of war tied to drugs and to other forms of organized crime. The width of mistrust among conflicting parties (actors), and the delinquent methods of irregular fighting. This last point made defending a moderate position extremely difficult, and was perceived more and more unpopular by Columbian public opinion. Worst, the anti-terrorist rhetoric so popular after Sept 11 had been used to the advantage of those possessing a hard position, in Columbia and abroad, to disqualify all the hardening opposition in response to the guerillas threats. Among the hard line defenders, many European countries seemed from the beginning to be more closely in line with the American position. Their view points were gradually reinforced with the hardening of European measures against the guerilla groups, (the inclusion of guerillas and paramilitary groups as part of the list of European terrorist organizations, visa ban, etc) The political targets in the conflict were thus renounced de facto.

Even if one continues to demand measures to improve the humanitarian situation, the legitimacy of the Columbian governments struggle is no longer placed into question.

Is it necessary to say that Europe should have rallied in favor of the American position since the beginning? Surely not. Supposition based on the possibility of changing the forceful relationships to impose an agreement or a military victory, would probably not constitute a desirable action plan, which testifies the uncertainty that remains born out of this conflict.

Those holding a European vision for managing conflicts are correct in believing that using only military force or threatening does not always constitute the best solution to security problems, and sometimes may be even counterproductive. But as the Columbian case demonstrates, a precise and realistic evaluation of the situation should be an unavoidable demand.

Moreover, without a strong consensus on the political content, European political inaction becomes the only possible response. The Columbian case shows that this is particularly true when a secondary stake can affect the transatlantic relationship: opposing the United States becomes less acceptable and more politically costly, Europe has no choice but to stay on the sidelines. In essence, defining ones agenda through opposition can no longer be the motor running European Foreign Policy.