EU: Global Player with Serious Flaws - Joost van Iersel

1. From Internal to External Focus

Ursula von der Leyen coined the term 'Geopolitical Commission' in the autumn of 2019. A global orientation for the Union seemed like a radical change. But it is, of course, a gross exaggeration to claim that the Union only looked inward before; all internal issues inherently have an external dimension.

With the internal market, agriculture, the feared competition policy, monetary policy, banking regulation, trade relations, and, in recent years, climate issues and digitalization, there is no shortage of global dimensions. Nowadays, economics is also geopolitics. What was indeed new was that this Commission directed the political focus of the EU more clearly towards global profiling of the EU. The shift in emphasis came at just the right time. External and internal EU developments are now more intertwined than ever. This also exposes the gaps more clearly. The lack of a European foreign and security policy is now holding us back. Is the Union capable of making this new move and filling the gaps? An existential question with enormous impact. 

2. Global European Identity

European integration has had a global identity from the start. Starting with coal and steel, then from 1970, the customs union with external tariffs parallel to free trade without customs duties within. The Common Agricultural Policy, with the Netherlands as the biggest beneficiary, was clearly visible externally. The internal market gradually emerged, with significant external effects, especially since the substantial impetus from 1985 thanks to the famous Commission President Jacques Delors. In the same line, the Treaty of Maastricht in 1991, with the EMU, brought a monetary arrangement closer, resulting in the introduction of the Euro in 1999 in now 20 member states. The EMU has successfully weathered all crises so far. Externally, the Euro competes, albeit at a distance, with the dollar. It took decades, but one by one, these were significant steps forward that placed the EU more prominently on the world map. In the same perspective, an impressive number of trade and association agreements were established. The Union negotiates with the entire world. It has always been a strong pillar of the GATT and later the WTO, in line with the central European principle of Open Markets – always the flagship of the Netherlands. The gradual decline of the WTO, which the Union has not been able to reverse, is lamented daily. This makes bilateral agreements and treaties even more important. The EU now has 41 trade agreements with 72 countries. There are association agreements, such as those with potential candidates, free trade agreements, partnership agreements, investment agreements, and others, tailored to specific aspects of the relationship with individual countries. This is no small feat. The negotiations typically take many years, as in the case of the agreement with South America (Mercosur), which has been under negotiation for 20 years. It is not always front-page news, but assured access for products and services to the voluminous and affluent European market is highly valuable to third countries. British critics, for example, consistently cite the Union's global trade framework as one of the most compelling arguments against Brexit.

3. Europe as a Developing Global Player

In the new vision, a predominantly inward-looking European perspective should give way to Europe as a global player. Von der Leyen immediately introduced a Report on External Action and established an External Coordination Body as a bridge function for all internal and external EU policies. The Commission now also functions along these lines. As a result of a change in orientation of the Commission and the Union, external policy has been placed at the heart of the policy. Internal and external matters are no longer separable and intersect in all central themes, which is explicitly expressed in documents and Council discussions. There are plenty of examples. Von der Leyen's use of the term 'geopolitical Commission' could not have come at a better time, and the idea of Europe as a global player is gaining increasing support in politics, especially with Macron as a spokesperson, and in public opinion.

A deeper internal market, affecting every sector and involving governments alongside the market sector, has profound external effects. Across the board, there is the highly effective 'Brussels effect,' i.e., the decisive influence of EU standards on products and value chains, which the Americans and Chinese also systematically orient themselves to. This is also evident in judgments of the Court of Justice and often more visibly in the globally operating EU competition regime. In priority issues par excellence, climate and AI, the internal European policy also supports Europe's position in the world. In digitalization, in particular, European regulations have an edge over the rest of the world. This partly compensates for the lack of our own Big Tech. Negotiations with other trading partners faithfully reflect the Union's ever-expanding internal agenda and its values, including a challenging issue like human rights. In all these themes and processes, the Union represents the consolidated insights and opinions of the member states in the world and can only provide sufficient strength as a sovereign entity. The EU's soft power is the source of its prestige and strong negotiating position for the essential interests of member states and citizens. These are crucial trump cards in a time of fragmentation and increasing polarization. Unfortunately, this success story is less promising due to today's geopolitical dimensions.

4. Geopolitical Dimensions on All Fronts

Geopolitics and globalization worked in our favor for decades. That image has dramatically shifted. Geopolitics is now on the menu everywhere, and the consequences are felt throughout politics and the economy. International economic relations have become highly politicized. Europe calls for a global approach to climate, digitalization, and AI, but it seems distant. The issue of raw materials is the next divisive conflict. The relationship with China raises significant uncertainty, but there are also questions about the United States: which direction will they choose, more protectionism and America first? How can Europe continue to prove itself in the competition between the two giants? In Europe itself, the devastating war in Ukraine is central to politics and the military. The difficult relationship with the accession candidates in the Balkans is also affected by active China and Russian interference. In the already difficult relationship with Africa, vital to us for migration and raw materials, Chinese and Russian influences are visible. In these power dynamics, the often overlapping private and political impact of cyber, hacking, criminal organizations (drug cartels), and terrorism also play a role. The security services are working overtime!

Naive Europe, which wanted nothing to do with naked power politics, has been rudely awakened in recent years. Not that immediate conclusions are drawn. Peace has spoiled us, and European soft power seemed sufficient for a long time. External pressure does not automatically lead to greater internal European cohesion. The increased self-will of member states takes its toll. In any case, many more political elements have infiltrated the economy, and the international climate has become considerably more unstable. Brussels is forced to loosen the reins, which also does not contribute to mutual discipline. Brexit – or the world seen through a rearview mirror – is an example of thoughtless stubbornness, but this plays out in many other countries, not just in Poland and Hungary. Germany, which has benefited more than anyone else from European soft power, must reorient itself and seek a new role. Macron is the spokesperson for those who want to give Europe a solid political foundation in the world, but he cannot claim European leadership, also due to domestic difficulties. Others, like Spain and Italy, remain too entangled in their own political culture, making them hardly players in the debate on geopolitical dimensions. Another significant divide is between Eastern and Western Europe, which has only sharpened due to the war in Ukraine and migration.

5. Issues Are Heating Up

The war in Ukraine is a deepening open wound, a political and military exhaustion. We are hundreds of thousands of deaths, millions of refugees, countless traumas, and unprecedented material damage later, and there is still no solution on the horizon. On the European side, significant gains have certainly been made: Ukraine is holding out, NATO stands firm, and the EU is introducing unprecedented innovations, although the Commission's Foreign Affairs spokesman, Joseph Borrell, sees it more pessimistically than the committed Ursula von der Leyen. The EU coordinates sanctions against Russia and provides military support and arms deliveries to Ukraine. There is a European Peace Facility of €12 billion in military aid. Also, the Commission purchases €1 billion worth of ammunition/missiles for the EU and promotes military support. These are surprising leaps forward. In addition to previous, more limited aid packages, the Commission recently decided on €50 billion in budgetary support to Ukraine, in line with substantial national packages of arms deliveries and humanitarian aid – the Netherlands is performing well in this regard – although the United States continues to claim the lion's share militarily. But there are still many open questions, such as Ukraine's EU membership, the relationship with the difficult expansion of the Balkan countries, and, most importantly, the central question: what to do when, in one year, the consistent leadership of Biden and the United States ends, and Europe would largely be on its own? Then structural shortcomings will become even more apparent. There are already underlying tensions and differences in vision. There is no European leadership vis-à-vis Russia.

This same structural shortcoming is fully evident at the southern border. Due to the lack of adequate measures, dramas involving asylum seekers and migrants continue to loom. Different groups of EU countries have views that are mutually exclusive. Indeed, the deal with Turkey has been successful, but with Tunisia, it remains to be seen, and the rest of Africa, with which Europe has highly variable contacts, is unpredictable and capricious. This can also hurt us regarding raw materials. African countries are also favored partners for China and Russia. Strategic EU policy in that region leaves much to be desired due to the primacy of national visions and, therefore, the lack of European leadership.

6. A Political Europe: an Emotional Election Theme

The Union faces the formidable task of filling these serious gaps. For 80 years, Europe has been following Washington's lead. This is no longer without risk. Furthermore, the economy is increasingly becoming politically driven, as seen in the energy transition, climate, AI, and resources. European interests on a broad front require a shared foreign policy. However, engaging in geopolitics with 27 countries without a strategy or direction and without shared security and defense policies will prove to be unfeasible. The European Council and Commission must therefore overcome deeply ingrained national visions and practices. Europe will be an election theme in the Netherlands in November, but this should not be limited to migration and provisions for farmers. The tense geopolitical context forces parties to clarify their ambitions to provide the EU with a strong political foundation. This is a formidable challenge for the Netherlands. The situation is no different in other member states. In the Netherlands, parties are skirting around this issue with short-sightedness. This can no longer continue. Parties in all other member states will also have to make tough decisions. Eurodefense has an important role to play in this regard.

The Hague, September 1, 2023

This article is an adaptation and translation from Dutch of an article that was originally published in Dutch magazine ''Nestor'' on 23 september. 

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