Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A display of soft power

The EU is often criticized for not having much clout on the global political scene. But although the EU often fails to speak with one voice it doesn't mean that it's not powerful, economically or politically. Representing more than 500 million people in 27 countries, the EU has a combined GDP of $16.7 trillion, which is more than that of the US.

But despite its economic might, the EU is seldom on the global media's radar. There are at least two reasons for this: First, the EU lacks hard power, i.e. a single, strong army. If this piece is missing, attention is seldom given to any political actor. Second, the EU's strength lies in the fact it's powers lie in inspiring slow - and less-than-news worthy - progress. This focus on offering long term incentives like EU membership is what has been the primary driving force behind the impressive democratic and economic progress in Eastern Europe.

So, maybe the EU's best way to attract attention is to lead by example. That is why it's is interesting to see how the EU's High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (maybe a shorter job title would get her easier access to the world's newspaper columns) Catherine Ashton has taken steps to punish Libya for its overly aggressive methods during the country's ongoing revolution. While suspending a trade agreement with a country currently committing crimes against its people may seem a bit modest, at least the EU uses the most appropriate "weapon" in its arsenal. But more importantly, it sends a clear political message with real consequences for the Libyan regime - although, in the grand scheme of things, a modest one.

Suspending a trade agreement therefore shows something more important than the suspension itself. It shows that the EU can lead by example in high profile international crises.

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