Navigation path

Left navigation

Additional tools

Olli Rehn
EU Commissioner for Enlargement
Europe's smart power in its region and the world
Speech at the European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, University of Oxford
1 May 2008 at 5 p.m.

European Commission - SPEECH/08/222   01/05/2008

Other available languages: none

SPEECH/08/222












Olli Rehn

EU Commissioner for Enlargement




Europe's smart power in its region and the world






















Speech at the European Studies Centre, St Antony's College, University of Oxford
1 May 2008 at 5 p.m.

Chancellor, Warden, Ladies and Gentlemen, fellow Antonians,

It’s great to be back at St Antony's. I joined this College in September 1990 to begin a thesis on international political economy.

It was an exciting period in international relations and European politics. The Berlin Wall had been torn down. The Cold War was moving to the dustbin of history. The Soviet Union was heading towards termination.

Freedom and democracy took great leaps forward both inside and outside Europe, although history did not quite end as some predicted. The dream of “Europe whole and free” suddenly seemed to be a realistic perspective. There was plenty of optimism in the air, overshadowed only by the threat of war as Saddam Hussein had just invaded Kuwait and the international coalition was preparing to liberate that country.

Perhaps it was a caprice of history that my research at Oxford ended up having direct relevance to my current job as the European Commissioner responsible for enlargement. I had decided to do my doctoral dissertation on the economic and political strategies of small European States.

Its core argument stemmed from a rational intuition that some of the then EFTA countries might apply for EC membership in the near future. I wanted to understand the structural and historical premises of my rational intuition. Then Sweden announced its intention to apply for EC membership in October 1990, just weeks after I had started, which further strengthened the case for this line of research.

I had planned to stay a couple of years in Oxford to complete my doctoral thesis. However, my research work was suddenly interrupted in March 1991 by the people of Helsinki, who voted me to the Finnish Parliament. To cure my professional guilt, I promised to submit my thesis prior to Finland becoming a Member of the European Union.

Well, a year later Finland applied for EC membership, and together with Austria and Sweden, she became a member of the EU on 1 January 1995. I admit this happened faster than I had expected. And hence I could only fulfil my promise on the submission more than a year after the declared deadline. Shame on me – although I take comfort in the fact that this was still faster than most promises are fulfilled in politics.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’m tempted to continue with memories and recollections from Oxford, but let me still focus on European affairs of the present and the future.

My topic this evening is Europe's smart power in its region and in the world, with a particular focus on South Eastern Europe. This is closely related to another question – what kind of Europe do we want to develop in what kind of world? When I was a student here soon 20 years ago, the question then facing the EC was whether it should become a global actor. Today, the question is how the EU acts globally – and how to improve our institutions and policy instruments. I would call this progress.

Let me explain what I mean by "smart power". Essentially, it is combining soft and hard power better in the EU's external relations by using the whole spectrum of our policy instruments and economic resources. This should be done in a forward-looking, consistent and unified way.

The EU was slow to develop the ambition to play a major global role. The EU founding fathers did not set out to build a superpower. Instead, their goal was to create an alternative form of international governance in Europe, to end the great power rivalries that had led to two world wars.

But as the years went by, the EU became more engaged in global affairs, initially in economic areas such as aid and trade. In recent years, we have seen the Union engage in a wider range of activities outside of its borders – not only in development aid and institution building but also in diplomacy and security missions. Since the 1990s, largely as a lesson learned from the disastrous Balkan wars and following the realisation in France and Britain that they cannot deliver by going alone, the EU's common foreign and security policy has become worthy of its name.

Thus, we are not starting from the scratch. But let us reflect, what are the best ways and means to further reinforce the EU's smart power in external relations in the future? To my mind, we get it right by working on the basis of the following two guiding principles.

First of all, we must make the EU's external policies more coherent and effective. Our external impact is essentially based on our internal strength, so we must learn to use our formidable internal policies to a maximum external effect. For instance, the external dimension of energy policy should be a priority in any future European security strategy.

I trust my colleague Javier Solana will take these points into account when revisiting the implementation of the European Security Strategy. The title of the 2003 strategy was called "A secure Europe in a better world". Perhaps the revised one due this year should be called "A better Europe in a secure world" – since we urgently need to work on improving the EU's capacities in external relations. We need both to upgrade our policy instruments and to make them work better together.

It is equally vital to improve the institutional architecture of the Union by implementing the reforms to our external policy-making that are contained in the Lisbon Treaty. Of course that can only be done once the Treaty is ratified in all member states – and ratification is for each Member State to decide for itself. But it will come as no surprise to you that the Commission has endorsed the Lisbon Treaty, whose reforms to make the EU more effective and democratic are long overdue.

One of the institutional innovations of the new Treaty is to combine the task of a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy to a post of Commission Vice President for External Relations. This should enable the same person both to better steer the EU's external policy by chairing the Foreign Affairs Council and to better execute external policy by coordinating the use of the Union’s policy-making and financial resources that are mostly under the Commission's competencies.

Contrary to some views, this position should not be in competition with the new President of the European Council nor with the President of the Commission. We should not end up with three competing power poles, neither in terms of architecture nor of personalities. It is of paramount importance that the Commission President and High Representative / Vice-President will form a strong team that steers the EU's external relations effectively by capitalising on the formidable policy-making and financial resources of both the Commission and Council. Thus, we can make the new arrangement a win-win outcome for the whole Union.

The same goes for the prospective Common External Action Service, made up of Council and Commission officials and Member State diplomats, which will allow us to conduct a more coherent foreign policy. We have to work for a creature that optimises the common impact of the European Union – not surrender to eternal turf battles between the institutions. I trust we’ll succeed, as there is no sensible alternative.

The enlarged EU should have a high level of ambition for its external policy. For this, it will need to develop an institutional infrastructure – along the lines I described – which can support that level of ambition.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The second guiding principle to reinforce the EU's smart power is to project its values and interests in its own neighbourhood more effectively in order to extend the European zone of peace and prosperity, liberty and democracy. In enlargement policy, this projection of the EU method and model has had a transformative power over decades in numerous countries, from Spain to Poland, from Greece to Estonia. It needs likewise to be reinforced in the EU's neighbourhood policy.

I am not advocating a security strategy where “one size fits all”. The EU has to use its policy instruments creatively and flexibly. When we seek to promote our values, we need to use different approaches in enlargement, associate, neighbourhood and third countries.

We can see why this is necessary as we look at the EU’s immediate neighbourhood in the Southeast and East. We can see that the countries in this region are at different stages in the historical evolution of international relations. Let me explain this in more concrete terms.

Within the EU, inter-state relations have reached a post-modern stage of development – as Robert Cooper has described it – meaning that inside the borders of the European Union we have achieved an era of deep peace, based on law and institutions. In its domestic life, the European Union is a very concrete application of the idea of a peaceful system of international relations outlined in the classic essay of Immanuel Kant on perpetual peace, which imagined a brotherhood of republican democracies which never go to war against one other.

But outside the EU’s borders, even in our immediate neighbourhood to the South-East and East, there is no such perpetual peace. It may not be an outright Hobbesian world where the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest prevail – at least if we bypass the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the current worrying tensions in the Caucasus. In any case, recent decades in the region have been marked by cleavages of many kinds – cultural, religious, political and ideological – and often violent tensions.

You may recall that straight after the Cold War, in the now nostalgic spirit of optimism of my Oxford years, Francis Fukuyama predicted “the End of History” – meaning the final global victory of liberal democracy and market economy as a social order, prompted by the capitulation of state socialism. Liberty and democracy and rules-based market economy certainly made advances in Europe and in the wider world, but history did not end in terms of ideological and cultural confrontation.

Then came Samuel Huntington with his thesis on the clash of civilisations. Huntington brought back to international relations the role of cultural identity and, consequently, of ethnic nationalism. His original article was published in 1993, but only after 11 September 2001 did the subsequent book (1996) gain fame because it looked prophetic.

But Huntington's world is very static and one-dimensional. Mary Kaldor has observed that "Huntington's thesis is a variant of the bloc system in which the source of legitimacy is cultural identity – loyalty to what he defines as historic civilisations"[1]. For Huntington, the West is Christian but only Catholic and Protestant. He is adamantly against Turkey joining the EU because the country’s population is predominantly Muslim. Huntington even considers the EU membership of Greece a mistake because it is an Orthodox country. Such concepts as globalisation or civil society do not figure in the Huntingtonian analysis.

I can’t obviously subscribe to either Fukuyama or Huntington as a leading explanation of the evolution of international relations. Fukuyama is too idealistic, Huntington too simplistic, and both are too deterministic. Both lead to distorted policy prescriptions, if taken at face value.

What then is the predominant cleavage of contemporary international relations, especially in our Eastern and South Eastern neighbourhood? In my view, it is the tension between the forces of liberal democracy, which I’d call “the European way of life”, and the forces of nationalist autocracy, which comes in different variants in the Southeastern and Eastern arc of Europe and its neighbourhood.

The European model of liberal democracy has been successfully transferred through the EU’s enlargement policy. But the other model of nationalist autocracy competes with it in several European countries.

The other model has also been called “authoritarian capitalism”, which is based on nationalism as its legitimising ideology, and on populism as its method of political support. It is autocracy, as the political system lacks some of the key elements of liberal democracies – political contestability, supremacy of law, legislative accountability and a strong role for media and civil society. This is not totalitarian capitalism, which is totally rigid, but allows some safety valves for criticism, such as one free radio station or allowing citizens to leave the country. But fundamentally it is a system in which elites can monopolise resources by using state powers which are unchecked by the constitutional mechanisms in liberal democracies.

This model is being tried out most obviously in Russia at present. But competition between the models is prevalent in various manifestations and to different degrees in the countries of South Eastern and Eastern Europe. I will explain this with reference to some empirical evidence.

Take Serbia first, where people face a concrete choice between the two models in the parliamentary elections on 11 May. It is a choice between a European future and the nationalism of the past. The Serbian people can choose greater freedoms, better living standards, peaceful neighbourly relations – or risk self-imposed isolation, if they choose the nationalistic authoritarianism on offer from those who reject the EU and the European way of life. The signature of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Serbia on Tuesday is a powerful signal to the Serbian people of their EU perspective.

Kosovo is often cited in Serbian domestic debates as the reason to look towards Moscow rather than towards Brussels. This is a dangerous game, because Serbia would be the first country to suffer if Kosovo’s fragile economy and governance were to give way. Serbia needs the EU’s guiding hand to make Kosovo function, not undermining influences.

Turkey is also in a state of high political tension between competing visions of the country’s future, although the alternatives have a different flavour from those in Serbia. Turkey is undergoing yet another political crisis, and the tensions in the country are multi-dimensional.

Most obviously there is the cleavage between the secularists – especially the extreme rather than liberal secularists – on the one hand, and the Muslim democrats many of whom are reformed post-Islamists, on the other hand. But religion is just part of the story. There is also the social cleavage between the political and business elites of the big cities and the entrepreneurial, pious middle classes of Anatolia and other regions. Social mobility and the rise of new economic classes are a vital but often missed part of Turkey’s current development.

In my view, we are not doomed to an eternal conflict between the West and the Muslim world. As we used both containment and cooperation to win the Cold War, we should today show resolve against Islamic fundamentalism and firmly contain all kinds of terrorism, while continuing to build bridges with Islam and respect universal democratic values. Turkey plays a key role in this. As Chris Patten has observed, “We haggle and barter in Brussels, but it may well be that it is in Istanbul that we shall write the next chapter in our European story”.

Turkey has been negotiating its EU accession since October 2005. This was always going to be a long and winding road, on which the journey is as important as the destination. That is, the EU accession perspective serves as the anchor for reforms that help Turkey to transform itself into a more open, democratic and thus self-confident society, committed to the values shared by all Europeans.

Currently, Turkey is living through another period of political tension following the Court case against the leading political party (AKP). The reaction in the EU to this court case was one of disbelief, since court cases to close political parties are not normal in EU democracies.

The EU cannot be indifferent to what happens in Turkey, as Turkey is a candidate country. Let us not paint the devil on the wall, as we don't have to do it now. But, of course, we hope that democratic principles and the rule of law will be applied in line with European standards, so as to avoid negative ramifications for Turkey's EU accession process.

I must admit I have, in recent days, started to re-read Orhan Pamuk's novel Snow, which provides a surrealist portrait of contemporary Turkey. I must likewise admit that I am not sure if Pamuk's novel on the tensions between hardline secularists and Muslim democrats is only a surrealist exercise, but instead more like a realistic analysis of today's Turkey.

Be that as it may, I am now counting on Turkey’s strong civil society to play a key role by calling for better dialogue. It is now essential to resume the legal and democratic reforms in full and build a spirit of compromise. The revision this week of the infamous article 301 of Turkey’s penal code is a welcome step forward to ensure the freedom of expression for everybody in Turkey, but more needs to be done. Turkey is again at the crossroads and it needs a self-confident civil society to press for democracy, the rule of law and democratic secularism.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Russia’s social order is leaning towards authoritarian capitalism, under the rubric “sovereign democracy”. The Russian elite tends to link capitalism and nationalism with personal affluence. European values such as the rule of law and democracy are of secondary importance.

Russia is a country of great-power ambitions, and these ambitions are easier to pursue in a period of record highs in oil prices. Russia's foreign policy line has hardened under the Putin regime. I saw this clearly in my own portfolio, in the negotiations to decide Kosovo’s future status.

Russia is trying to build a modern nation-state which relies on hard power. By contrast, the EU is a post-modern entity which wields a vast soft power of attractiveness, but which lacks strong sanctioning mechanisms. No wonder it is often hard to find common language.

The EU remains attractive to many Russians, for its living standards, culture and open societies, and we should continue to engage with Russian civil society. Further, we should continue to promote the rule of law through our dialogue and agreements with Russia. This may help in the long run make Russia a more reliable partner. Besides a focus on the rule of law would help to reinforce trends already present within Russia.

The rise of the middle class and entrepreneurs should eventually mean stronger demands for property rights and by extension, the rule of law. As Dimitri Trenin has pointed out, businessmen need freedom to do well, and the middle classes will form their political constituency. This internal dynamic may lead Russia to reform its legal system and make its political system more accountable as this is key for the rule of law to function properly. It isn’t automatic – but it may lead to this outcome.

The tension between the competing models of the European way of life and authoritarian capitalism can also be seen in Ukraine. Since the Orange Revolution in 2004, the country has moved on in democratic transformation, but there are still major challenges in the reforms.

The EU is committed to closer ties with Ukraine. We want to reinforce the European neighbourhood policy, in order to build closer economic relations through a deep free trade area, to strengthen political dialogue, to improve contacts between people, and to support reforms in Ukraine. The European neighbourhood policy is the foundation of our current work with Ukraine. Meanwhile, we do not prejudge the future.

How do we best contribute to the reinforcement of liberal democracy instead of nationalist autocracy in South Eastern and Eastern Europe? Clearly, the European way of life can only have influence outside our borders if we maintain credible policies in enlargement and the neighbourhood. These two policies are complementary and form the hard core of our soft power of attraction and democratic transformation.

These policies are also central to European security, as they provide our most powerful means of creating an arc of stability around the EU, in which people living in open societies and economies also seek the European way of life, rather than alternatives running counter to it. The EU’s most effective soft power is to persuade countries to integrate themselves into our legal frameworks and build economic relationships with the Union.

In the area under my responsibility, enlargement, the EU has successfully used its membership conditionality to export its economic and political models to post-communist Europe. History will show this to be the most successful example of long-lasting regime change ever. Timothy Garton Ash has rightly observed that: "For Poles as for Spaniards, the return to freedom and the return to Europe have gone hand in hand.... This enlargement of freedom is the great success story of Europe over the last 60 years since the Second World War".

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to conclude with a personal recollection. I remember well the grim and gloomy mood in Europe in the summer of 2005 after the failed referenda in France and the Netherlands.

Do you know who cheered most in South Eastern and Eastern Europe then? I can tell you – it was the nationalists in Turkey, the radicals in Serbia, the reactionaries in Ukraine and the panslavists in Russia.

Why did they cheer? Because they believed that a weaker European Union would not be able to project its soft power of liberal democracy in its neighbourhood, leaving the field open for nationalism and autocracy.

I went walking in the woods in Brussels on the very day when the French voted on the Constitutional Treaty. I concluded it was now my mission to prove these nationalists wrong – to ensure that the EU retained, recovered and revitalised its enlargement policy as a means to extend the zone of liberty and democracy in South-Eastern Europe.

I feel that we achieved this by consolidating our commitments, maintaining rigorous conditionality and providing better communication. Overall, it was a defensive victory, but we maintained enlargement policy as major part of EU foreign policy and the pursuit of democratic values.

I trust that you share this mission, and that you will join me in defending European values. Thank you for your attention.


[1] Mary Kaldor (2006), “New and Old Wars: Organised Violence in a Global Era”, Polity Press.


Side Bar

My account

Manage your searches and email notifications


Help us improve our website