Shaping Europe’s Present and Future

After a decade of economic and political crises, the project of European integration continues to face existential challenges. But while some observers worry about the EU’s future, its High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is confident that through continued cooperation, Europeans can secure their interests even in an era of global upheaval.

An Interview with Federica Mogherini, conducted by Mark Leonard

As the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini has overseen EU foreign and security policy since November 2014. With her term coming to an end in 2019, Mark Leonard of the European Council on Foreign Relations asked Mogherini about the state of European security, the future of the international order, arms control, migration, and a broad range of other issues.

Mark Leonard: So far, the European Union has demonstrated an ability to maintain its unity over key issues like Brexit and the maintenance of the post-Crimea sanctions on Russia. Is this unity likely to hold in 2019, particularly given the looming EU parliamentary elections and changes at the top of the European Commission and Council?

Federica Mogherini: The unity of our Union is much stronger than often perceived. What I see in my daily work is an EU that makes decisions jointly, implements them together, and – especially in the field of foreign and security policy – acts as one. Many complain about the lack of unity. But my impression is that these complaints derive more from a comfortable cliché that is repeated on the basis of past experiences, rather than from a realistic reflection on the situation today.

Obviously, we need to define what we mean by “unity.” It doesn’t mean uniformity. We number 28 – soon 27, which is still a lot. With 500 million people, the EU is the largest integration project ever realized. The EU is the biggest market in the world, and the second-largest economy. It comprises many different cultures, languages, and politics. History and geography have given us different backgrounds. It is only natural that this translates into different views, opinions, voices – even within each of our democratic societies.

I have always refused to use the expression “the European Union must sing with one voice.” We need to use all the different voices we have, because our plurality is our point of strength. But we need to sing the same song, in a coordinated manner, like a choir. And in my daily work, I see unity of purpose, common decisions, and coordinated action happening. I don’t see this trend being challenged.

I believe a lot of people have lost trust in the institutions – all of them. But in most European countries, the EU is more trusted than national institutions. 

On the Brexit negotiations, the remaining 27 member states are more united than ever; and the decisions on sanctions with respect to Crimea have been taken, implemented, and renewed unanimously all these years. There are many other examples. Because we share the same interests as Europeans, I believe our citizens realize that – beyond slogans – the only effective way to achieve our objectives is to work together.

ML: You have called for Europe to defend its sovereignty by, for example, creating new structures that would allow it to continue to adhere to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Will these structures actually work, and could the special-purpose vehicle to maintain trade with Iran be used to counter other US sanctions?

FM: We are working, as a Union of 28 member states and with the rest of the international community, to preserve a nuclear agreement that has so far been implemented in full, as certified by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 13 consecutive reports. We do this because of our collective security: we do not want to see Iran developing a nuclear weapon, and the JCPOA is delivering precisely on that purpose. I start by saying this because I often hear that, on this issue, Europe is motivated mainly by economic or trade considerations. That is not the case: we do this to prevent a nuclear non-proliferation agreement that is working from being dismantled, and to prevent a major security crisis in the Middle East.

Part of this work requires us to guarantee that firms wanting to do legitimate business with Iran are allowed to do so. This is what we are working on right now: tools that will assist, protect, and reassure economic actors pursuing legitimate business with Iran. It is true that this situation has triggered a conversation on European economic sovereignty. We Europeans cannot accept that a foreign power – even our closest friend and ally – makes decisions over our legitimate trade with another country. This is a basic element of sovereignty, and it is only natural that this reflection takes place, not only in Europe but in other parts of the world, too.

ML: The US decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) is a clear sign that US-Russia relations are as strained as at any time in three decades. So far, Europe has been unable to take decisive steps to defend the global disarmament order. What can the EU do to maintain nuclear stability in Europe, and to avoid the resumption of a missile race on the continent?

FM: The INF contributed to the end of the Cold War – and no one in Europe wants to go back to those dark days. Europe was the battlefield of superpowers, and we all lived under the constant threat of a nuclear war. Preventing a new arms race is in our collective interest. That is why we have asked the United States to consider the consequences its possible withdrawal from the INF will have on its own security, and on our collective security. And, we expect the Russian Federation to address serious concerns regarding its compliance with the INF. The current disarmament and non-proliferation architecture needs to become more universal, as a guarantee for all.

We Europeans are working at all levels to promote the universalization of existing agreements, such as the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. The starting point cannot be to dismantle the current architecture and start from scratch. That is a risk that nobody can afford. Non-proliferation is a field where it is essential to exercise collective responsibility, as the stakes are too high for all.

ML: Five years after the invasion of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in eastern Ukraine, peace in that country seems as far away as ever. What, if anything, can Europe do to dampen the prospects of renewed violence, and will the EU remain united in its position toward Russia, particularly concerning sanctions?

FM: Peace in eastern Ukraine is something that the EU continues to work for every day. The sanctions are part of a broader framework. We have mobilized the biggest-ever assistance package from the EU to any country – almost €14 billion ($16 billion) since 2014. This also includes specific support to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission, and an EU Advisory Mission that is working on civilian security-sector reform.

We are focusing, in particular, on local governance and local development in the east of the country. And we are following discussions at the United Nations on a possible UN peacekeeping mission, although there hasn’t been much progress on that in recent months. I expect the economic sanctions to remain in place, because the reasons for imposing them – to advance the full implementation of the Minsk Agreements and restore Ukraine’s territorial integrity – still stand.

ML: Can more be done to deter Russia from interfering in European elections?

FM: There are a number of actions we are taking to guard against the challenge of external interference, no matter where it may come from: building up our cybersecurity capacities; improving the protection of personal data; guaranteeing the transparency of online political advertising; and improving cooperation among EU member states, and with our global partners.

We have also made it possible to introduce sanctions for cyberattacks, which sends a strong message that such hostile activity will not be tolerated and will have serious consequences. There is another strand of work, however, which needs to be reinforced, and that is empowering our citizens to make informed democratic choices. This is the best way to protect our democracies from all sorts of disinformation.

ML: Europe now often seems to be the last big voice defending the liberal international order and open trading system. What can it do to encourage China, India, and other powers to make a firmer commitment to the liberal order?

FM: First of all, we must guarantee the highest standards inside our Union, to keep our own societies open, respectful, and free. It is a matter of conformity with our values, but also of credibility in our external action. Beyond that, this is indeed a crucial moment to protect and advance a more cooperative and multilateral global order. Many powers around the world want to cooperate with the EU to preserve open markets and to make global institutions fit for our multipolar world. We don’t all share the same principles and values: we know these are tough times in terms of human rights in many parts of the world. But the best way we have to promote human rights – or a fairer form of globalization – is through engagement with all interlocutors.

We are the only power that engages in regular human-rights dialogue in all corners of the world. And our new generation of trade agreements includes strong protections for workers’ rights, intellectual property, and the environment. They are agreements for free and fair trade. This is the time for the EU to place itself at the center of a network of likeminded partners around the world, one that promotes and strengthens multilateralism and a rules-based international order.

ML: Why has Europe’s weight in its neighborhood decreased, especially when it comes to shaping events in Turkey, Libya, and Syria? Is this an indication that Europe will not be one of the great powers of the twenty-first century?

FM: Our destiny is in our own hands. If we want to play a decisive role, not only in our region but also globally, we have all the right instruments to do so – and we have the weight to do so. Let me add that this is also what our partners around the world expect from us, particularly in these difficult times. To play such a role, Europeans need to realize how big and powerful they are when they act together as a Union, and focus more on the responsibility we can exercise on the global scene if we resist the temptation of inward-looking policies – or rather, politics.

Our greatest enemy is a lack of trust in the means at our disposal. The EU has unparalleled “soft” power – in economic, diplomatic, and cultural terms – and we are increasingly active as a global security provider, building our “hard” power as never before. In Syria and Libya, we are not a military player – and I am proud of this. Violence has brought more violence, while we have always worked for peaceful and negotiated solutions.

Does this mean we are powerless? Quite the contrary. At the UN General Assembly this year, more than 50 countries and organizations took part in the discussion we initiated on Syria, to support the difficult work the UN is doing there. Everyone understands that the EU’s role in Syria and Libya is unique and irreplaceable: we talk to all parties and are an honest broker and indispensable partner in the effort to ensure peace, security, and stabilization. Too often, we do not realize our own potential and power. Our partners sometimes see it more clearly than Europeans do.

ML: What impact will Britain’s exit from the EU have on the EU’s security strategy? Will it help forge a stronger consensus?

FM: I have no doubt that our future is one of close partnership and cooperation. If you look at what has happened since the Brexit referendum in 2016, we are still making unanimous decisions on foreign, security, and defense policies: we reacted as one to the nerve-agent attack in Salisbury, England, earlier this year; we continue to work together when it comes to preserving the Iran nuclear deal; and we are pursuing shared objectives in Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

In the coming months, I will present a proposal for a new way of collaborating with non-EU countries and international organizations that are involved in EU civilian and military operations, or that are otherwise associated with our security and defense policies. This will also be an essential part of our future relationship with the UK. We will seek ways for non-EU countries to participate in defense projects launched under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework.

ML: The Franco-German engine has long been seen as essential to formulating and implementing successful EU policies, both internal and external. For years, it was said that Germany was waiting for an effective French partner. In French President Emmanuel Macron, the Germans appear to have one, but Germany itself, afflicted with a kind of political paralysis, now seems to be turning inward. Where do you see Franco-German relations headed in the year ahead?

FM: European integration was originally driven by the Franco-German engine, but it has always been a much larger project. Its strength has always been its attractiveness. Two years ago, when we decided to take some unprecedented steps toward establishing a “Europe of Defense,” I was immediately supported by the defense ministers of four countries: France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. But less than a year later, as many as 25 member states had agreed to launch PESCO. When the benefits of cooperation and integration are clear, when the added value of our Union is self-evident, all EU member states focus on their common interest and move forward together.

ML: What do you believe foreign policy can and should do to fight populism?

FM: I don’t like the expression “populism.” I believe a lot of people have lost trust in the institutions – all of them. But in most European countries, the EU is more trusted than national institutions. The reaction coming from some political forces is to shift the blame and find a scapegoat. Governments come to Brussels, make decisions by unanimity, and then blame the results on the EU. But the Union is what we make of it. We have a collective responsibility to make it work. It is a reflection of our own collective political will.

In these past few years, our foreign policy has advanced and protected European citizens’ interests and values in a way that no member state could have achieved alone. In today’s world, even the “bigger” member states are small, such that national sovereignty can be effectively exercised only through the EU. We show this every day in our foreign policy. We are more effective at negotiating trade deals as the world’s largest market than as 28 separate countries. We have a bigger impact when we address climate change collectively than we would if each country moved at its own pace. We see the benefits of cooperating among ourselves when it comes to enhancing security in our partner countries. We are stronger and much more effective together.

Those who want to dismantle or weaken the EU are trying to weaken the most powerful instrument we Europeans have to exercise our sovereignty. This might be in the interest of our competitors in the world, but it is definitely not in the interest of European citizens.

ML: If there is a populist surge in the upcoming European Parliament elections, what lessons should Brussels take from it, and what new course would you advocate?

FM: Whatever the result of the election, the lessons will have to be taken not so much “in Brussels” but everywhere around the Union, and most of all in member states’ capitals. EU policies and actions are defined through our collective work, which is the result of our political will. If it works, it is a collective success for all of us; if it fails, it is a collective responsibility, and a problem for all. No one is excluded.

The EU is not a building in Brussels. It is a project of 500 million citizens, their national governments, the parliamentary members they elect to represent them, and the European Commission that those MEPs elect. I personally believe that Europeans need their Union, and need to change some of the policies that the EU has put in place. This is something we have begun to do in recent years: deepening European integration on security and defense; establishing a strong and united external policy to govern migration flows; and launching the largest-ever investment plan for Europe and Africa.

Some want to change EU policies to improve them – even radically – but others just want to destroy the Union. We have to be very careful, because in times of frustration, destruction can sound fascinating for many. And yet the secret of change is to focus not on destroying the old, but on building the new. I hope this will be possible in 2019.

ML: At your European Parliament talk with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates in October, you spoke about the need for the EU to be “generously selfish” in its future relationship with Africa. Can you explain how you see this working in practice? What’s the right balance between sacrificing values and dampening the desire to migrate?

FM: This is not about sacrificing our values – in fact, the exact opposite is true. We must realize that our interests and values coincide. Our values tell us that all people should have the right to follow their dreams and aspirations, to contribute to their countries’ public life, and to live free from fear. Too many Africans do not enjoy these rights, and this is hampering Africa’s immense potential.

We Europeans have an interest in a stronger Africa, because that will also make Europe stronger. In practice, this means that Africa needs more jobs, better education, stronger democracies, sustainable development, and a more stable security environment.

We Europeans have an interest in a stronger Africa, because that will also make Europe stronger. In practice, this means that Africa needs more jobs, better education, stronger democracies, sustainable development, and a more stable security environment. The decision to leave your home country is never easy. Africa’s youth would like to find the opportunities they seek within their home countries. They would like to change their countries’ economies and political systems, instead of changing countries altogether. This is what the Africans are asking us: to work with them, so that they can help Africa realize its huge potential.

ML: Do recent developments in the EU’s external approach to migration in places like Africa and the Middle East signal a move away from “emergency responses” and toward long-term solutions?

FM: Not just the recent developments. This has been the goal of our external action on migration since the very beginning. Let me remind you of the situation three years ago: hundreds of people were dying almost every day in the Mediterranean and in the North African desert. Until then, the EU had been indifferent to a phenomenon that it considered to be outside its competence and under the exclusive purview of individual member states.

This has changed, finally. We had to create an emergency response to end the carnage, and we did it with Operation Sophia at sea and the Emergency Trust Fund to finance our work with Africa. At the same time, we started to work on a better system to manage migration flows and address their long-term causes. We started to train local security forces; we worked on voluntary returns for migrants, with the opportunity to start a new life; and we established our investment plan for Africa and Europe’s neighborhood.

Today, I believe we all understand that the right approach is to forge partnerships with countries of origin and transit, and with organizations such as the UN and the African Union. Today we must change course on the internal policies governing migration and introduce a principle of solidarity among Europeans that is currently still very much opposed by some member states. At the same time, we must continue on the same path with our external policies on migration. That means getting more investment from member states, avoiding U-turns, and doing much more to open safe and regular pathways for human mobility.

ML: You have been involved in episodes and negotiations affecting the course of global affairs. Are there any that you would like to revisit?

FM: In my job, the important thing is to look forward, rather than to look back. It sounds obvious, but that is how things work. You cannot change the past; you can only focus on shaping the present and the future. That means having ambitious but realistic objectives, and building partnerships to try to achieve them together with others, in a cooperative manner.

ML: As you complete your term as EU High Commissioner, what do you think are the top three examples of the added value of the European External Action Service, compared to the pre-Lisbon Treaty institutional setup?

FM: I remember the discussions from ten years ago, when the Lisbon Treaty was approved. Many believed that the High Representative would have an impossible job, with three “hats” – as vice president of the Commission, chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, and head of the European Defense Agency. In fact, the intuition behind that job description has been fully vindicated. The EU has an unparalleled set of foreign- and security-policy tools, and only with three hats is it possible to mobilize our foreign policy’s full potential.

That means that I chair the meetings of foreign, defense, and development ministers. I take part in the European Council. I coordinate the group of commissioners dealing with external action. I work with our military and civilian personnel on security and defense issues. And I can rely on our remarkable diplomatic service, with talented professionals at headquarters and a network of 140 embassies around the world.

Without all of this, our work to build a “Europe of Defense” would not have been possible, and our strong partnership with Africa – starting with migration, but going well beyond that – would not exist. The same goes for the Iran nuclear deal, our trade agreements around the world, the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, and all the vital work we do with the Balkans to work for peace, reconciliation, regional integration, and economic development in the heart of Europe.

Federica Mogherini is High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission. Mark Leonard is Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

This article originally appeared on 8 January 2019 on Project Syndicate

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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