Strengthening Conflict Prevention: An Agenda for Germany’s EU Presidency

10. Dezember 2019   ·   Anna Penfrat

During its EU Council presidency, Germany should boost the EU’s attention to conflict prevention. Berlin should share its own lessons on getting better at preventing violent conflicts, promote more exchange between thematic experts on conflict prevention and country experts, and encourage more adequate human resources arrangements across the EU.

Even if its powers decreased with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU) still matters for EU external action. Holding the presidency from July to December 2020 will provide Germany with the opportunity to bring the political momentum necessary to ensure the implementation of the EU’s ambitious agenda for conflict prevention and sustainable peace. Germany is particularly well placed to take this agenda forward during its presidency because it has invested a lot in this field in the past years, both at the policy level, as illustrated by the Federal Guidelines on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace, and at the operational level.  

Boost the political attention for prevention and specific cases of conflict  

Without an adequate level of political attention, it will be extremely difficult to operationalise the great aspirations of the EU Global Strategy and the EU’s Integrated Approach to Conflicts and Crises with regard to the promotion of human security and conflict sensitivity. Increasing the peace and conflict prevention expertise across the EU will require the prioritisation of financial and human resources. Yet, because the agendas of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) are cramped with international crises it never discusses potential conflict prevention responses. Even the EU’s Political and Security Committee (PSC) often struggles to find time to do so.  

How can Germany’s presidency help shaping “a proactive rather than reactive EU policy” even without chairing the FAC and PSC discussions? One avenue would be to build on the ongoing upgrade of the 2009 Concept on Strengthening EU Mediation and Dialogue Capacities. This process initiated by Finland’s presidency offers room to raise the political profile of the EU’s support to mediation and, more widely, other civilian peacebuilding responses to conflict. This would particularly open the door to timely discussions on the perceptions of the EU by external actors in situations of conflicts and instability – and on the necessary measures for the EU to continue being seen as the “credible and ethical actor” in mediation processes it was projecting itself to be ten years ago.  

Prompting conversations on specific geographic conflict cases will also be key. It is relatively easy to agree on very ambitious conflict prevention and peacebuilding goals for the EU when the discussions remain at a thematic level. It is much more challenging and impactful, however, to discuss what it means for the EU and its member states to apply these principles when designing their policies and actions towards specific conflict-affected countries or regions. This is why Germany should promote the regular participation of peace and conflict experts from the capitals of EU member states– and from civil society when possible – in the meetings of geographic Council working parties. This would greatly enhance these working parties’ analysis of conflict and peace dynamics and the formulation of tailored EU options for preventive action in individual countries or regions.  

Use the opportunity to elevate conflict prevention at home

Starting at home, Germany could also use the opportunity of its presidency to initiate a reflection process on how to better bring the attention of national politicians towards civilian preventive and peacebuilding responses to violent conflict. Too often, politicians are sceptical about investing resources into conflict prevention. They think that there is not enough evidence that prevention works and that it would therefore be more difficult to “sell” to their home constituencies – or to the wider public – than, for example, very visible deployments of crisis response missions. Yet the effectiveness and added value of conflict prevention efforts have been extremely well documented in the past years. The most recent example is “Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict”, a 2018 joint study by the United Nations and the World Bank. Using these findings and others, how could Germany and the EU, together with civil society, increase the visibility and attractiveness of civilian crisis prevention on the political agenda?  

Beyond the policy: focus on implementation and share lessons learned  

Even when adequate thematic and geographic policies are in place, the challenge of the implementation gap remains – a challenge not specific to the EU but which also affects its member states. Germany has invested a lot in crisis prevention since the Federal Guidelines were adopted in 2017 (and even before that) and it has recently published three new strategies on security sector reform, rule of law assistance and transitional justice. In 2020, time will be ripe to share the lessons it has learned about operationalisation of such strategies with the EU institutions and other member states.  

Germany is already promoting such a platform for exchange, together with the Netherlands, through the European Early Warning Forum. In addition to this innovative initiative which should be continued, the German presidency should select and present case studies, success stories and failed initiatives to learn from. This type of dialogue would be particularly valuable around the implementation of the conflict sensitivity principle, which guides the work of civil society peacebuilding organisations and was endorsed by the German Guidelines as well as the EU’s Integrated Approach.  

Sharing observations and best practices on conflict-sensitive approaches is highly needed, not only in the area of development cooperation but also in trade, migration, security and defence – where actions can unintentionally exacerbate conflict dynamics, reinforce repressive structures and further exclude various social groups. In a striking manner, this is the case with military “train and equip” initiatives: How do Germany and other member states monitor and evaluate the impact of such engagements on the security and justice perceptions and needs of various parts of the conflict-affected populations? Most importantly, how do they adapt the course of their action based on the results of these monitoring and evaluation efforts to ensure they don’t do harm? During its presidency, Germany should facilitate a candid discussion between practitioners, including civil society, and with policy-makers on the risks of military “train & equip” responses and possible mitigation measures or alternative activities.  

Ensure the necessary human resources arrangements are in place across the EU  

Human resources arrangements are another key aspect of implementation which deserves more attention. The German presidency should launch a series of working-level roundtables on how the EU and its member states aim to encourage more political, creative and conflict-sensitive institutional cultures in their respective structures, including in embassies and EU delegations. Topics for discussion could include secondments, job descriptions and evaluations, thematic career paths, handover procedures, mentoring schemes and other knowledge management tools to increase the expertise of personnel working on conflict and peace issues.  

There is no shortage of options for Germany to help strengthen the credibility and effectiveness of the EU as a global actor for peace. Yet this ambitious endeavour will require more than six months of attention. Including some of these initiatives in the programme of the next Trio presidency could be a way for Germany to sustain these important undertakings.  

Europäische Union Conflict Prevention

Anna Penfrat

Anna Penfrat is a Senior Policy Officer at the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office (EPLO). @Anna_EPLO