Can Europe Make It?

An autonomous Europe for a cooperative world

Only as second best will the EU opt to act alone. By becoming better able to act, Europeans will, by definition, be more able to work effectively with partners.

Nathalie Tocci
14 June 2019, 12.34pm
European foreign ministers from Germany, France and Britain, join Federica Mogherini in reasserting their commitments to Iran’s nuclear deal, 2018.
Ye Pingfan/PA. All rights reserved.

Three years is a lifetime in politics. All the more so for the European Union and for its role in the world.

The EU Global Strategy (EUGS) was published exactly three years ago. It was presented by EU High Representative and Vice President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini to Member States two days after the British decision to leave the EU. Back then the Union scrambled to re-find its unity. The EU Global Strategy called for such unity. Agreed by all Member States and EU institutions, it also represented an expression of an open and outward looking Union standing united facing an increasingly non-liberal, fractured and unstable world.

Europe and the world since the EU global strategy

The period that followed was marked by the fear of a domino effect. As the EU entered a crucial election year, with key electoral appointments in Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, many feared that the Brexit referendum result would be mirrored in electoral outcomes in other Member States. With illiberal values making headway in political systems across Europe, the Union’s existential crisis had reached a new climax.

By the summer of 2017 that fear had dissipated. Not only did the UK vote not represent a precedent for other Member States, but, on the contrary, the Union seemed to have found a new vitality. From the presidential election of pro-European Emmanuel Macron in France to the Pulse of Europe demonstrations across the EU and the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty, by the fall of 2017, the Union, as declared by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, felt it had “wind in its sails” once again.[i]

Get the free oDR newsletter

A weekly summary of our latest stories about the post-Soviet world.

That “EUphoria” was short-lived. The tide turned again with the March 2018 Italian general election, which saw the rise of two Eurosceptic parties – the Five Star Movement and the League – on opposite sides of the horizonal left-right spectrum, but sharing the same political space in the new vertical “open-closed” divide defining twenty-first century politics. As the Union headed towards the May 2019 European Parliament elections, Europeans experienced for the first time a genuine politicization of the European public space, Europeanist versus Eurosceptic nationalists at loggerheads with one another. While far from becoming a majority force, the growth of Eurosceptic nationalism seemed as menacing as ever. The risk was no longer that of Member State dominos falling; it was rather that of an EU institutional hollowing out from within, undermining the liberal values, norms and principles underpinning the European project. Whereas a fascist Europe may be thankfully improbable but alas possible, a fascist European Union is a contradiction in terms.

Whereas a fascist Europe may be thankfully improbable but alas possible, a fascist European Union is a contradiction in terms.

Developments in the wider world have not made things easier. External actors – both foes and friends – have sought to potentially harm, divide or weaken the Union in these years. Russia no longer limits itself to interfering in the EU’s eastern partners. It also seeks to meddle with the democratic processes of EU Member States. China’s rise is not only felt acutely in Asia. It also manifests itself increasingly in Europe, through the Belt and Road initiative, a mega connectivity initiative with an increasingly clear geostrategic intent. Perhaps most significantly, the United States, which has been the greatest external champion of the European project since its inception, is now represented by an administration with little sympathy for the EU and the values it represents. The US President’s scepticism for the multilateral rules-based global order – defined as an existential interest in the General Strategy – is equally visceral. The EU continues to work with the US whenever and wherever possible. But it can no longer automatically turn to Washington to seek multilateral solutions to pressing global questions.

All this has happened at a time of profound global and regional flux. The growing competition between the US and China in the commercial and technological spheres, suggests not only that multilateralism is being challenged, but also that the incipient multipolarity of the international system displays growing contestation and conflict. Closer to home, the EU’s surrounding regions, both east and south, continue to be mired in state fragility, conflict and regional rivalry. From fragilities in the Balkans, the Caucasus, North Africa, the Middle East or the Sahel, to the conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Israel-Palestine, and regional rivalries in the Gulf or between the West and Russia, many of the challenges pinpointed in the EUGS remain as pressing today, if not more so, than they were in 2016.

On top, great power rivalry has found fertile ground in these fragile and conflict-ridden regions, exacerbating existing challenges as well as creating new ones to the rules-based global order. Nowhere is this clearer than in the areas of nonproliferation and arms control, where the US violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the Russian violation and US pullout from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty pose vital security threats to the EU and the world. Added to these geopolitical developments, are transnational thematic ones, notably in the areas of climate, demography and digitalization. Challenges stemming from these areas require multilateral rules-based solutions as much and as urgently. Finding such solutions represents the most consequential policy quest of our age.

Finding such [multilateral rules-based] solutions represents the most consequential policy quest of our age.

What does this mean for the EU’s role in the world?

Three years on, the five priorities of the EU Global Strategy – the security of the Union; state and social resilience to our east and south; an integrated approach to conflicts and crises; cooperative regional orders; and global governance for the twenty-first century – remain as valid today, if not more so, than they were in 2016.

In some areas, significant progress in implementation has been made. The security of the Union, notably in the area of defence, stands out in this respect. Europeans now know and are acting upon the recognition that security, including defence, is an integral part of the European project. The Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD), the Military Planning and Conduct Capability (MPCC), the European Defence Fund (EDF), and the Civilian CSDP Compact may be arcane acronyms to non-European observers. Yet for a Union that has traditionally struggled to make even the smallest steps forward together on security and defence, these initiatives, spelled out in the EUGS and implemented thereafter, represent a paradigmatic shift in the European project. These measures only represent the first building blocks of a European security and defence union. The road ahead is still long and bumpy. But the journey has begun.

These measures only represent the first building blocks of a European security and defence union… But the journey has begun.

International events have also increased tremendously the imperative of global governance and cooperative regional orders, also amongst the five priorities of the Global Strategy. With multilateralism becoming public enemy No.1 for Trump’s America, the first and foremost ally of most Member States, Europeans have been catapulted into a role of unprecedented responsibility. The EU is increasingly called upon to stick its neck out for the international rules-based order in all its manifestations. From the investment in the UN system, including key agencies such as UNRWA, to the implementation of multilateral agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement, to the steps forward made on the international trade agenda notably with Japan and Canada, the attempts made to save the Iran nuclear deal, and the support for regional organizations such as the African Union and ASEAN, the EU has become an indispensable leader in sustaining multilateralism worldwide.

Whether the EU will succeed in this endeavor is unknown. That without the EU’s active, creative and even stubborn commitment, multilateralism would perish is all but certain. Equally certain is that the EU, which itself represents the most radical form of multilateralism worldwide, would itself struggle to survive in a transactional world in which unilateralism and bilateralism are the norm. As in the case of security and defence, also in the case of multilateralism, the jury is still out on the EU’s long term success in co-leading a reinvigorated and transformed global governance. As in the case of security and defence, for Europeans, succeeding in this quest is a matter of survival.

That without the EU’s active, creative and even stubborn commitment, multilateralism would perish is all but certain.

The ongoing turbulence in our surrounding regions – both east and south – suggests that resilience and an integrated approach to conflicts and crises – prioritized by the Global Strategy – remain highly pertinent. Unlike the internal security of the Union and the global quest for multilateralism and regional cooperation, the challenges stemming from our surrounding regions have increased in scale rather than changed fundamentally in nature. In both areas, progress has been made by the EU, particularly as regards work on the security-development nexus as well as cooperation between internal and external security actors, instruments and policies. More remains to be done, however. On the security-development nexus care must be taken to avoid, paradoxically, a re-narrowing of the focus with security considerations high-jacking developmental ones rather than the two working hand-in-hand. On the internal-external nexus, the greater openness of the foreign policy community to work with internal security actors ought to be reciprocated on the other side. More broadly, more work should go into broadening further the joined-up approach in pursuing resilience and the integrated approach, particularly in key areas such as climate and energy. On top, Europeans who are increasingly aware of the tight interconnection between the resilience of the EU’s surrounding regions and that of the Union itself, should translate such recognition into policy.

Towards a more autonomous Union for a cooperative world

The EUGS provided the Union with a strategic narrative, to which all Member States not only continue to subscribe, but it is a narrative they have grown into over the last three years. The Strategy, naturally alongside with a set of political and policy developments that both preceded and followed it, also contributed to triggering several actions across the five priorities it pinpointed in 2016.

But this should only be the beginning. Underpinning a more effective EU global role is the ambition to become a more autonomous actor in the world. The goal of such autonomy, as the etymology of the word itself suggests – auto/self + nomos/law – is the ability to live by our laws without undue interference, attack and destabilization.The laws in question – national, European and international – are far from being protectionist or autarkic. Cast within an EU setting, which in itself is the most consolidated form of multilateralism in history, those laws cannot but be cooperative in nature. In fact, by becoming better able to act, Europeans will, by definition, be more able to work effectively with partners. The goal of autonomy is therefore not to act against, but rather to act with our partners. Only as second best will the EU opt to act alone

Europeans must unequivocally put their money where their mouth is, if their interests and principles so demand.

The ambition to be autonomous regards all spheres of external action:from security and defence, to trade and finance, from energy and space, through to new fields such as cyber and artificial intelligence. It therefore includes the sphere of security and defence – commonly known as strategic autonomy – which in turn implies decision-making capacity, civilian and military capabilities, as well as the joint willingness to use them. But the march towards autonomy is not limited to defence. All this, for sure, does not come for free. Systematic European cooperation, beginning with defence, does entail real savings through the reduction of fragmentation and duplication, and increased interoperability and economies of scale. However, it must mean devoting fresh resources to European external action. Europeans must unequivocally put their money where their mouth is, if their interests and principles so demand.

Clearly striving for autonomy is a long-term goal. The focus is on achieving a higher degree of autonomy compared to the dependencies that exist today. This will take time. But it can be achieved in the long-term only if action begins now.

The purpose of autonomy is not that of receding into closure and protectionism. Neither is it to play into the global power rivalry currently underway. An autonomous EU is one which is able to interact and engage with powers, big and small, but in striving for a multilateral and rules-based international order. This is ultimately the only way in which Europeans can protect and promote their interests at home and in the world, and live up to the values, principles, norms and rules enshrined in our Treaty.

[i] President Jean Claude Juncker (2017) State of the Union address

See here, The European Union's Global Strategy: Three Years On, Looking Forward

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData