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Navigating a power political world
The world is in flames and the collective capacity of Europeans to shape events is under obvious strain. Beyond the immediate crises lie structural challenges. We all know that power is shifting, threats are rising, norms are eroding and the multilateralism system, which Europeans have always relied upon, is not delivering solutions at the speed and scale required.
So, things look tough today and tomorrow could be even harder. The question is: what to do? Here are four strategic choices the EU must get right: the first is conceptual; the second organisational; the third structural and the fourth positional.
First, the EU must develop a new relationship with the very concept of power. In today’s world, Europe cannot only be a norm setter, or model, or act ‘like a big NGO’: it needs to think and act in terms of power. This is not easy for a project whose origins lie in the very rejection of power politics. The genius of the original project lay in its commitment to turn political and strategic questions into legal and technical issues. It was a Copernican revolution and hugely successful among Europeans. But it also came at a cost: a reluctance to see that beyond our borders, power politics was continuing.
Of course, this is the Commission that promised to act in a ‘geopolitical’ way, i.e. using all tools to achieve its stated goals, breaking taboos as needed. This is precisely what the EU has done so far with Ukraine: financing military support to a country under attack, training its soldiers on EU soil, redrawing the continent’s political map by proposing candidate status. But since then, we have had the crises in the Sahel, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most dramatically, the Israel-Hamas war. Each case is different, but the EU mostly reverted to the traditional stance of being divided and essentially a bystander, commenting on the actions of others.
The problem in the EU is not lack of power but disjointed power.
Second, the EU must organise itself in such a way so that it can link issues, build leverage and do deals. The problem in the EU is not lack of power but disjointed power. Despite decades of talking about coherence and integrated approaches, decisions in different fields - trade, migration, energy, crisis management etc - are still mostly taken in silos. Each policy area has its own rhythm and rationale. The EU finds it hard to prioritise or do trade-offs across policy fields. So, we approach third countries with long lists of ‘demands’: on Monday it is deforestation; on Tuesday migration and returns; on Wednesday anti-money laundering; on Thursday it is climate finance and on Friday it is cybercrime. Every proposal or position has its own merit. But overall, we ask a lot; we are often seen as maximalist on human rights. And priorities are not clearly articulated.
Today’s world is more plural and more transactional. The EU should equip itself with a mechanism for doing ‘package deals’. Ways to do so could include strengthening the role of the HR/VP to ensure coordination of the Commission’s external policies and instruments plus bringing more strategic issues to the table of leaders in the European Council. Foreign policy is a matter for prime ministers, not just foreign ministers: they are the ones who see the whole chessboard and can engage in policy arbitrage.
The EU cannot duck the question of reforming its decision-making process any longer.
Third comes the ‘structural’ issue of how to ensure the security of the European continent. Here we need clear-eyed thinking on Russia and Ukraine. A free and secure Ukraine is vital for the freedom and security of Europe. As long as the leadership in the Kremlin is guided by the current imperial mindset, security will depend on the rest of Europe pulling together to defend itself from Russia. Concretely, both an enlarging EU and a revitalised NATO, acting together, are needed. But there are big choices and question marks here. How can an EU that has taken in ten more countries maintain its capacity to take tough decisions in real time? What doesn’t work at 27 will not work at 35. The EU cannot duck the question of reforming its decision-making process any longer. As for NATO, the big risk stems from the uncertainty related to the upcoming US elections. Europe’s leadership must take seriously the scenario of a future US President openly questioning the transatlantic security alliance. This is a major challenge in itself, but also one that risks triggering deep splits among Europeans about how to respond to it.
Fourth and final is the challenge of positioning. Europe will have to navigate growing tensions between the US and China, which will be the world’s main ‘structuring force’ for years to come. Pressures to ‘pick sides’ will grow. Europe is allied to the US, for good reason. And a recalibration of its approach to China is underway. But we should always do this on the EU’s terms and remember that our interests are not identical to those of the US.
Moreover, it is reductionist to limit our positioning to the US-China issue only. The world is becoming more fragmented and more multipolar. So we have a major interest in developing our partnerships with emerging powers and pivotal states across Africa, the Indo-Pacific and Latin America, issue by issue. This is about building a strategy for influence. It requires paying a price - in financial but also political terms - including policy concessions and relinquishing seats at top tables. But it is a price worth paying. As Javier Solana once said: ‘how countries behave when they are on top depends on the manner in which they have been approached on the way there.’