Guest contribution by Jeremy Shapiro: When it comes to foreign policy, the EU watches from the sidelines – von der Leyen has to get out of the comfort zone
Friday, September 18, 2020, 12:38 pm
Last year Ursula von der Leyen promised the Europeans a geopolitical commission with a stronger, more unified voice in world politics in order to secure Europe’s strategic sovereignty: a timely impulse. Almost a year later, as a result of a pandemic that is turning life around the world upside down, Europe’s citizens are realizing the enormous burdens that the lack of a European geopolitical presence entails.
Against the background of pandemic, climate change and global recession, major international powers are using intergovernmental structures as a kind of weaponry to punish each other. China has threatened to withhold medical supplies from European countries that are politically unrelated to it. The United States is threatening economic sanctions to impose its Iran policy on Europeans. Turkey is threatening to send refugees to Europe if the EU does not pay her money or does not support Libya. And Russia is intervening in our elections and politicizing its gas supplies.
According to surveys by the ECFR, these developments have led the vast majority to recognize that joint action is necessary to defend national sovereignty in an increasingly dangerous world. 63 percent of Europeans would like better European cooperation as a result of Covid-19. Even in less pro-European Member States such as France (52 percent), Sweden (51 percent) and Denmark (53 percent), more than half of the respondents expressed this view.
About the author
Jeremy Shapiro (PhD) is Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He was previously Special Advisor to the Deputy Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia at the US State Department.
Shaping a more sovereign and greener future
Notwithstanding this clear demand from the citizens, von der Leyen failed to address the plan of a geopolitical commission in her trilingual, almost 90-minute speech. It presented a list of problems, but did not give the impression that Europe needed to improve its geopolitical approach.
How did that happen? Why is it so difficult to create the “geopolitical commission” that von der Leyen promised last year? The European reconstruction plan should make it possible to shape a Europe with a more sovereign and greener future. But to do this, von der Leyen has to face two major problems.
Ensure solidarity from member states
The first are the EU member states. All member states say they want a more geopolitical Europe, but for the most part they mean that they expect the EU to take their own specific geopolitical problems more seriously: for the states in the east, Russia is the focus of interest; the countries of the south want attention to be given to the conflicts on the other side of the Mediterranean; for others the Balkans or Turkey are a major concern; Large parts of Northern Europe, on the other hand, would like the EU to be protected from Chinese trade distortions.
Of course, the President of the Commission does not exercise any control over the Member States, especially not in matters of national security. In order for the EU to be able to act more geopolitically in the face of such divergences, however, it needs a regulation to set priorities among these issues, to guarantee the solidarity of member states when it is not about their own problems, and to settle disputes when the member states disagree are.
Europe as the most important line of defense
Taking this problem into account, the speech came up with the proposal to introduce qualified majority voting on foreign policy issues, at least on the subject of human rights and sanctions. Even if this appears to be an important step in the headlines, it is only a means of ignoring unyielding states.
A better course than outvoting member states when it comes to issues that are important to them would be to make all EU members feel that Europe is their main line of defense on these issues – and that they are going to lose something crucial if they weaken the EU in other areas that are less important to them.
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Bureaucratic EU apparatus
The second problem is the bureaucratic EU apparatus in Brussels, which von der Leyen formally manages. A geopolitical approach also involves using all of your government tools to pursue geopolitical goals. The Americans use their defense ties with the Europeans to demand trade concessions – and the Chinese use their hegemony in medical care to punish the Dutch for their Taiwan policy.
But the EU was set up specifically to break such linkages, and there is currently no concrete procedure to enforce this. The idea of using concessions in an EU trade agreement to obtain geopolitical concessions, for example, is a source of outrage among those judged by the quality of their trade agreements.
Not surprisingly, the speech barely addressed this domestic issue, but it is fundamental to the realization of a geopolitical Europe. Everyone in Brussels agrees that a geopolitical approach requires more cross-cutting coordination, but everyone feels that their organization should do the coordination. Naturally, the European External Action Service, headed by HR / VP Josep Borrell, seems to be the most obvious candidate. It is a missed opportunity not to give him more power.
Building a more sovereign Europe
The development plan enables the EU to invest in building a more sovereign Europe, especially when it comes to issues that are important to the citizens. Instead of allowing a large part of the money to be spent invisibly through structural and cohesion funds, the EU should explicitly set itself the goal of investing in the infrastructure for a sovereign Europe. This could include shared stocks of medical equipment to combat future pandemics, clearly regulated databases to train artificial intelligence, infrastructure investments to promote energy independence and the transition to a low-carbon energy system, and joint defense projects and investments.
There is already broad support for this. Surveys by the ECFR have shown that the acceptance of measures against climate change has increased during the pandemic: In Spain, 60% of voters said that their support for the implementation of climate commitments had increased during the corona crisis. Von der Leyen advocated some of these issues in her speech, but without focusing on the geopolitical aspects of these measures, they are likely to fail in the competition between member states and the Brussels institutions.
Von der Leyen’s tenure has only just begun. The EU never had the prospect of becoming a geopolitical actor within a year, let alone five years. However, as she noted, the world is not waiting for the EU to take decisions: Europe’s strategic sovereignty is eroding every day. It is not too early to lay the institutional foundations for success. The EU has all the necessary instruments for this. In order for these opportunities to be used, von der Leyen must face the fact that there are powerful stakeholders in the member states and in Brussels who have a very different idea of geopolitics than they do.