The conference on the future of Europe can catalyze much needed reflection on how to reorganize the EU’s external action. But, more importantly, if the EU is to secure its position as a leading geopolitical player, it must overcome self-doubt and learn by doing, writes Javier Solana.
Javier Solana was the EU’s High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, NATO Secretary General and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Spain. He is now President of the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow of the Brookings Institution. He contributed this opinion piece exclusively to EURACTIV.
Much attention has been paid to the return of competition from the great powers in recent years. Indeed, we live in an era of pervasive nationalism, exploitation of interdependence through sanctions and other coercive practices, and growing mistrust among countries.
Multilateral cooperation has become less the norm, despite the need to address collective threats such as COVID-19 and climate change. As China asserts itself more and more and America’s hegemony begins to show some cracks, the rest of the world seems to be holding its breath.
Some in the EU fear that we may not be able to respond to the imperatives of an emerging bipolarity characterized by raw power politics. However, presenting the challenge ahead in this way is already a recipe for failure. A bipolar order is by no means an inexorable scenario and the EU should not be limited to a reactive role.
Rather than trying to come out unscathed from tectonic changes on the world stage, the EU should seek to influence these changes proactively. Of antitrust policy, at Data protection, at sustainable finance, the EU has proven time and time again that it can do this by leading other countries in its preferred direction.
Not only because of the EU’s international appeal, but also because of its economic weight and the size of its single market.
Europe can use these levers to advance its social model. While the United States tends to cherish the market and China relies more on the state, the EU has traditionally held common ground and placed more emphasis on protecting the individual.
Our welfare states are currently under strain, but still represent our greatest achievement. And the favorable winds are picking up, with the IMF advocating selective tax increases reduce inequalities, and the United States building on its response to the pandemic to adopt a more progressive socio-economic paradigm.
Tellingly, the Biden administration recently welcomed the revolutionary regulatory efforts of the European Commission to ensure human-centered artificial intelligence.
As we launch the conference on the future of Europe, there are strong reasons to be optimistic about the geopolitical outlook for the EU, but there can be no excuse for naivety. It is clear that the EU will not realize its potential as long as it remains crippled by internal shortcomings, due to insufficient integration in key areas such as health and fiscal policy.
In addition, the EU’s external action continues to suffer from weak coordination between institutions, strategic divergences between Member States (aggravated by the requirement for unanimity in our common foreign and security policy) and ‘inefficient fragmentation of resources.
It is therefore essential to present realistic proposals – and not just noble statements – on how to streamline and optimize the EU’s external action.
A contribution to this collective effort will come from the brand new “TO HIRE», A pan-European research consortium coordinated by the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics, which I chair.
The reflective work carried out by this and other related projects must go hand in hand with bold political leadership and concrete and swift action. In other words, we have to learn by doing.
Our most immediate priority should be to pick fruit at hand. A few years ago, this approach crystallized in the Permanent structured cooperation (PSC), which has strengthened defense coordination between EU Member States and helped reduce waste caused by excessive industrial fragmentation in this area.
PESCO was enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty of 2009 but only took shape 8 years later – which shows that sometimes the path is already cleared and that it is enough to travel it.
In addition, we must persevere in the archetype operating mode of the European project, as envisioned by Jean Monnet himself: taking advantage of any crisis that could affect us to deepen integration.
Since the Great Recession, there have been a lot of so-called “existential moments” for the EU. And yet our Union has not collapsed, as many predicted; on the contrary, it continued to develop mechanisms of shared governance.
The COVID-19 pandemic may serve as a spur strengthening our defenses, as well as other challenges such as the increasingly strained relationship between the United States and China.
While European countries aspire to play with the big boys over the next few decades, they cannot go it alone. By pursuing a more coherent foreign policy and by taking advantage of our multiple strengths, we can equip ourselves for any type of competition, while leaving enough room for cooperation.
Because it is obvious that the EU needs the rest of the world – and vice versa. As the embodiment of multilateralism, no other entity is better placed to defend this notion and help it regain its glory.
The conference on the future of Europe will provide a valuable framework for redefining the international role of the EU. However, to find the right answers, you first have to ask yourself the right questions.
For Europe, the 21st century should not be about navigation in a precarious and conflictual bipolar context, but on the construction of a robust and reactive multipolar order. The foundations of a “global Europe” already exist, but if we are to become the architects of our own future, we also need a renewed vision. And, above all, resolute action.