Editorial : What Future for a “Geopolitical” Europe ?

, par Christian Gibbons

Toutes les versions de cet article : [français] [français]

Editorial : What Future for a “Geopolitical” Europe ?

As various European countries begin to reopen, a “new normal” is slowly emerging. Although it is impossible to know definitively how our lives will be changed in the next few months, plans are already being re-evaluated, principles are being tested, and issues that were once in the foreground have been set aside for another day. Even the Schengen Agreement—widely and rightly considered a pillar of European integration—has suddenly been thrown into question.

With that said, there is no reason to think that the European Union should abandon the progress on various issues that it has been working towards. The objectives outlined in the new European Commission’s priorities document, ranging from creating a comprehensive Green Deal with which to combat climate change to making Europe stronger, more assertive, and more “geopolitical”, are arguably just as essential as ever. In our “Europe in the World” series, we at TNF have chosen to focus on the latter. How has the EU recently conducted itself in this increasingly dynamic and uncertain environment ? What challenges or opportunities might it carry with it into a new era of Zoom-mediated international politics ? Here’s a summary of the most important things that we learned.

A Need for Change, Both Inside and Out

In early 2019, the French television broadcasting channel France 3 began to run a two-part documentary series titled “Europe : dans les coulisses d’une décennie de crise” (“Europe : behind the scenes of a decade of crisis”). The series, which featured interviews with high-profile political personalities like Alexis Tsipras, François Hollande, Wolfgang Schäuble, Matteo Renzi, Franz Timmermans, Donald Tusk, and Jean-Claude Juncker, offered a fairly conventional view of the European Union’s last decade. Serial crisis, ranging from the battles over sovereign debt to the migration debacle to Brexit, has resulted in political deadlock on crucial issues and a growing threat of disintegration.

However, the series does not dwell on other issues of a more global scope, such as climate change, the return of great power competition, and strained transatlantic ties with the United States. Nor does it deliberate on the so-called crisis of the liberal international order which has so strained multilateral cooperation—the very basis of the EU’s approach to global politics—in recent years. These things were only really addressed later in 2019, this time not on television screens, but at a press conference, where the European Commission’s new President, Ursula von der Leyen, first declared her intention to create a “geopolitical Commission”. Speaking before an audience of her peers, von der Leyen stated, “my Commission will not be afraid to speak the language of confidence [...] but it will be our way, the European way.”

The spread of coronavirus may have muted the Commission’s efforts to finally speak in the language of power, but it has not made them irrelevant. Make no mistake about it : if Europe has been a subcontinent besieged by crises, these crises have been no less external than internal in nature. The story of Europe’s recovery from a decade of crisis must also be written with foreign affairs in mind. But how exactly can the EU better prepare for the challenges of today’s world ?

Better Instruments, More Genuine Partnerships, More Effective Multilateralism

In many places, analysts say, the coronavirus pandemic has brought about a revival of fortunes for the state. This could not contrast more, they argue, with the expectations of world leaders circa the year 2000, when global dynamics favored a world ever-more structured according to the whims of markets. With the end of the Cold War, the globalization of free trade was supposed to augur greater democratization and a more cosmopolitan, “post-national” world. Now, as supply chains crumble and international cooperation skids, others have argued that the pandemic may actually lead to the “collapse” of globalization. The World Bank’s new Chief Economist, the Cuban-American Carmen Reinhart, has predicted that “we are going to see much more inward tendencies”, as nations around the world begin to “need to be self-reliant in a way we haven’t seen before”.

In this series, however, we’ve shown that a more complex reality exists. While multilateral fora and other standard forms of diplomacy are bound to take a hit, international organizations are not likely to go anywhere. And while global supply chains will probably contract and uncouple, with nations choosing to reduce exports and relocate centers of production closer to home, trade between nations will not disappear either. In fact, as Reuben Bharucha has pointed out in his comparison of the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), regional organizations that exist for this purpose may actually become even more important. Additionally, although regional organizations face many of the same challenges, they also come with select advantages, such as offering resources, aid, and political instruments to members and coordinating intergovernmental responses to crises. The EU, as the most advanced example of regional integration in the world today, has so far done precisely that when responding to the coronavirus, even if its efforts have often been flawed or controversial.

For similar reasons, interregional relationships are also likely to become more important for the EU. For decades, the EU’s conduct in its backyard has been deeply shaped by two policies : the possibility of accession to the EU for particular countries (and all the conditionality that goes with it), and the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), which provides a framework for enhanced cooperation with the states adjacent to it. It’s no secret that the way that the EU approaches accession needs to be rethought. But the ENP could also use an update. As Théo Boucart’s three-part article on the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) reveals, the Union’s normative and commercial influence has created paradoxes instead of partnerships to its east. Although the EaP has succeeded in binding the EU and other states into mutually advantageous associations, there are clear limits to what it allows either to accomplish. This may result in the EaP increasingly becoming a stricture rather than an asset. The EU must be able to revise the EaP to reflect contemporary needs, particularly in a post-pandemic world, where partner countries’ future security and development are rather more precarious than before. This will have the added benefit of insuring the EU’s flank against further encroachment by Russian and Chinese influence.

The same is true to Europe’s south, where, as Florian Lauer and Conor Ryan have shown, political dynamics in North Africa have tended to render certain forms of regional involvement both ineffective and unwelcome. But although the Union for the Mediterranean and other initiatives have not been remarkably successful, not all has been gloom and doom in EU-Africa relations. On the contrary, there are still many opportunities for productive multilateral engagement—a point which has not gone unnoticed in the august halls of the Berlaymont building, where EU Commission President von der Leyen has recently promised a pivot to Africa. As Benjamin Robinet has argued, the Commission’s ambitious proposals for closer collaboration with the African Union (AU) will allow it to ensure greater prosperity for EU citizens, as well as help to shore up security, peace, and stability in the AU’s member-states. Indeed, if Luisa Stauder is right, the EU can invest significantly in its own future by investing in Africa’s—as the largest supplier of developmental funds in Africa today, the EU can have a decisive impact on the creation of regional public goods like better educated workforces, more engaged publics, and reduced poverty and conflict. This is all the more important today, now that the pandemic has thrown the affairs of many struggling, debt-ridden developing countries into disarray.

But although the most promising developments seem likely to take place in Africa, the EU should not forget about Asia. The EU faces many of the same issues there as it does in Eastern Europe and Africa, and then some. Although European politicians seem to have a lot of faith in their ability to promote good governance and human rights abroad through economic and financial instruments, previous approaches have not really worked, as Marie Moussard’s article on the EU’s new free trade agreement with Vietnam shows. Trade deals with greater conditionality are one possible fix—a recent proposal by France and the Netherlands, for example, would require greater compliance with the EU’s environmental and labor standards among its would-be trading partners—but the fact remains that the EU has limited leverage in Asia, at a time where Asia is becoming ever-more important.

The converse, unfortunately, is not true : the EU’s relations with other East Asian and Southeast Asian states also reveals, once again, the risk of foreign influence. In India, where the Hindutva nationalist government of Narendra Modi has faced a wave of criticism over the recent passage of a controversial citizenship law, diplomatic overtures to right-wing groups in the European Parliament may have caused the EP to rescind its earlier criticism of the Indian government’s policy. Niklas Götz and Radha Malkar’s piece on this affair demonstrates that even though the EP is beginning to have more autonomy, this makes it vulnerable to outside interference by powerful states. Nor is it alone in this respect : vulnerabilities have also been shown recently by the EU’s External Action Service, which reportedly changed a report about Chinese disinformation after being pressured by Beijing.

Tomorrow’s Europe

Summing up : much like the EU itself, the EU’s multilateral approach to global politics has both advantages and disadvantages. The EU’s traditional tools of late have been commercial agreements, political accords, partnerships, and multilateral diplomacy, with a good deal of conditionality thrown into its bilateral relations. These tools will not become less relevant in a post-pandemic world, but they should be improved upon, and the EU should be ready to update them according to the necessities of the moment—no matter how unpredictable that moment might be. They are also not sufficient by themselves for the tasks ahead, and European politicians should remain aware of just how much work needs to be done in order to reform the EU’s crisis-ridden body politic. As the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell wrote recently in an op-ed, “tomorrow’s world is already here”. As we’ve seen, that world has been marked by a near-absolute failure of global governance. A stronger Europe—tomorrow’s Europe—may be able to help create solutions.

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