A stronger Europe in the world will require clear messaging.

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

When it comes to foreign policy, Europe is awash with mixed messaging. There appears to be no clear strategy, and worst of all, no clear principles. It is very difficult to comprehend how the European Union will achieve its fourth priority “a stronger Europe in the world”. 

Ursula von der Leyen has stated that the EU endorses a multilateral rules-based order by ‘strengthening our unique brand of responsible global leadership’. In February 2021, the European Commission, jointly with the High Representative/Vice President of the Commission (HR/VP), Josep Borrell, adopted a strategy to strengthen the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism. It put forward an EU agenda promoting global peace and security, and defending human rights and international law, to create a more assertive and united Europe that would have strategic autonomy.

There have been some positive signs of change on this front already. Multilateralism and liberalisation of international trade, under the auspices of the World Trade Organization (WTO), remain the priority of Europe. In early 2021, the Commission adopted a trade policy review which endorsed this sentiment. Multilateralism has also underpinned the EU’s response to the coronavirus pandemic with €20 billion of support for partner countries, alongside vaccine development and deployment initiatives, including support for the WHO’s global Covax programme. However, protectionism has already caused tensions and rifts, and developing countries remaining bottom of the list for adequate vaccine supply.

Beyond the pandemic, containing terrorism and addressing the deterioration of security on Europe’s borders, in its neighbourhood and beyond, have also been a recent challenge. The Commission’s proposed solution is a comprehensive approach to defence which underlines the need to develop EU military and defence capabilities – We are back to the discussions of an EU Army! Hints of change for this were presented in the 2021-2027 multiannual financial framework (MFF) which, for the first time, included funds for initiatives related to EU defence cooperation.

Multilateralism is also back on the agenda with the United States but it is likely that any substantially renewed trans-Atlantic cooperation will only ever come with strings attached. The EU and US positions diverge in multiple areas, including on the very controversial EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment which was quickly rushed through the Commission during the Christmas break of 2020. Nord Stream 2, Europe’s pipeline with Russia, also does not sit well with either the US nor the anti-Russia propaganda machine of the European Union. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran remains on the table and efforts to persuade Iran to comply with the deal, despite US sanctions, continue without effect. Negotiating with Iran is something only China has managed – successfully agreeing a 25-year Iran-China strategic cooperation agreement. And, then there is Turkey, a host of press releases and visits which keep Turkey as a potential member state of the European Union but which at the same time condemn the actions of President Erdogan, whilst he is paid billions of euros from the tax payer’s purse. No one is exactly sure if any EU strategy actually exists for Turkey!   

EU foreign policy has allegedly prioritised the European Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans. An EU–Western Balkans summit in May 2020 promoted a new momentum to enlargement but that may have been due to the increasing influence of China, Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the region. Accession for any of the six countries looks very much in doubt, never mind the block as a whole. Reforms are slow and resolving long-term regional disputes remain a challenge. Additionally, at the same time, enthusiasm to join the European Union is very much waining. 

In other neighbourhood policy, as Europe seems unable to address its tensions with Russia there is little progress in relations to Eastern Partnership countries. The region should be benefitting from the duplicity politics where both the EU and Russia are funding Eastern Partnership countries to express their commitments and protection, but with so many challenges in those countries, funds are just flowing into fuelling tensions and people continue to suffer. In essence, the Eastern Partnership is nothing more than a pawn on a chess board.

Taking a look south, and the pandemic has caused social, economic and security nightmares for the regions bordering the Mediterranean, something that is now impacting Europe as migrants once again flea their homes in the thousands to reach the utopia of the European Union. With endless tensions in the region, from the new eruption of conflict between Israel and Palestine, to ongoing civil war in Syria and across the Sahel, the migrant flows are only expected to increase across this summer. This will no doubt bring another round of EU-Turkey hand outs!

A strong foreign policy requires clear messaging. Current communications and actions have only led to confusion in the minds of citizens and Europe’s foreign partners alike. How does “promoting global peace and security” equate to the requirement for an Army or justify the production and export of weapons? If Europe is defending human rights should it not stop trading with countries known to be systemically violating human rights? Has trade become more important than European values? The questions are endless but the answers from the policy makers are few and the transparency disturbingly opaque. Despite all the reassuring strategies and slogans, it appears that geo-politics, trade and protectionism will always ultimately triumph when it come to Europe’s foreign policy.

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