2021 has, so far, been a crash course in geopolitics for the European Union. From a dispute with big pharma to a set of harsh counter sanctions from China, issues of power asymmetries and influence are testing the Union’s foreign policy. If the EU were a company, its shareholders would not be pleased with the first quarter results. The EU and its member states ought to go back to foreign policy basics and take the lessons from the last three months to sharpen their collective role in the international order.
WHERE WE ARE — Facing a state of permacrisis, the EU is rapidly learning what it really means to be a geopolitical player. For the moment there are more bruises than medals, but that is part of the learning process. The key question is: How can the EU leverage existing policy tools and look for new foreign policy approaches that can be used in an enduring environment of hybrid (and not so hybrid) competition and disputes? COVID-19 is the foe among foes. This is what keeps EU heads of state and government awake at night. As long as the pandemic is not under control, the desperately needed economic recovery will be delayed, making an already difficult situation worse. This constant pressure has turned decision-making into an extremely difficult art. What is more, it has also contaminated the EU’s relationships with adversaries and friends alike.
IT’S COMPLICATED — It all started with big pharma. AstraZeneca failed its ‘best efforts’ commitments to supply the EU with the promised vaccines to meet the continent’s inoculation targets. Consequently, the European Commission had to face an ‘adversary’ with limited tools. If vaccines in Europe remain in short supply and public pressure mounts in the member states, an export control mechanism is likely to be used. The dilemma is that, in case it is used, it may undermine important diplomatic relationships with close partners such as the US, UK or Canada and could potentially undercut vaccination efforts if retaliation ensues. But this is the nature of the game. Even more complicated is the relationship the EU has with Russia, Turkey, and China – over the last months the ties with all three countries deteriorated further.
The humiliation of High Representative Borrell during his recent trip Moscow may have clarified the state of EU-Russia relations, but it did nothing to improve the level of bilateral dialogue. The result is a refashioned policy of ‘contain’, ‘push-back’ and ‘engage’, somewhat reminiscent of different Cold War periods but unclear in its practical implications. Turkey is the kind of partner that you cannot live with or without. Whenever the EU believes things are improving, they just get worse. EU top brass were left gobsmacked by Ankara only a few days ago. After an online meeting with EU leadership designed to foster “a more positive EU-Turkey Agenda,” President Erdo?an withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention to prevent and combat violence against women. While clearly dismayed at that decision, Borrell reaffirmed, only two days later, that there had been “positive signals from the Turkish leadership [on Eastern Mediterranean].” China is the latest lesson in the EU’s crash course. After finding the unanimity to impose sanctions on four Chinese officials and one entity involved in the repression of the Uyghur minority, Beijing immediately retaliated with a disproportionate set of counter sanctions targeting those that Beijing claims are spreading ‘misinformation’, including parliamentarians and researchers. The EU’s timid reaction so far implies that either the EU was surprised by such a strong move, or that the Union and member countries are still at a loss on how to respond.
…IN A RELATIONSHIP — After a few years apart, the EU and the US are back in a relationship. The fact that Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently spent much of a week in Brussels talking with NATO and the EU and that President Biden addressed the European Council on 25 March, shows that Washington means business. Europeans should also be ready to reengage and understand that this window of opportunity may close in 2024, if not in 2022 already with US mid-term elections. There is no time to lose. Presently, it may be harder to agree with the US on vaccine exports, than on key foreign policy issues. Like in Europe, the pressure to exit the COVID-19 crisis tops the political agenda. But recent developments and shared interests are also favourable to a more coordinated transatlantic approach to Russia, Turkey, and China. The re-launch of the transatlantic dialogue on China announced on 24 March by Blinken and Borrell is a case in point and Beijing’s ban may have helped kick-start it. But differences remain. The EU and the US have distinct approaches to China and look at it from different strategic standpoints: for the US, China is the long-term strategic rival; for many in Europe, an essential economic partner. Nord Stream 2, trade issues, and digital policy, among others, will also continue to be irritants in EU-US relations.
GREAT POWERS SPEAK UNLIKE — The central dilemma that the EU faces in its relations with Russia, Turkey, China and even the US, is the lack of a common position and conflicting interests among EU member states. If on COVID-19 and AstraZeneca there is a common purpose and a clear goal, with Moscow, Ankara, and Beijing, the EU tune often seems dissonant or erratic. This is not likely to change, and it may well become standard as those relationships become increasingly complex. But instead of complaining about the lack of unity, perhaps the EU should make use of it. “Disunity” or divergent interests should be used as much as unity or a ‘common voice,’ if and when they serve the EU interests better. As the last three months have shown, the Union needs a foreign policy that anticipates divergences and, in coordination with member states, uses them intentionally in its diplomatic relationships, through public and private tracks. This is not about back-door deals, but about the art of diplomacy where discretion is as much an asset as strategic communications or public diplomacy. The same can be said about the ever-increasing role of the European Parliament in policies with obvious foreign policy implications, such as trade or climate action. Today, the EU may have more leverage over Beijing because of the recent sanctions against members of the European Parliament and possibly also China’s interest to ratify the bilateral Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).
WHERE WE SHOULD BE GOING — The EU should go back to foreign policy basics and make use of the power tools and the collective influence that the Union and its members already have – from its economic and regulatory clout to its political and diplomatic sway. But more than that, the EU must figure out how to use the diverging interests of the member states, each with their own history and traditions – itself a defining feature of the Union’s open, democratic and diverse political system – to its advantage. If Europe wants to punch above its weight, the time to learn how to do so is now.
‚EU Crash Course in Geopolitics: Lessons From the Foreign Policy ‘Battlefield’‘ –
Commentary by Ricardo Borges de Castro – European Policy Centre / EPC.