From Plaything to Player: How Europe Can Stand Up for Itself in the Next Five Years

Written by | Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

The EU’s foreign policy is inadequate to the task of keeping Europe safe in today’s world of great power politics and uncertainty. Over the last five years, trust between Brussels and member states dwindled, and policy came to reflect the lowest common denominator of popular opinion. The coming five years herald acute pressure on Europe, particularly as Russia, China, and the US undermine multilateral institutions and treat trade, finance data, and security guarantees as instruments of power rather than global public goods.


Therefore, the new High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy should move quickly to rewire European foreign policymaking to exercise strategic sovereignty. The high representative needs more support on this strategy – from deputies, special representatives, and foreign ministers tasked with specific roles. The new leadership team in Brussels needs to reoperationalise European defence, build Europe’s self-sufficiency through a strong European pillar in NATO, and consider innovations such as a European Security Council. Europe will only build greater unity by tackling controversial issues head on in the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council. The high representative needs to play a much more active role in these debates.


Looking ahead, many of the trends that have put pressure on the EU could become more acute in the next five years. In particular, the US under Trump is actively pursuing the idea of deploying economic warfare against the EU to get its way in trade disputes. It is actively dividing the EU, by asking central and eastern European governments whether they really want to hold their security relationship with the US hostage to Washington’s bilateral problems with Berlin and Brussels. And the months ahead will see EU unity come under great pressure in the Middle East, and in relations with countries such as Russia and Turkey too. But China will be the biggest source of transatlantic difficulties.


The trilateral relationship between the US, China, and the EU will determine the shape of the global economy in the next century. The EU has recently done a fairly good job of creating a common front in economic foreign policy on China, but it has been less good at responding to China’s geopolitical challenge in east Asia or even in Africa and the Middle East. The EU has also largely failed to realise that it shares with the US a common interest in addressing the China challenge. On Russia, the EU exceeded expectations by agreeing to and maintaining a tough sanctions regime after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However, Europe has never really defined its interests in relation to Russia. The EU is meant to have a dual-track policy of sanctions and engagement, but it does not have a common policy beyond sanctions, and these are utterly divorced from any political strategy.


And this is, in short, what the new high representative should do to help the EU to tackle all these challenges:


Rewiring Brussels – The next EU leadership needs to establish a machinery, an attitude, and a competence that member states can have confidence in. Brussels can set the agenda and ‘force’ member states to collectively address big issues they might prefer to ignore. It can also present relevant analysis, laying out the key facts and considerations that should form the basis for member states’ discussions and decision-making. The EU must take the lead in finding new ways for Europe to organise itself better and take more responsibility for its own security.


Reorganizing European Defence – With NATO remaining the central body for the territorial defence of Europe from Russia and other threats, for all other areas of their security, Europeans need to find ways to organise themselves better and take more responsibility. This is both so that they can be a better partner for the US and so that they can act alone, if necessary. Moreover, with Brexit looming large, the EU and UK should conclude a security treaty to allow the EU to share information and work with the British on counter-terrorism and crime.


Finding Unity and Engaging Member States – In recent years, a minority of member states, such as Hungary, Greece and Slovenia, has increasingly taken to blocking EU decision-making as a way of courting favour with third powers, and namely China. It is tempting to get around this by introducing qualified majority voting on foreign policy, though this faces a practical as well as a philosophical challenge. The long-term challenge is to build a form of de facto solidarity by showing that the EU is the first line of defence for many countries’ core interests. On the most general level, the key to achieving this solidarity is by acting and being seen to act. That is to say: the EU can best establish mutual trust through the practical experience of common action. The foreign policy muscle will only develop if it gets lots of exercise.


‚From Plaything to Player: How Europe Can Stand Up for Itself in the Next Five Years‘ – Policy Brief by Carl Bildt and Mark Leonard – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

(The Policy Brief can be downloaded here)


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