The horse-trading over the top EU jobs is over. Now that former German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen has been confirmed as the next president of the European Commission, the bloc must look geopolitical reality in the face. It has been steadily losing ground in a world increasingly dominated by a disruptive US, an assertive China and a revanchist Russia.
Although the EU punches its weight in global trade policy, the overall direction of travel is clear. This raises the following questions: is the EU willing or able to be a world power alongside the other three? Or will it simply allow itself to become a playground for their ambitions?
This is the challenge that EU leaders must wrestle with as they try to set the union’s agenda for the next five years.
The past half-decade or so has been particularly difficult for the EU. The Arab spring collapsed into brutal repression, triggering massive inward refugee flows. After its unlawful aggression against Ukraine, Russia went from prospective strategic partner to obvious strategic adversary.
There is no reason to suppose that the global situation the EU is facing will change for the better any time soon
During the same period, China rapidly turned from being a benevolent trading partner to an assertive promoter of its own global ambitions. And with the election of Donald Trump as US president, Europe was confronted with an administration that barely disguised its contempt for the principles and policies of the EU. On top of this comes the unmitigated strategic disaster that is Brexit. It is a weakened EU that now faces the prospect of handling a much more threatening world.
Things have been difficult in the surrounding region, too. Relations with Turkey, for instance, have gone into reverse, despite co-operation in handling the refugee crisis. And after the overthrow of Muammer Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has lurched violently from one disaster to another. The conflict in eastern Ukraine remains more open than frozen, while Brussels plays virtually no role in attempts to seek a resolution. In the Balkans, the hopes raised by the 2013 Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo have been dashed. As Jean-Claude Juncker’s presidency of the European Commission comes to an end, the accession process involving seven countries in the region appears to have stalled.
Nor is it easy to discern any substantive political role for the EU in the civil war in Syria. Here again it has been reduced to providing humanitarian relief alone. The EU has been sidelined, with Israel focusing on getting the US on its side against Iran and the Palestinians. Brussels is left an impotent observer.
The historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement signed with Iran in 2015, was arguably the culmination of a decade-long European diplomatic effort. But the US withdrew from it in May 2018, reimposing sanctions on Tehran and denying the EU sovereignty in its own foreign policy in the process.
There are some reasons for optimism, however. By concluding a number of major bilateral trade agreements, the EU has been able to build a front against the protectionist and unilateralist impulses driving US trade policy. Steps have also been taken to improve co-operation with Nato and moves are under way to improve EU countries’ defence capabilities. Finally, there is growing awareness of the need to formulate a more strategic approach to Africa — one that is not only focused on migration.
Nevertheless, dark clouds remain. As the new leadership in Brussels takes its place, it must focus on upgrading EU capabilities to avoid sliding further into global irrelevance. The EU needs to find a system for setting foreign policy that can better protect its strategic sovereignty. It should establish a political process at the European level that develops the ability to act independently and, at the same time, forges new mechanisms for encouraging unity among member states.
Looking ahead, there is no reason to suppose that the global situation the EU is facing will change for the better any time soon. Should Mr Trump win another presidential term in 2020, for example, the challenges posed by disruptive US policies will be magnified. And, in any event, a full-blown transatlantic trade war might well have already blown up before then.
In Russia, uncertainty and instability will increase as the end of Vladimir Putin’s presidency approaches (he is currently due to step down in 2024). Meanwhile, China is highly unlikely to modify its course significantly — certainly not as long as President Xi Jinping remains in charge. In the Middle East, the trend today is towards more conflicts rather than fewer. A war between the US and Iran, and the continued denial of the rights of the Palestinians, challenge core European interests.
There are other, newer issues on the agenda that also require leadership. We urgently need rules and frameworks for the new digital era, for instance. All of which means that the EU has no choice but to become a serious player in this new age of great power competition. Otherwise it risks irrelevance — or worse.
This commentary originally appeared on 19 July in the Financial Times.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.