In Between the Local and the Liberal: ‘Inclusive Political Settlement’ in the EU’s...


In this post, Dr Jan Pospisil critically reviews the European Union’s 2016 ‘Global Strategy’. He notes that ‘conflict settlement’ has become the term under which peace- and statebuilding attempts are now framed. The grand narrative of the drafters appears to be to project the European Union as ‘peace power’.

In June 2016, the European Union released its first ever ‘Global Strategy’ on foreign and security policy. This strategy is a result of a long review process after the EU’s last comparable document related to international policy, the European Security Strategy (ESS) from 2005. The strategy serves two major, partly contradictory purposes. On the one hand, it aims to fill the considerable conceptual void in European foreign affairs and security policy that has opened up in the decade since the ESS. On the other hand, it aims to get the Member States to sign up to a common international policy framework – a significant undertaking given the vastly different strategic and economic interests at play.

Conflict Settlement Emphasis

In distinction from the heavy security focus of the ESS, the Global Strategy puts considerable emphasis on ‘conflict settlement’, which now seems to be the term under which all attempts of peace- and statebuilding and conflict transformation are framed. In so doing, HR Frederica Mogherini, and her Special Advisor, Nathalie Tocci, responsible for drafting the Global Strategy, want to link the document to the grand narrative of the European Union as a ‘peace power’. This move aims to demonstrate a particular understanding of the EU’s foreign policy elite. Yet, it can also be viewed as is, first and foremost, a tactical move responding to the actual weakness of any common foreign policy. The ‘peace power’ story, for which the EU even received the Nobel peace prize, is predominantly based on a widely undisputed perception of its history in building peace among the European nations at the heart of two world wars. Hence, it offers a narrative acceptable to all member states. The same is true for the suggested plan: settling violent conflict is a laudable goal that unites the EU-28 (soon to be the EU-27). However, the idea of a unified narrative holds just as long as it is not tied to clear obligations for member states (which it is not), and the areas of potential political confrontation, in particular the relationship to Russia, are avoided (which they are).

The use of ‘inclusive political settlements’, the notion’s first ever mention in a major EU document, has to be understood against this background. The phrasing draws on the language set out by the New Deal on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding and its Peace- and Statebuilding Goal 1 on ‘legitimate politics’.

How does the EU think it can support such inclusive political settlements? ‘Each conflict country will need to rebuild its own social contract between the state and its citizens. The Union will support such efforts, fostering inclusive governance at all levels. When the “centre” is broken, acting only top-down has limited impact. An inclusive political settlement requires action at all levels’ (p. 31).

‘Inclusive political settlements’ and liberal peacebuilding

The first striking feature of this passage is the way in which it balances the idea of local ownership with international intervention. The phrase ‘social contract’ signals continuity with traditional approaches of liberal peacebuilding, as the central role of the liberal state is not challenged. Interestingly, however, these sentences also incorporate the ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding, and reflect the scepticism towards top-down approaches that has generated the evolvement of the ‘political settlements’ notion as used by development actors. In this sense, ‘fostering inclusive political settlements’ is a phrase which has a constructive ambiguity, relating the liberal to the local.

The circumvention of a clear stance towards the building and rebuilding of state structures, therefore, should not be misunderstood as a ‘post-liberalisation’ of the EU’s peacebuilding approach and an embracement of everyday peacebuilding. It is mainly born out of diplomatic necessity. The reference to ‘inclusive political settlements’ serves first and foremost the best possible inclusivity of what is the very fragile political settlement of EU’s foreign policy itself.

When spelling out concrete avenues of engagement, the liberal angle comes back with full force: ‘Working in this direction will also improve our local knowledge, helping us distinguish between those groups we will talk to without supporting, and those we will actively support as champions of human security and reconciliation’ (p. 31). Working on ‘inclusive political settlements’ thus is translated into a crude actor-based typology well known from legendary Western movies: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good – champions of liberal values – will be supported, the bad – those who could be turned around – are talked with, and the ugly – not mentioned here – shall be crushed (although by other international powers, which is the reason why they are not explicitly mentioned). According to this view, strengthening the good and getting the bad to accept this, the ‘inclusive political settlement’ can be developed as long as others hold the potential spoilers in check.

Chances and dangers of the inclusive settlements approach

This position sits very uneasily with the idea of ‘fostering inclusive settlements’ and is probably ill advised. A number of international examples demonstrate that giving well-meaning international support is a reliable pathway to delegitimise actors and to provoke unintended, at times furious, reactions. Examples such as the attacks on ‘foreign-funded NGOs’ during the breakdown phase of the Sri Lankan peace process, triggered by the overwhelming international support for the ‘good’ actors, or events in Syria in recent years are just two cases in point. In general, this statement demonstrates the shortcomings of the EU’s approach: while there is a reference to the local, the Global Strategy tries to prolong the EU’s liberal peacebuilding misfortunes. The track record is bleak: while the ‘integration brings peace’ story offered a certain credibility until the late 2000s, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the conflict with Russia have turned good parts of the European neighbourhood area into warzones.

Misunderstanding ‘inclusive political settlements’ as a strategy to strengthen ‘good’ actors vis-à-vis others to alter power relations is potentially dangerous. It is the responsibility of the research community to shed light on pathways of how inclusivity can be navigated without getting trapped in political power playing, or turning ‘political settlements’ in the next reincarnation of liberal ‘institution building’. Normative approaches in peacebuilding can do more than offer guidelines for distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’. They are perhaps better viewed as process tools, which constrain and re-shape the discourse in which negotiation and accommodation can take place.

Yet there is also cause to be positive. We should not neglect the opportunity which the reference to ‘inclusive political settlements’ in a document such as the Global Strategy offers. The notion is there now, it is endorsed, and it is part of the agreed international peacebuilding vocabulary. This is the necessary foundation for the academic and political discussion of what shall be understood under this ambiguous term, and how it will be used. Framing political settlements as an understanding of searching for pathways to navigate inclusion, and moving beyond the traditional liberal repertoire of blueprinted institutions, is the task of the day.