As part of the GlOBSEC 2016 Bratislava Forum, GLOBSEC Policy Institute hosted a session Towards EU Global Strategy: Visegrad Perspectives in cooperation with the EU Institute for Security Studies. The panel focused on the key messages of the new strategy, priorities for Visegrad countries, and the ways, in which these messages should be communicated to policymakers in the EU and abroad as well as the public.

Antonio Missiroli, Director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris, and Julia de Clerck-Sachsse, Adviser at the Strategic Planning Division at the European External Action Service, Brussels, presented the view from Brussels – the ingredients, recipes, and envisioned outcomes of the strategy-making kitchen. Tomas Szunyog, Director of the Security Policy Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Prague, and Vladimír Bilčík, Head of EU Programme of the Research Centre of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, Bratislava, contributed with a view from Central Europe. Milan Nič, Research Director of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava, moderated the discussion.

As the Visegrad public becomes more and more affected by the information war, the discussion generated a shared understanding of the need for

  • elaboration on the practical details on implementation following the formal adoption of the strategy;
  • specification of allocated resources;
  • realistic evaluation of the current situation, interests, and potential benefits;
  • deliverable promises;
  • proper attention to the information war;
  • comprehensibility to the public;
  • and caution in using the word values.

Danger as opportunity

The European External Action Service entrusted with the drafting of the document faces more than one challenge. It has to be based on values but promote interests. It has to suggest rational solutions but be appealing and understandable to the population. It has to address the multiple here-and-now crises but be relevant for the next few years to come.

But at the core of the challenge is a jam of insecurities and profoundly divergent and differentiated perception of threat across EU Member States. Whereas some countries are focused on the need to boost military capabilities, others are primarily concerned with the migration crisis and terrorist threats. Yet others are worried about energy security and trade relations with partners worldwide.

The intense perception of a crisis, albeit a somewhat different crisis for different people and Member States, is, however, not all dire news. “Where danger is, also grows the saving power”. This quote of Hörderling, propounded by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen in her address, became the leitmotif of the whole GLOBSEC 2016 Forum. The overwhelming feeling of endangerment has been generating a strong impetus for the EU officials and public likewise to unite behind common solutions.

The EUGS that is needed in Visegrad

As part of the consultation process, Visegrad countries submitted their shared vision of the saving power for Europe in December 2015. The non-paper urged on the EU the centrality of transatlantic relations and practical measures to strengthen the Common Security and Defence Policy. The former embraces areas from security to trade, with the conclusion of the TTIP agreement a close goal. The latter has particularly in mind instabilities and military conflict in the East and requires an increase in the funding for security sector reform and capability building.

Mere adoption of the document should not be the end-goal but should be immediately followed by an elaboration on practical details, a lack of which would make the strategy just another exercise on paper.

The acutely needed boost of confidence in Europe will be conditioned, according to the majority of participants from Central European countries, upon the provision of a toolbox of instruments and measures, the specification of resources that will be committed to the implementation of the EUGS, and the ability of the EU to square its accepted strengths – trade, development assistance – with crisis management needs.

An attempt to ensure that these priorities are incorporated into the strategy and further discussed following the adoption is expected as Slovakia is to hold the EU Presidency in the second half of 2016.

Distrust and doubts in Visegrad countries

The EUGS will be planted and implemented at a time when the control over the information environment and channels is diffused, abused, and misused. The mistrust towards governments and official media is strong. Social media have risen as a heavy-weight information provider, empowering individuals but deficient of traditional journalistic scrutiny and balance.

Many in Visegrad countries are perturbed about the information warfare that is often led by (extreme) far right-wing activists. The ‘alternative’ discourses propagated through social media are typically validating an anti-Europe and pro-Russian narrative. What maybe even more dangerous, is the consequent exacerbation of the mistrust and unhealthy doubts in the society, a depletion of values, and a loss of a shared direction.

According to the recent poll commissioned by the Central European Policy Institute, more than half of Slovak respondents stated that rather than being part of the West or the East, Slovakia should stand somewhere in-between. This geopolitical in-betweenness is a slippery slope. An orchestrated nudge from the East might transfigure public confusion into a downright denial of the European way of life and increase the risk of an entrenched hybrid war on the EU’s territory.

Whether directly mentioned in the EUGS or not, this predicament makes the strategy increasingly relevant in terms of its unifying European message but also increasingly difficult to communicate to the hesitant public. The information warfare should be part of the equation in all steps of adoption and implementation of the strategy.

Communicating EUGS: Winning hearts, or minds?

Consolidating a Europe-wide message is difficult. So is the communication of it. On the one hand, EU friends, or those short of the title, should each interpret the strategy in compliance with the message the EU intends to send. On the other hand, the strategy should be appealing to both politicians in the Member States and the public.

Should the EUGS employ rational arguments, emphasize interests, mention – somewhat technical – but implementable measures, and hence try capturing minds? Or should it rely primarily on its emotional appeal, and thus count on winning hearts?

Not all bureaucrats in the room were rationalists. Not all communication experts were idealists. realistic evaluation of where we are and a non-exaggerated, feasible promise of what we can achieve coupled with defined tools to do so was seen by many as a reliable way not to overstretch but to deliver on the generated expectations.

Without a clear statement of the interests and realistic benefits, pronounced in an understandable down-to-earth language and delivered through personal stories, the strategy risks earning a reputation of just another Brussels-driven boondoggle. Individual stories and real-life situations kindle more trust than abstract ideas.

Others, however, wanted the EUGS to present an idealistic version of the Union, an ideal to strive for. It would then show where we want to be, reinstate the common values, and reinforce the image of Europe as a values-based community.

With the new strategy most likely trying to appeal to both realists and idealists, the attention was drawn to the shallowing of the word ‘values’. Overused in public discourse and associated with the Brussels bureaucracy, the notion has become a currency hard to sell to the disillusioned, or confused, public. The return of nationalism and right-wing extremism implies ‘nationalization’ of values and skepticism towards common solutions. The word ‘values’ and its desired understanding should be heeded and treated with caution.

The executive summary of the session is available for download here.