Introducing a New MICROCON Book: ‘The European Union, Civil Society and Conflict’

Posted by Nathalie Tocci and Nona Mikhelidze


The European Union considers conflict resolution as a cardinal objective of its foreign policy. It makes use of a number of foreign policy instruments to promote peace abroad, which cover a range of sectors affecting the conditions and incentives underpinning conflicts at macro and micro levels. Particularly when it comes to influencing the micro conditions of conflict, the EU has started recognizing the importance of engaging with civil society, especially civil society organizations (CSOs) that are present and active at the local level in conflict countries.

Engaging with local civil societies can both represent a goal in itself as well as a means to enhance the effectiveness of EU peace policies in conflict contexts. Yet the precise interrelationships between the EU, civil society and conflicts in the Union’s southern and eastern neighbourhoods has never been examined and the potential complementarity between civil society and EU actors in conflict contexts has never been explored.

Up until recently, the EU tended to view and tackle violent mass conflicts exclusively in a top-down fashion. It interacted with, presented incentives to and attempted to mediate between conflict leaders and powerful external actors. Yet particularly in those conflicts commonly defined as protracted and in which peace processes are “frozen”, the EU has increasingly appreciated the need to engage, work with and influence mid-level and grassroots civil society actors, who in turn impact upon the evolution of societies on the ground.

As civil society actors themselves have recognized for many years, particularly when top-level peace settlements prove elusive, acting at the grassroots level can represent the only feasible and effective peace strategy. Moreover, in view of the EU’s own sui generis internal nature, EU actors are prone in principle to viewing and intervening in conflicts in a bottom-up and structural manner.

Many EU foreign policy instruments, particularly those available in the neighbourhood, hold the potential of affecting the conditions and incentives playing out at the mid or micro levels of conflict. In particular, the European Neighbourhood Policy alongside complementary initiatives such as the Union for the Mediterranean and the Eastern Partnership, building upon existing EU contractual ties with neighbouring countries (e.g., the Association Agreements with the southern Mediterranean countries and the Partnership and Cooperation Agreements with the former Soviet countries), hold the promise of enhancing the depth and breadth of EU involvement in neighbourhood conflicts.

Not only does the ENP consider conflict resolution as one of its key priorities. But the manner in which the ENP is structured and developed raises the scope for the EU’s micro and mid-level involvement in conflicts. The ENP with its focus on civil society alongside governments could change the incentives and actions of mid- and micro-level players in conflicts, including NGOs, research centres, community-based groups, student and women groups, social movements, charities and foundations, media actors, and business and professional associations.  

With this context in mind, the aim of a new book published recently by MICROCON, entitled ‘The European Union, Civil Society and Conflict’ is to explore the role of the EU in conflicts at the mid- and micro-levels by engaging with local civil societies, as well as to identify how the complementarity between the EU and local civil societies could be strengthened at the service of conflict transformation. This book aims further to advance the current scholarly debate regarding the role of civil society in conflict and conflict transformation. These questions are tackled by analysing five case studies in the European eastern and southern neighbourhoods: Georgia/Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Israel/Palestine and Western Sahara. Through the comparative examination of these cases, this volume draws policy guidelines tailored to governmental and non-governmental action.

Over the course of 2007-2010, the project unfolded in three main phases (1- elaboration of a theoretical framework, 2- case studies in five conflict areas, and 3- comparative analysis). The results gathered in this volume have been intensely discussed both within the research project and with external audiences, and in particular with academics and civil society representatives in two conferences in Sofia (June 2008) and Berlin (July 2009) and one workshop in Rome (May 2009).

By exploring the nexus linking the EU, conflict and civil society the book is unique in the present market by contributing concomitantly to the literatures on European Union foreign policy, conflict resolution and civil society.


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