The European Union needs to enhance its relations with non-Western partners in order to build strategic ties for the future. EU leaders have been saying for years that the United States was the “only EU strategic partner” but this is no longer the case. This time around the EU may already be in the process of recovering from its shock over the transatlantic partnership during the first half of this year, coinciding with Trump’s Presidency. However, Brussels is still missing both the right mind-set and mechanisms to invest in relationships with a bit more unusual players. It has been traditionally difficult for the EU to develop ties with non-Western countries such as China, India or South Korea – all the leaders of tomorrow.
The nature of the current global relationships will have to be changed to make them work better. The key issues do not receive enough attention in the Mid-Term Review of the so-called EU Partnership Instrument, which should ideally evaluate the overall impact of all the different EU programs beyond their individual effect on a particular region or problematic area. The EU Commission will soon produce a mid-term review of all external financing instruments but the Partnership Instrument is a special case – it is small and unique in a way that it gives the EU financial means to promote its external identity through on-the-ground actions outside the continent. Examples include the economic ‘Gateway to Asia’ program, the support of post-COP21 climate change action in Latin America or cooperation on resource efficiency with India.
However, this tool is not likely to produce what Federica Mogherini described as ”a flexible and more muscular policy tool capable of dealing with unexpected global political issues”. Moving the needle in relations with countries, which are no longer in need of development assistance, requires patient diplomacy and persuasion but this is usually underestimated in the EU’s centralized policymaking processes, though it does matter for the EU’s own future relations with the new and rising global powers.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) needs to be able to give more feedback to its own embassies – and there are 140 EU delegations. Now is the time to think “outside-in” and become more focused on the European diplomacy beyond the comfort zone of the like-minded group of countries. It is a matter of urgency for the EU to learn how to work as equals with the world out there – consisting of less like-minded people – beyond the West.
European leaders need to consider how the negligence of the European diplomatic service would impact the effectiveness of EU external relationships. EU external action implies a lot more than just a grand strategy of designing and implementing programs promoted by the Commission. This is, however, not just a task for EU institutions but also for member states. Neither of them should overlook successful EU partnership with non-Western strategic powers that will ultimately define the bloc’s future success. A revamped EU Partnership Instrument would be a good start.