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7 August 2020updated 06 Sep 2021 12:46pm

Ten ways to ensure a more geopolitically active and relevant Europe

The EU's concern with its own stability during Covid-19 has come at the expense of its focus on the wider world.

By Jeremy Cliffe

On the morning of Tuesday 21 July, the European Council president Charles Michel issued a one-word tweet: “Deal”. This marked the conclusion of four days of intense negotiations resulting in the EU’s €750bn Covid-19 recovery fund – an imperfect but significant achievement, proving that, under pressure, member states will go quite far to prevent the union from breaking up.

Yet the union’s focus on its own economic rescue and internal stability amid the pandemic looks to have come at the expense of its focus on the wider world. Germany’s much-anticipated presidency of the EU has spent the first of its six months on wrangling the recovery fund. Ursula von der Leyen’s supposedly “geopolitical” presidency of the European Commission has been similarly tied up. The EU’s 2021-7 budget, agreed alongside the recovery fund, is disappointing in the priority (and resources) it allocates to “neighbourhood in the world”.

Governments and international organisations around the globe have had to put long-term considerations to one side to deal with the immediate health and economic shocks. Yet the urgency of European foreign policy leadership has arguably never been greater. Look at the crescent of external challenges in the union’s own neighbourhood: the unrest in Belarus; Serbia’s and Turkey’s drift away from the EU; growing concerns about Volodymyr Zelensky’s presidency in Ukraine; geopolitical tensions in the eastern Mediterranean; Lebanon’s worsening crisis; and the growing risk of a major Egypt-Turkey military clash in Libya. Then there are the challenges farther afield: the fraying transatlantic relationship, Europe’s place in a world of US-China competition, the weakening of multilateral institutions and the growing risk from runaway climate change.

Europe hasn’t only been distracted from such matters by the domestic challenges of the pandemic. Even beforehand it was making only slow and patchy progress towards speaking with an effective and unified voice, stymied by varying foreign-policy instincts, short-sighted national interests and a parochial reluctance to face geopolitical reality. Coronavirus risks accentuating all of these factors.

But it does not have to. It could also be a cold shower; a sudden reminder of the common interests and predicaments, of the dangers of a global leadership vacuum and of how vulnerable a divided and poorly coordinated Europe is to an opaque and opportunistic China. So in that spirit, here are ten practical and (relatively) realistic things that would help the EU in particular rise to the moment; a mini-manifesto for a more geopolitically active and relevant Europe.

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1) Nurture France’s multilateralism
As Ido Vock writes in his profile of Macron, Europe and the recovery fund stand as achievements for the French president. But he also notes that the president’s tendency towards a heavy-handed and top-down style of leadership alienates potential allies. That applies to foreign policy (most recently with big unilateral gambits on Libya and Russia) as it does to domestic politics. The French president apparently wants to adopt a more conciliatory style at home in the run-up to the 2022 election. But more of that in Europe’s foreign-policy debates would also help him turn his welcome geopolitical ambition into reality.

2) Incorporate foreign policy into the Merkel succession debates 
A major brake on a weightier Europe has been Germany’s tendency (which its chancellor has variously challenged and indulged) to see foreign policy as primarily a branch of its export industries. The race to succeed her following next year’s German election is a chance for a serious debate about Germany’s and Europe’s place in a changing world. That chance must not be missed.

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3) Introduce qualified-majority voting (QMV) for foreign policy
It is often said that “coalitions of the willing” are the way for European foreign policy to proceed. New flexible structures like Permanent Structured Cooperation (“Pesco”) and the European Intervention Initiative reflect this thinking. But coronavirus has shown how important it is, sometimes, for the EU to speak and act as one. So the time has come to extend this logic to whole-EU decisions by extending QMV, used already to facilitate important common decisions where unanimity is hard to reach, to the EU’s foreign policy – possibly starting with areas like sanctions, human rights and peacekeeping.

4) Create more dedicated time for EU foreign policy decision-making
As the four-day wrangle over the EU recovery fund showed, on thorny issues sometimes it is necessary to put leaders in a room for a prolonged period of time for compromises to be found. Yet the European Council, where the 27 heads of state and government meet, has no formal habit of carving out space for foreign policy talk. Proposing additional all-night summits does not make you popular in Brussels but regular, supplementary meetings dedicated to Europe in the world might be a reasonable measure as the case for common foreign policies becomes more urgent.

5) Use Brexit as a template
When Britain voted to leave the EU it was widely predicted (in London) and feared (in continental capitals) that it could divide and rule in the negotiations by exploiting divisions and differential interests. But in fact the EU27 set the terms by maintaining an impressively united front forged by what has come to be known as the “Barnier method”. By appointing a powerful negotiator who spoke with the authority of all 27, the EU held together and largely got its way. The same method may well work on other external matters where a common position is needed.

6) Bind in Britain
Partly thanks to said Barnier method, the UK’s foreign and security policy was never the key to a cherry-picking relationship that Brexiters expected (EU leaders consider geopolitical clout nice to have, but a best-on-offer deal for members rather than quitters an existential necessity). But recent months have served as a reminder of the positive role it can play; London’s imposition of “Magnitsky sanctions” on officials implicated in human rights abuses in Russia, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar and its new tough line on China are sparking debates about tougher policies in nearby capitals, including Berlin. Especially if a Brexit deal is reached this autumn, 2021 could be an ideal moment to reset the post-Brexit relationship by developing new forums for EU-UK cooperation and alignment.

7) Reboot the neighbourhood policy
Britain is one important and tricky relationship on the EU’s periphery. But other nearby countries have flirted or are flirting with EU membership, or are otherwise significant arenas in Europe’s near abroad: Ukraine, Turkey, Belarus, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia. The old conveyer belt towards membership (association agreements, trade deals, accession status) has largely stalled in recent years. Now would be a good time to reanimate it – drawing serious candidates like North Macedonia and Albania inwards – while also working on alternative packages of carrots and sticks for countries like Turkey where the notion of EU membership has become utterly far-fetched but where Europe still has the power to offer a path back towards democracy and rule-of-law.

8) Earn the transatlantic relationship back 
As Emily Tamkin and I discussed with Ben Haddad of the Atlantic Council on our first episode of the World Review podcast, an electoral win for Joe Biden this November will not automatically heal the US-EU relationship. America has turned inwards and westwards. Biden may handle that shift more diplomatically and consistently than Donald Trump, but any talk of a return to the Clintonian golden age in transatlanticism is complacent. So Europe will have to work with the grain of a Biden administration – by offering leadership on multilateral global governance (especially climate change and global health) and forging its own links with Indo-Pacific powers crucial to America’s new sense of its own role. And where it has distinct interests of its own it will have to stand more on its own two feet, particularly in its neighbourhood of eastern Europe, the Middle East and North and sub-Saharan Africa.

9) Do more with Europe’s market power 
In the book The Brussels Effect: How the European Union rules the World, published in January, the Columbia professor Anu Bradford argues that the EU’s role as the world’s most powerful regulator – combining European strengths of a large and rich market, strong rule-of-law and a social-market culture of consumer protection – makes it a de facto economic superpower. But referees do not get to win the game. The next step is for Europe to nurture its own technology strengths. The turn against China’s Huawei as a 5G provider should prompt debate about how to build a European alternative (probably out of or with Eriksson and Nokia, its two most promising alternative providers). Likewise, Europe’s strengths in industrial strategy and applied technology, if combined with its regulatory power, could yet make it a leader in artificial intelligence. Think Airbus, but for AI.

10) Be realistic about what European voters want 
Too many assumptions about the politics of European foreign policy are based on a binary of nationalist isolationism and buccaneering internationalism. But as recent polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows, a plurality of Europeans are neither each-for-himself “DIYers” nor gung-ho “New Cold Warriors”, but what the ECFR calls “Strategic Sovereigntists” (42 per cent of the European voter sample surveyed) who value sovereignty and the nation state but believe that in today’s world those require hard-nosed cooperation where countries work together, multilaterally, to use their common weight to protect their citizens and advance their common interests.

In April I wrote that the then-widespread predictions of the EU’s doom failed to grasp the complexities of the project and urged readers to focus instead on those complexities: the taboos quietly being tested or outright broken, the changing self-perception of the European project, the long-term historical trajectory. Those who did so would not have been surprised by the ultimate agreement on the recovery fund.

So let me make a parallel suggestion now. Europe is edging towards a bigger role in the world. It will never rival the US or China militarily and, given demographic realities, probably not economically or technologically either. But the interesting thing is not the isolation/superpower binary but the much more nuanced middle ground in which the EU can, should and in some areas probably has to step up over the coming years. Too often analyses of Europe start with the simple things and work back to the complicated ones; it is usually better to start with the complicated things and work back to the simple.