Loes Debuysere
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The EU's integrated approach to crisis response
Learning from the UN, NATO and OSCE

The EU aims at being a prominent global crisis responder, but its member states act also through the UN, NATO and OSCE to achieve both short-term stabilisation by military and/or civilian means, and longer-term conflict prevention and transformation. By comparing the policy approaches of these four multilateral organisations to conflicts and crises, this contribution shows how the broad principle of comprehensiveness has been developed to fit different institutional logics, thus leading to divergences in approach. Distilling findings from empirical research conducted in the framework of the Horizon 2020-funded EUNPACK project in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Mali and Ukraine, this chapter synthesises lessons about varying levels of the EU’s and the other organisations’ conflict sensitivity, effective multilateralism, value-based approach and application of the principle of local ownership in theatre.


In a follow-up to the 2013 Joint Communication on the ‘EU’s Comprehensive Approach to external conflict and crises’, the 2016 EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy (EUGS) set out to implement an ‘integrated approach to conflict and crises’. The notions of comprehensiveness and integration are widely present in multilateral approaches to crisis management, with the UN having introduced the ‘integrated mission’ concept already in the late 1990s. Other actors have followed, including the United States and individual EU member states, NATO and the EU. A comprehensive approach refers to the strategic objective of coordination and integration among different civilian and military actors involved in the conflict cycle, in order to enhance the effectiveness of tackling manifestations of instability and conflict (Faleg, 2018; Kammel and Zyla, 2018). Accordingly, a comprehensive approach involves action using a full range of tools – political, economic, civilian and military – to solve a single conflict or crisis complex (Smith, 2012). Yet different actors configure comprehensiveness differently in their policies, which leads to divergences in the practical implementation of comprehensiveness.

In theory, a comprehensive and integrated approach should be able to span a wide repertoire of policy responses to crises and emergent crises. This could span crisis management, crisis resolution and crisis transformation, and even suggests the possibility of flexible or calibrated crisis responses whereby a ‘mix and match’ approach was deployed. Depending on circumstances, an integrated and comprehensive approach could allow for the modulation of crisis response over time (perhaps shifting from crisis management to a more participatory crisis transformation mode) or having different approaches operating simultaneously in the same territory. As this chapter demonstrates, a theoretical flexibility is not easily translated into real world stances and actions.

This chapter identifies four potential difficulties that may arise when integrating levels, tools and phases of conflict. First, coordination between various actors may prove difficult due to complex or conflicting processes and interests. Hence, ‘effective multilateralism’ – a doctrine included in the 2003 ESS – serves as a prerequisite for an ‘integrated’ approach in what are often crowded theatres. Second, a process of integration may undermine local ownership. While integration seeks to improve the coherence and coordination of any international intervention, it could in fact weaken or overlook the indispensable input of local actors (Tardy, 2017). Third, the process of integrating responses to conflict ought to happen in a conflict-sensitive way. Efficient and comprehensive responses need to consider the complexity and multilayered nature of a given conflict, in order to anticipate how interventions will impact and interact with dynamics on the ground. Finally, in setting up an integrated approach to conflict, different priorities, values and interests that underpin an organisation’s agenda, may clash. While the EU may claim that ‘interests and values go hand in hand’ (European Union HR/VP, 2016), evidence from practice – especially in those conflict contexts that pose migration challenges to the EU – shows that this does not necessarily hold true.

We seek to address these four challenges facing the EU’s integrated crisis response, while comparing the approach of other key players in conflict settings. In order to do so we first provide a broader overview of how the EU’s integrated approach compares to the policy approaches of the UN, OSCE and NATO, that is, the three international organisations on whose side the EU most often serves to prevent, manage and/or sustainably resolve conflicts and crises. Next, based on empirical findings collected from the EU Horizon 2020-funded EUNPACK research project, which aimed at analysing how the EU and its member states respond to crises on the ground throughout the conflict cycle,1 the four challenges that risk hampering successful implementation of an ‘integrated’ approach are discussed, with a principal focus on the EU’s approach to conflicts and crises. This links with EUNPACK’s two major threads that are also running through this book: an overall EU trend towards securitisation, and an assessment of the extent to which an established framework of interpreting responses to conflicts (to categorise as conflict management, conflict resolution or conflict transformation) could be mapped onto crisis management, crisis resolution and crisis transformation. This part of the chapter starts from concrete experiences in the conflict settings, thus addressing potential intention–implementation gaps, and consists of two sections. The discussion first revolves around how challenges of multilateralism, local ownership and conflict sensitivity have panned out in the EU’s (and, to a lesser extent, other actors’) responses in the conflict zones of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Mali and Ukraine. The chapter then takes up the example of crises involving migration in order to discuss the fourth challenge: how the EU is balancing its interests and values in Libya, Mali and Ukraine, compared to other actors. We conclude by synthesising specific lessons drawn from highlighted examples that can assist in addressing the intention–implementation gap that characterises the so-called ‘integrated’ approaches of the EU in particular when compared with other actors.

The inside looking out: HQ approaches to external crisis response

The EU’s integrated approach

Since 2003, the EU has aspired to contribute to conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict peacebuilding through civilian and/or military means (see Dijkstra et al., 2016; Dijkstra et al., 2017). The ‘nexus between security and development’ (Anderson et al., 2003; Chandler, 2007) took centre stage in the 2003 ESS, according to which security is a precondition for development. Building on the spirit of structural integration espoused by the Treaty of Lisbon, the EC and the High Representative in 2013 issued a joint communication introducing the EU’s ‘comprehensive approach’ to external conflict and crises. This approach combined the use of EU instruments and resources and required the shared responsibility of EU-level actors and member states. Identifying local ownership as one of the main tenets of EU crisis response, the joint communication represented a shift from a top-down to a bottom-up policy approach (Richmond et al., 2011). But already in 2016 the comprehensive approach was superseded by the EU Global Strategy’s ‘integrated approach’ to external conflicts and crises.

According to the EUGS (European Union HR/VP, 2016: 9–10, 28–29), the integrated approach is:

  • Multi-phased, allowing the EU to act ‘at all stages of the conflict cycle, acting promptly on prevention, responding responsibly and decisively to crises, investing in stabilization, and avoiding premature disengagement when a new crisis erupts’;
  • Multi-dimensional, drawing on ‘all available policies and instruments aimed at conflict prevention, management and resolution’, bringing together diplomatic engagement, CSDP missions and operations, development cooperation and humanitarian assistance;
  • Multi-level, acting to address the complexity of conflicts ‘at the local, national, regional and global levels’;
  • Multi-lateral, engaging all players ‘present in a conflict and necessary for its resolution … [partnering] more systematically on the ground with regional and international organizations, bilateral donors and civil society’, to build sustainable peace ‘through comprehensive agreements rooted in broad, deep and durable regional and international partnerships’.

The scope and actions of the EU’s integrated approach to external conflicts and crises have been defined in a working document of the EEAS and the EC (EEAS, 2017: 8). The EU’s tools for integrated responses are said to encompass different policy phases, such as planning and implementation; address all stages of the conflict cycle, from prevention to recovery; and advance essential cross-cutting issues, such as the evolution from early warning to preventive action. A new directorate in the EEAS devoted to the ‘Integrated Approach for Security and Peace’ (Directorate ISP) has become the main coordination hub for EU conflict cycle responses. Created in March 2019 and nestled under the Managing Directorate for CSDP and Crisis Response, Directorate ISP encompasses the old unit for Prevention of conflicts, Rule of law/SSR, Integrated approach, Stabilisation and Mediation (PRISM), which was regrouped with other CSDP parts of the house. The new directorate packs divisions responsible for, inter alia, concepts, knowledge management and training; conflict prevention and mediation; and international strategic planning for CSDP and stabilisation. It is flanked by the Directorate Security and Defence Policy (SECDEFPOL) and cooperates closely together with the Commission’s Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI) service and the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development (DG DEVCO) Resilience and Fragility Unit.

By expanding the ‘comprehensive approach’, EU policy-makers sought to reframe the EU’s response to fragility and external conflicts and crises. In conceptual terms, the integrated approach increases the level of ambition of EU interventions. The EU seeks to address instability more strategically, that is, by going beyond operational crisis response and integrating a better sequencing of the political, security and economic dimensions of crisis response to deal with the root causes of conflict. This new level of ambition is reflected in the strong linkages between the ‘integrated approach’ and other follow-up actions to the EUGS, particularly the ‘strategic approach to resilience in the EU’s external action’, a joint communication which highlights the relevance of investing in upstream conflict prevention, crisis response and conflict resolution (High Representative, 2017). This document recognises that ‘the traditional linear division of labour between humanitarian aid and development cooperation has been changing’ in the face of a fluid landscape of protracted crises, global challenges and risks. Pressures on states, societies, communities and individuals ‘range from demographic, climate change, environmental or migratory challenges beyond the power of individual states to confront, to economic shocks, the erosion of societal cohesion due to weak institutions and poor governance, conflict, violent extremism, and acts of external powers to destabilize perceived adversaries’ (High Representative, 2017: 3).

Whereas the comprehensive approach synchronised a wide range of instruments in a horizontal way, the integrated approach places various components of EU response under a single authority (Tardy, 2017: 3) – that is, Directorate ISP. In operational terms, the implementation of the integrated approach could enhance EU conflict sensitivity by strengthening capacities in the fields of early warning, conflict analysis and prevention; to reframe the EU’s stabilisation approach, integrating various political, security and development components to make sure that transition between crisis management and stabilisation is more coherent and inclusive, integrating (rather than coordinating) different levels of EU action; and to more effectively link all levels of EU responses with those of other multilateral actors and regional organisations (UN, OSCE, NATO, AU), ensuring consistency in international community interventions.

The UN’s integrated approach

In conceptual terms, the 1992 Agenda for Peace (UN, 1992) was the first serious attempt to generate a greater sense of unity in conflict cycle management, placing the UN front and centre of the international community’s efforts to prevent, manage and durably resolve armed conflict in line with the basic principles laid down in both the UN’s Charter and human rights covenants. In response to the need felt in Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere to run increasingly large and multidimensional peace support operations (Gelot, 2016), the UN Secretariat of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) and the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) were created. This first stab at ‘structural’ integration was followed by an attempt at ‘strategic’ integration. Based in part on the lessons learned from peacekeeping failures in the late 1990s and early 2000s (de Coning, 2008), the ‘strategic’ integration drive, encapsulated in the Brahimi Report, promoted the idea that all UN entities, agencies, funds and programmes should cooperate under a single UN flag, to maximise the impact of their collective resources (Koops et al., 2015). An analysis of the weaknesses and obstacles to integration led the Panel on the United Nations Peace Operations to recommend the formation of an ‘integrated mission task force’ – that is, an integrated HQ-level response to be developed at the earliest stages of the crisis response planning process, bringing together different departments of the UN Secretariat (DPKO, DPA, OCHA), agencies, funds and programmes (e.g., UNDP, UNICEF, UNHCR) for mission-specific support.

An ‘integrated mission concept’ was pioneered for Kosovo in 1999 in order to ensure an effective division of labour between the different actors on the ground (Eide et al., 2005: 12; Weir et al., 2006). In operational terms, the main innovation of the integrated mission concept was that the functions of the Resident Coordinator (RC) and the Humanitarian Coordinator (HC) were morphed into the mandate of a Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General (DSRSG). This double-hatting allowed the DSRSG to better represent the humanitarian and development dimensions in planning, coordinating, managing, and evaluating the mission. UN entities on the ground, including mission components, UN Country Team and specialised agencies were technically distinct but brought under the same leadership. Guidelines for an ‘Integrated Mission Planning Process’ (IMPP) became operational as of 2008 when the broader and more strategic ‘integrated approach’ was adopted under the leadership of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (UN, 2008). This approach recognised that integration requires a system-wide process whereby all different dimensions and relevant UN agents should act in a synchronised, sequenced and coherent fashion, also with the Bretton Woods institutions (International Monetary Fund and World Bank Group), all operating as one integrated UN system at the country level, and in a coordinated fashion with extra-UN actors. In other words: ‘effective multilateralism’ within and outside of the UN family.

A new push for the UN’s integrated approach has been catalysed by the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015 (UNGA, 2015) and the report of the UN High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations (HIPPO) (UN, 2015). The HIPPO report recommended ways of achieving the full potential of UN operations. These included strengthened early warning, analysis, strategy and planning mechanisms, thereby bolstering conflict sensitivity in order to design missions better and be able to respond flexibly to changing needs on the ground; and a renewed emphasis on investing in capacities and local ownership to play a more preventive and inclusive role in addressing emerging crises.

The institutional reform process of the UN peace and security pillar launched by Secretary-General António Guterres in 2017 is beginning to bear fruit after implementation started in the first half of 2019. DPA was reconstituted as the Department for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) and DPKO as the Department of Peace Operations (DPO). Three Assistant Secretary-Generals (ASGs) are responsible for regions and the Standing Principals Group is tasked with increasing the coherence and coordination between DPPA-DPO and regional ASGs. The Department of Field Support (DFS) has also been restructured, to reduce fragmentation, expand capacities/activities and ensure faster deliveries, and is now the Department of Operational Support (DOS). The new structures should address the main problems identified by the HIPPO report, namely reducing competition and duplication within the Secretariat and ensuring a spectrum of operations that are customised to address country contexts better (Cliffe, 2017: 3–4). If properly implemented, then the ongoing reform may well turn the UN into the world’s most sophisticated integrated system for conflict prevention, crisis management and peacebuilding.

The OSCE’s comprehensive and cooperative security approach

The OSCE’s comprehensive approach to ‘in area’ conflicts and crises is rooted in its core mandate as a forum for political and security dialogue among members and has been fully embodied in the organisation’s joint actions since its creation. The comprehensive approach emanates from the three ‘baskets’ of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act: the politico-military, the economic-environmental, and the human dimension. The approach presumes a direct relationship between peace, stability and wealth, on the one hand, and the values of democratic institutions, the rule of law, respect for human rights and the development of a market economy on the other. The principle of ‘indivisibility’ of the comprehensive approach implies that an increase in security for some participating states should not be detrimental to the security of other states. The notion of ‘cooperative security’, a variant to the principle of ‘effective multilateralism’, is also central to the OSCE’s operational rationale and aims at the prevention of security threats and zero-sum games, rather than efforts to counter them. The OSCE builds on the acceptance of binding commitments that limit military capabilities and actions, through confidence-building and reassurance measures. These values and strategic principles were reiterated and reinforced over time, through a series of documents, including the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe, the 1999 Charter for European Security, and the 2003 OSCE Strategy to Address Threats to Security and Stability in the Twenty-First Century.

This shows that the integrated approach of the EU does not just have to be about institutions working together, but that should also include a more comprehensive view of conflict, in particular the nexus with (under)development. Reinforcing comprehensive action along the strands of conflict prevention, crisis management and post-conflict rehabilitation, the OSCE addresses challenges that pose a threat across borders, such as climate change, terrorism, radicalisation and violent extremism, organised crime, cyber-crime and trafficking of all kinds. In its cross-dimensional activities, the OSCE starts from virtually the same value-base as the UN and the EU to work towards gender equality, engage with local youth across the peace and security agenda, and promote comprehensive approaches to managing migration and refugee flows:

The EU, like the OSCE, addresses security in a comprehensive manner… from conflict prevention, mediation and cross-border cooperation, to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; from the promotion of the rule of law and democracy, to strengthening States’ resilience to trans-national threats. (EEAS, 2018)

Its institutions include the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, the High Commissioner on National Minorities and the Representative on Freedom of the Media.

Despite a value-based and comprehensive approach to cooperative security being engrained in the DNA of the OSCE, the organisation suffers from significant operational limitations (i.e., ineffective multilateralism). This is mainly due to the different priorities and perspectives on European security of the participating states; negative attitudes to the organisation from a number of participating states; the consensus-building nature of the organisation, which is difficult and time-consuming; the absence of effective mechanisms to sanction violations of the body’s core principles; limited resources; the lack of clear implementation criteria for the wide range of activities; and the disparate ways and means for (self-)assessment and implementing lessons learned. In an effort to enhance a conflict-sensitive approach to crises, the 2011 Vilnius Ministerial Council (OSCE, 2011) called for enhanced coordination to strengthen the OSCE’s analysis, assessment and engagement capacities in all phases of the conflict cycle. It led to the consolidation of the organisation’s early warning capacity and resources; the creation of a systematic mediation-support capacity within the Conflict Prevention Centre; the adoption of guidance materials on dialogue facilitation, taking on the UN principles of active mediation; and the creation of a rapid deployment roster. Capacity-building for the comprehensive approach was accelerated by the deployment of an OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine in 2014. Yet many of these capacities remain in suspended animation. Since the eve of the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act, Russia has violated Ukraine’s borders, territorial integrity and freedom from non-interference in domestic affairs – thus shaking the very foundations of European security on which the OSCE rests and ignoring the monitoring mission’s observations.

NATO’s comprehensive approach

The 2006 Riga Summit Declaration was the first official NATO document to refer to the Alliance’s so-called comprehensive approach to ‘out of area’ conflicts and crises. Drawing on the experiences in Afghanistan and Kosovo, NATO’s comprehensive approach was conceived as a way to respond better to crises by involving a wide spectrum of civil and military instruments while fully respecting the mandates and decision-making autonomy of all involved. As the need for proper mechanisms of cooperation with other international actors and civilian agencies was considered particularly acute at the early planning stage of an operation, NATO adapted its operational planning to improve support for civilian reconstruction and development (Gheciu, 2012). Developing closer ties with the EU, the UN and other international organisations constituted a critical part of this approach: a better division of mandates would help NATO to perform better in theatre.

NATO’s Strategic Concept of 2010 affirmed that the Alliance would engage, ‘when possible and necessary, to prevent crises, manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction’, and that a ‘comprehensive political, civilian and military approach is necessary for effective crisis management’ (NATO, 2010: 19). The strategic concept called for NATO to enhance intelligence-sharing within the organisation, intensify political consultations among allies, form a civilian crisis management capability to liaise more effectively with civilian partners, enhance integrated civilian-military planning, and develop the capability to train local forces in crisis zones (NATO, 2010: 21–22). A plan was developed to stimulate the transformation of NATO’s military mind-set into a comprehensive modus operandi with a clear emphasis on effective multilateralism both within and outside of the organisation and combined with local ownership.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly evolving security environment, the 2016 Warsaw Summit called for a review of the strategic concept and an action plan with new elements for conflict prevention, countering hybrid threats, cyber-security and operational cooperation at sea and on migration. Based on a joint declaration of 10 July 2016, forty-two concrete actions for implementation in the aforementioned areas were developed to boost NATO-EU cooperation. In December 2017, an additional set of thirty-four actions was endorsed, including on three new topics: counter-terrorism; military mobility; women, peace and security. These efforts at generating more complementarity and effective multilateralism have contributed to improving NATO’s own conflict sensitivity, internal organisation and crisis management instruments. That said, the military culture remains overwhelmingly predominant in the Alliance. In theatre, NATO remains the primus inter pares in supporting or undertaking military engagement in crisis situations.

Conceptual convergence but different institutional logics

The analysis in this section reveals a gradual conceptual convergence of headquarters’ approaches in dealing with conflicts and crises. In their constituent charters and relevant policy documents, the UN, OSCE, NATO and EU spell out in more or less explicit detail four key virtues in the implementation of their comprehensive/integrated approach to conflicts and crises: being conflict-sensitive; pursuing effective multilateral coordination (within the organisation and with international actors); upholding the organisation’s values; and ensuring local ownership. Divergences between the organisations’ approaches arise from variances in their mandates to deal with conflicts and crises ‘in area’ (UN, OSCE, NATO) and/or ‘out of area’ (NATO, EU) by employing predominantly civilian (OSCE) or military (NATO) means or a combination thereof (UN, EU). Differences in the autonomy of the organisations’ bodies to prepare for and decide on action determine the speed, scope and duration of implementation.

In what follows, empirical data gathered by EUNPACK partners from a range of conflict areas (Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Mali and Ukraine) are used to illustrate the extent to which crisis responders are led by the four above-mentioned virtues in implementing their so-called integrated approach. The principal focus will be on the EU’s external action.

The outside looking in: field experience

Effective multilateralism

In a follow-up to the doctrine of ‘effective multilateralism’, as outlined by the 2003 ESS, the 2016 EUGS has listed ‘effective global governance’ among its five priority objectives. The EU thus continues its commitment to preserving, strengthening and coordinating multilateral processes, albeit in a more pragmatic and flexible fashion. Since interventions in Mali, Libya, Ukraine, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq have attracted a multiplicity of actors, it makes sense to see how multilateral processes play out in external crisis response and what challenges they raise. In general, the EU has worked in various coalitions and strategic partnerships with the UN (the EU’s most consistent partner), NATO (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Kosovo) and the OSCE (in Ukraine, Kosovo). The involvement of all actors has undergone major changes and shifts over time, never really finding a winning formula (Peters et al., 2018: 6).

Kosovo, which was fully entrusted to the administration of a UN peacekeeping operation, UNMIK (United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo), was initially governed by a four-pillar structure under the leadership of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG), with the UN in charge of civil administration, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in control of the humanitarian aid programme, the OSCE responsible for democratisation and institution-building and the EU focused on economic reconstruction (Bátora et al., 2017: 13–14). In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States assumed the role of agenda-setter, leaving little room for other actors to determine the course of peace- and statebuilding. While the United States focused heavily on fighting the insurgency and fostering security (‘security first’), the civilian aspects of the EU’s reconstruction efforts took place under the leadership of the UN (Peters et al., 2018: 1). In Mali, it was France who was the agenda-setter and driving force behind Western and EU engagement. The UN (MINUSMA mission), together with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the African G5 Sahel Joint Force, were the most important actors outside the military-security realm (Peters et al., 2018: 6). The EU plugged into the ongoing multilateral effort by training the military and offering civilian support in modernising the police, gendarmerie and national guard. In Libya, after a NATO-led intervention, the UN (UNSMIL) has played a crucial role in the country’s political mediation and reconciliation process. However, in the wake of the difficulties that the UN’s initiative is facing, many international players have joined the multilateral process, yet also started to compete with one another to gain in Libya (Mezran and Varvelli, 2017: 18). The EUBAM had to relocate to Tunis as a result of the worsened security situation. And EUNAVFOR MED – Operation Sophia (see next section), the only CSDP operation for which the EU has been criticised for over-reacting and launching a military operation without a UN Security Council mandate covering all phases of the mission, was terminated by certain member states annoyed by the ‘pull factor’ it had on migrants. In Ukraine, some experts have rated the EU as the second most active international actor dealing with the country’s conflict, together with the United States. Its role went much further than the SSR mission and presented a nearly full-spectrum approach to the crisis complex. The OSCE has had a supportive function, but did not shape conflict developments (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2018: 11–12). This short overview shows that, generally speaking, the EU tends to arrive late in ‘theatre’, resulting in a reactive rather than pro-active role in shaping multilateral relations on the ground. This framed and mostly securitised the EU’s crisis response. So far it is really only in the case of Ukraine that the EU is trying to move the needle towards conflict transformation.

Based on EUNPACK findings, three concrete and interrelated pitfalls or challenges with regard to multilateralism were identified for the EU. First, a lack of coherence among the response of key international actors has hampered effective conflict management. While the presence of many actors can improve international engagement – funds, facilities and efforts are successfully coordinated – our collective research findings illustrate that when coordination is lacking, the sheer multiplicity of parallel or competing decisions and programmes will almost inevitably have negative implications (Peters et al., 2018: 3). For example, in Kosovo, the overlapping focus by multiple actors, including the EULEX mission, led an OSCE official to argue that the area of rule-of-law assistance is so crowded that the local judiciary suffers from ‘training fatigue’ (Bátora et al., 2018: 18, n31). Conflicting ambitions and difficult cooperation have been especially present in EU-NATO relations. In response to the crisis in Libya, for example, EU members disagreed about whether an EU military mission (as advocated for by France) or a broader alliance under the NATO flag (as advocated by Italy) was the appropriate answer. Eventually, the EU decided to set up the military operation EUFOR on 1 April 2011, tasked with assisting the efforts of the UN humanitarian agency in Libya. However, humanitarian actors never requested the intervention of EUFOR, at least in part because a NATO-led military operation was already operating with a UN mandate. The short-lived EUFOR Libya mission illustrates the initial lack of coordination and the problem of unilateral action on the EU side (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 13). In Afghanistan, EUPOL also suffered from difficult coordination with NATO. Despite the 2002 Berlin Plus arrangements, which allow the EU to use NATO intelligence and assets for CSDP missions, EUPOL was limited in its access to NATO’s provincial bases due to the veto by Turkey (a NATO ally) over a dispute with EU member Cyprus (Suroush, 2018: 13). Similarly, in Mali, the EUTM has lacked budget for military and defence, which resulted in the EU being unable to provide equipment for its mission. EEAS officials complained that while the EU supports NATO, it has not received the same support from NATO for its missions. The lack of equipment and the financial constraints for security have dealt a blow to the credibility of the EU in Mali (Heinemann, 2017: 55).

Second, the responses by the EU and the member states have also lacked internal cohesion, which has hampered the effectiveness of the EU response. The decision of five member states not to recognise Kosovo as an independent and sovereign state, for example, has prevented the EU from pursuing a clear institutional logic in assisting the country’s political order. This, in turn, has left space for competing claims of sovereignty and authority by the governments in Pristina, Belgrade and local actors in the Kosovo Serbian municipalities in Northern Kosovo (Bátora et al., 2018: 30). In Afghanistan, the lack of coordination between various EU policy tools and funding instruments and those of the member states has obstructed the implementation of the ‘comprehensive approach’ (Peters et al., 2018: 21). Concretely, coordination has been difficult between the EU Special Representative (EUSR), the delegation of the EC, EUPOL and the bilateral missions by member states, as member states have, for example, felt that joining EUPOL translated in losing national influence and visibility on the ground. As a consequence, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain committed forces to the NATO training mission rather than to EUPOL (Tripathi and Ferhatovic, 2017: 43). In Ukraine, the EU has faced difficulties in effectively coordinating both old (pre-conflict) and new (post-conflict) EU initiatives in the country. Coordination has been weak, for example, between the Commission-led SGUA and the delegation in Kiev, or between the EUBAM and EUAM missions (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 61).

Third, unilateralist tendencies by actors have constrained the impact of other key actors, including the EU. Notable cases are Afghanistan and Iraq, where Washington was the gatekeeper for the role of other actors. In Afghanistan, the strong push of the United States after 9/11 for an international intervention, marginalised other actors, including the UN, to shape the peace- and statebuilding agenda in Afghanistan (Peters et al., 2018: 3). By launching a contested military intervention in Iraq, the United States also stirred major rifts both within NATO and among EU members, pitting the United States and its allies against those EU member states which opposed the war. This division undermined both organisations and ‘resulted in a lack of harmonisation between European institutions, individual states and NATO in relation to capacity building and democratisation in Iraq’ (Burke, quoted in Peters, 2017: 44). In Mali, France rapidly launched a unilateral military operation in Mali (Opération Serval), after the 2012 rebellion and coup d’état. France’s role has had an impact on the EU, as Malians have considerable difficulties separating the EU’s activities from what France has undertaken bilaterally. Given France’s former colonial role and the issues this may raise in terms of local (rather than neo-colonial) ownership, some (Cissé et al., 2017: 8) have argued that it is in the EU’s interest to set its activities apart from those of France.

Conflict sensitivity

Conflict sensitivity – that is, the awareness of how interventions interact with the conflict situation on the ground and the ability to minimise negative impacts of these interventions (‘do no harm’) – turns out to be another challenge rather than a virtue that arises when trying to implement a comprehensive crisis response. In the context of the Libyan conflict, some have argued (Loschi et al., 2018: 23) that EU conflict sensitivity needs to be strengthened, especially when compared with other international actors’ crisis response. While a ‘Conflict Sensitivity Leadership Group’ and ‘Assistance Forum’ have been set up to ensure greater attention to the topic, most EU officers (re)located in Tunis only have a vague understanding of these tools. NGO officers and conflict sensitivity specialists have expressed fears that the EU approach to conflict sensitivity has been superficial, lacking genuine commitment and adequate knowledge.

Concretely, a lack of conflict sensitivity on the part of the EU has been most notable in the EU’s outsourcing of migration management to Libyan authorities and the setting up of detention centres, which fuelled a criminal economy of exploitation and trafficking. As such, the EU may have been unintentionally empowering non-state armed actors and militias, given the links that exist between security officers and trafficking networks on the ground (Loschi et al., 2018). In an earlier phase of the conflict, NATO also misjudged the local context by underestimating the resistance a military campaign would face. While NATO planners expected that the air campaign would contribute to overthrowing Gaddafi in a matter of 
weeks, loyalists to the Gaddafi regime proved able to count on support from African mercenaries, including labour migrants and marginalised communities from Southern Libya (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 13).

In the case of Mali, the EU’s conflict sensitivity has also been limited. Background talks with EEAS officials in Brussels revealed a lack of awareness and knowledge about the concept of ‘conflict sensitivity’, with the concept at one point being dismissed as a ‘luxury concept’ (Peters et al., 2018: 19). It does not come as a surprise, then, that both EUTM and EUCAP produced very mixed results on the ground, as a result of the EU crisis response being imported, rather than set up via a bottom-up approach (Bøås et al., 2018: 24). Indeed, policy documents are developed in Brussels, with limited consultation with local partners in Mali (Bøås et al., 2018:15). The EU’s conflict sensitivity has also been questioned in the context of the EU’s close cooperation with the Malian government, despite clear links between the state and local militias, according to non-partisan experts (Heinemann, 2017: 55). As these are hot conflicts, we’ll have to see whether the EU’s approach will change.

In Iraq, one concern raised by academics and civil society activists was that the EU approaches the whole of Iraq as a single unit, while on the ground no such entity exists. Implementing the same projects in all governorates, as the EU tends to do, does not necessarily make sense, as each area has its own needs and is bound by unique dynamics (Mohammed, 2018: 16). In Afghanistan, external actors were also lacking a proper understanding and sensitivity towards the needs of locals, which explains why the intervention in Afghanistan was not successful. A fundamental problem was that Western actors lacked the knowledge, power or legitimacy to transform Afghanistan, being isolated from Afghan reality (Stewart, 2013; Tripathi and Ferhatovic, 2017: 51). Also, the UN failed the test of conflict sensitivity in Afghanistan, when it allowed funding for reconstruction to be processed through corrupt state-structures (Peters et al., 2018: 5).

Local ownership

A third virtue for the successful implementation of the integrated approach to conflicts and crises is ‘local ownership’. This principle ensures that local concerns and needs are at the heart of conflict management and peacebuilding. In Libya, the prompt and top-down actions that the EU took to tackle Libya’s ‘migration crisis’, seemed not to reflect principles of participatory planning and local ownership. Local stakeholders felt marginalised, feeling that they had to sign-off pre-conceived projects with limited consultation about their inputs, priorities and needs (Loschi et al., 2018: 15). Whereas the EU did seek to ensure ‘local ownership’ – for example, by supporting local authorities and communities in dealing with the migration crisis within the framework of the EU Trust Fund (EUTF) – this proved to be a double-edged sword in the midst of a civil war fuelled by multipolar competition. Indeed, cooperation with local municipalities stirred competition and opportunism among local actors and negatively impacted the local economy. Other international actors pursued a different strategy in this regard. The UNDP, for instance, promotes the involvement of municipal governments in stabilisation programmes, always in combination with central government representatives, such as the Ministry of Infrastructure. This helps to respect intergovernmental relations between national and sub-national levels and, simultaneously, to enhance the legitimacy of the Government of National Accord (Loschi et al., 2018: 17).

In Mali, in order to ensure local ownership, the EU not only works together with the Malian government, but also with other actors including the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), the G5 Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin Commission (LCBC). While the EU has actively sought to cooperate with regional organisations – more than was the case in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example (Peters et al., 2018: 4) – there is little mention in its documents of the importance of working with local bodies and communities (Heinemann, 2017: 43; Vogelaar, 2018). In practice this has resulted in an information deficit with local Malian stakeholders reporting problems understanding the EU’s approach and how to interpret concepts like SSR and ‘border management’. Simultaneously, to what extent do EU priorities of border management align with the priorities of local stakeholders and communities (Bøås et al., 2018: 7)? For example, EU reinforcement of border control as a means to manage migration flows might undermine border economies, which are a lifeline for marginalised communities, and might be at odds with regional law which states that citizens of ECOWAS countries are free to move across borders within the ECOWAS space (Bøås et al., 2018: 24). Similarly, the free health care that ECHO provides for the population as part of humanitarian relief actually goes against Malian law, which forbids free care provision. As a consequence, even when training is provided to local staff to take over the work, the provision of health care will be stopped (Heinemann, 2017: 47).

In Afghanistan, similar problems emerged in relation to local ownership. While the EU welcomed coordinated efforts to support the Afghan government in promoting an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, it quickly found that pursuing local ownership does not necessarily translate into, for instance, more successful SSRs. In a context where there is no monopoly of force and no stable political system, relying on local actors does not necessarily foster a more depersonalised, formalised and rationalised exercise of power through the state. The UN faced the same problem with its ‘light footprint’ approach that welcomed local ownership yet underestimated the extent to which professional leadership and institutional capacity of national/local actors had been eroded during years of conflict (Tripathi and Ferhatovic, 2017:11). While ostensibly a good idea, local ownership can in practice mean ineffective policy (Peters et al., 2018), especially when not implemented in a conflict-sensitive way.

The EU’s ‘principled pragmatism’ and the case of migration

We will be guided by clear principles. These stem as much from a realistic assessment of the current strategic environment as from an idealistic aspiration to advance a better world.… Principled pragmatism will guide our external action in the years ahead. (European Union HR/VP, 2016: 16)

We need as Europeans, as the European Union, to be extremely clear, united and firm with our own compass in mind: the set of values, principles and interests that guide our action on the global scene. (Mogherini, 2018)

Upholding institutional principles and values in responding to conflict situations constitutes a final virtue and challenge underpinning the EU’s integrated approach to external conflict. Indeed, the EU prioritises European values and principles in its rhetoric and speeches about external action (cf. quotes above), with ‘principled pragmatism’ (italics added) figuring as an overarching leitmotif in the EU’s Global Strategy. In practice, however, the EU has struggled to make good on idealism. The EU approach to migration in its wider neighbourhoods (Libya, Ukraine, Mali) shows how the EU tries to straddle the line between interests and values and how its approach is received by other actors, both local and international, in conflict zones.

Libya provides the clearest illustration of an EU struggling to uphold its principles in the face of pragmatic Member State interests. While the EU has been present on the ground since 2011, the Council in March 2015 hinted at a new CSDP mission in Libya that would focus specifically on migration and security, as irregular migration was increasingly seen as a threat to the interests of EU member states (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 26). A major shipwreck involving a migrant boat in April 2015 eventually led to the launch of CSDP mission EUNAVFOR MED – Operation Sophia with the aim of breaking the business model of refugee smugglers along routes in the central Mediterranean. What followed was a shift in the EU’s crisis response, henceforth perceiving the interlacing conflicts and crisis in Libya as a ‘mere’ migration issue, thus bringing into question the comprehensiveness of the EU’s crisis response. Rather than investing in longer term strategic DDR and SSR processes, which would address some of the root causes of the Libyan crisis, the EU presented short-term solutions, such as coastguard capacity-building to intercept migrants bound for Europe (Loschi et al., 2018: 23).

EUNVAFOR MED began training the Libyan coastguard in late October 2016. This included, according to official documents, a substantial emphasis on human rights law (Loschi et al., 2018), however, they show little evidence of a genuine commitment to core EU values by the trainers. Moreover, the EU faced difficulties when selecting candidates for the training seminars, with some individuals involved in human trafficking appearing among the beneficiaries of the EU support (El Kamouni-Janssen and de Bruijne, 2007; Amnesty International, 2017). Seen through this prism, it is hardly surprising that Libyan coastguard officers have been accused of abusive behaviour towards both migrants and NGOs engaged in Search and Rescue (SAR) operations. By outsourcing border control to Libya and its coastguards, the EU has resorted to unsafe detention schemes within Libya. Various NGOs have documented the dreadful conditions in Libya’s detention centres, which at worst can be seen as a direct result of the EU’s restriction of migrants’ safe passage to Europe (Loschi et al., 2018: 15).

The examples of coastguard trainings and detention centres bring into question both the conflict sensitivity and value-based approach that the EU claims to uphold as part of its ‘integrated approach’. They are but two illustrations of a decoupling of normative rhetoric and practice in Libya, which is undermining the reputation of the EU and its crisis response (Loschi et al., 2018: 23). Indeed, despite persistent rhetoric on the part of the EU to uphold ‘UN-EU priorities to human rights and, International Humanitarian Law, including the protection of children and other persons in vulnerable situations in conflict and post-conflict areas’ (Council of the European Union, 2018: Conclusion 8), the UN has strongly condemned the EU securitisation of migration in Libya. It contends that the Union’s strategy of containment has been ‘catastrophic’ and ‘inhuman’, and calls for the decriminalisation of irregular migration (Loschi et al., 2018: 24). UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement in September 2018 saying that

[i]n the context of the EU’s ongoing discussions to establish so-called ‘regional disembarkation platforms’, the prospect of the EU outsourcing its responsibility to govern migration to States with weak protection systems is disturbing. Without prejudice to the ongoing discussions, the authorities should recall that respect for the rights of all migrants must be assured, including those in the most vulnerable situations, and processes must be established to ensure that relevant actors be held to account if they fail to meet basic international standards. (OHCHR, 2018, np)

Several NGOs have deliberately declined to apply for EU funding in order to distance themselves from the EU’s controversial migration policies in Libya (Loschi et al., 2018: 16). In short, the EU’s natural allies in terms of norms and values have not endorsed the Union’s ‘pragmatic turn’ in Libya.

In Ukraine, while migration flows from here have not been framed as a security threat to the EU, in contrast to the Libyan example, the EU’s crisis response has also comprised efforts in the realm of border security and border management (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 63). Since the referendum in Crimea in March 2014, the ongoing conflict in the eastern provinces has created a problem of internally displaced people and refugee flows, with over 1.5 million Ukrainians seeking asylum or other forms of legal stay in neighbouring countries in 2017 (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2018: 17). As a consequence, the EU has sought to foster further investment in cross-border cooperation with neighbouring countries and its CSDP mission EUBAM was mandated to strengthen border security. However, EUBAM’s mandate of consolidating pillars of statehood and stability has reportedly clashed with the informal and extra-legal economies in situ, which risks further conflict (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 63).

Apart from conflict-insensitive designs, the EU has also been blamed for double standards in its asylum policies with regard to potential asylum-seekers who migrate to Europe through Ukraine. Human rights defenders have reported a gap between the EU’s human rights rhetoric and its operational recommendations to Ukrainian authorities: ‘in fact, the EU is interested in not allowing potential asylum-seekers and refugees into Ukraine’ (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2018: 19, n78). The EU’s enforcement of discriminatory practices on the border has led to violations of conventional commitments and contrasts with the human rights perspective adopted by the International Organization for Migration, a UN migration agency based in Ukraine.

In Mali, the EU’s external action has also been perceived as serving its own interests rather than being ‘a force for good’ (one of the aims of the 2003 European Security Strategy). After the spike in migration in 2014–15, Mali rose to the top of the EU’s political agenda, resulting in the deployment of a police and a military training mission (EUCAP and EUTM). The EU perceived the ‘problem of porous borders’ as the key challenge and threat in Mali, which led to migration management being mainstreamed in all EU external action in Mali (Bøås et al., 2018: 12). This disproportionate focus on security and border management, combined with a lack of subsequent monitoring, has indirectly led to human rights abuses, as the EU cooperated with disputed actors like the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) in restoring state authority (Ba and Bøås, 2017: 20). The EU’s focus on border controls has also conflicted with the freedom of movement and trade, guaranteed by an ECOWAS convention for citizens of ECOWAS member states (Bøås et al., 2018: 21).

There is concern in Mali that, unlike the UN’s neutral approach to conflicts and crises, the EU’s ‘principled pragmatism’ focuses too much on protecting its own interest in containing migration flows to Europe. To counter this sentiment, the EU Delegation in Bamako has since late 2017 been developing a second component to PARSEC – a programme aimed at enhancing the security in the Mopti and Gao regions – to help the state respond to the basic needs of the local populations (Bøås et al., 2018: 12). This attempt to build trust between state and local communities moves beyond mere security provision. This may be the only bottom-up, comprehensive and potentially conflict-sensitive project in an otherwise Brussels-driven ‘integrated approach’ (Bøås et al., 2018: 23).


The comparative analysis of headquarters’ approaches to ‘comprehensiveness’ shows that the EU and the UN exhibit the most ambitious efforts to reform their structures and procedures to achieve an integrated approach to conflicts and crises. They have done so by incorporating lessons learned across the whole spectrum of action, taking a broader systemic and strategic stance, through the guidance provided respectively by the EUGS and by the HIPPO report. Integration efforts by NATO and the OSCE have been more focused: enhancing the OSCE’s conflict sensitivity through early warning, analysis, strategy and planning and transforming NATO’s capacities to tackle hybrid threats.

Policy documents illustrate how the EU has shown a steady evolution from a narrow concept of civilian-military coordination – that is, a blueprint followed by NATO albeit from the opposite perspective – to a broad notion of systemic coherence similar to that employed by the UN. However, experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Mali and Ukraine point towards at least four challenges the EU is facing when attempting to effectively implement its integrated approach in conflict settings.

First, the multidimensional nature of conflicts and security threats requires proper coordination among international partners, to produce inter-agency synergies and to avoid overlaps, waste of resources and unintended consequences. Infamous for its slow crisis responses, the EU has faced challenges in fostering multilateral coherence, both among its own ranks and with other international actors – particularly NATO. Indeed, an important issue to bear in mind when thinking of the crisis management, crisis resolution, and crisis transformation options is that of pace: to what extent can particular responses be mobilised and sustained over time. Crisis transformation in particular requires a long-term vision (and the planning and budgeting to match) that is often in conflict with many of the more prosaic national and institution-wide political concerns that were highlighted in this chapter.

Second, aside from declaratory claims in official documents on EU crisis response, empirical evidence from Libya, Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq shows that ‘conflict sensitivity’ is only sullenly accepted, if not a completely neglected concept in practice (Peters et al., 2018: 20). Especially in Libya, the EU has been blamed for a lack of conflict sensitivity compared with other international actors operating on the ground. While crisis management may not require particular sensitivity, it seems important that crisis resolution, and especially crisis transformation are dependent on participation, a knowledge of constituencies, and an ability to take on board cultural and social expectations as well as localised political economies. Well-working crisis sensitivity requires knowledgeable personnel and institutional systems that allow the observations from this personnel to feed into the system.

Third, both the EU and other multilateral actors’ crisis response have recurrently failed to ensure and prioritise the participation and needs of domestic actors in their crisis response (Peters et al., 2018). Even when local ownership was on the agenda, a lack of conflict sensitivity sometimes resulted in local, yet corrupt or ineffective actors, aggravating a crisis or conflict and undermining peacebuilding efforts. As above, meaningful participation in crisis response requires system in place that can recognise the importance of local interlocutors and different ways of interpreting and narrating crises.

Finally, the examples of Libya, Ukraine and Mali illustrate the kind of challenges which are likely to dog the EU for years to come (ESPAS, 2015: 9), and show an increasingly self-interested focus on migration in the EU’s crisis responses. This narrow focus is thwarting the Union’s self-proclaimed commitment to a ‘integrated’ approach to conflicts and crises. EUNPACK research shows that in none of the above-mentioned cases there seems to be a strategy that combines conflict prevention, conflict management and peacebuilding. In spite of persistent rhetoric about human rights and democratic values, normative concerns have progressively faded in policy documents (Ivashchenko-Stadnik et al., 2017: 63). More pragmatic security and stabilisation imperatives are now centre stage, effectively subordinating the EU’s role as a transformative power and affecting its credibility compared to less interest-driven and more value-based actors like the UN. Ukraine is perhaps the exception that proves the rule. Indeed, according to the findings presented in this chapter, the EU does not easily fit into a narrative of straightforward securitisation or a shift from conflict management to conflict transformation.


1 The Horizon 2020 EUNPACK data consist of standardised in-depth interviews and surveys undertaken in summer/autumn 2017.


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