Carl Bildt is the former prime minister and foreign minister of Sweden, and co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations. He co-authored, with Mark Leonard, the recent report ‘From Plaything to Player: How Europe Can Stand Up for Itself in the Next Five Years.’ Just the other day he wrote a follow-up for the Financial Times in which he says that “The horse-trading over the top EU jobs is over … [and about which I commented a couple of weeks ago] … 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 … [and, he says] … 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, Carl Bildt says “is the challenge that EU leaders must wrestle with as they try to set the union’s agenda for the next five years … [and he notes that] … The past half-decade or so has been particularly difficult for the EU … [because] … The Arab spring collapsed into brutal repression, triggering massive inward refugee flows … [then] … After its unlawful aggression against Ukraine, Russia went from prospective strategic partner to obvious strategic adversary …[and] … During the same period, China rapidly turned from being a benevolent trading partner to an assertive promoter of its own global ambitions … [next] … 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 … [finally, if that wasn’t enough the EU faces] … the unmitigated strategic disaster that is Brexit … [and thus] … It is a weakened EU that now faces the prospect of handling a much more threatening world.“
The new leadership in Brussels ~ Dr von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde ~ must, Mr Bildt says, “focus on upgrading EU capabilities to avoid sliding further into global irrelevance … [and he says, and I agree that] … 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 … [all of which is much, much easier said than done] … Looking ahead,” he says, “there is no reason to suppose that the global situation the EU is facing will change for the better any time soon … [because] … Should Mr Trump win another presidential term in 2020, for example … [and that seems highly likely] … 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 … [plus] … 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) … [and] … Meanwhile, China is highly unlikely to modify its course significantly — certainly not as long as President Xi Jinping remains in charge … [and there are no obvious signs of trouble on the horizon for him, and] … 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.” And those are just the big issues!
Carl Bildt says that “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.“
In From plaything to player: How Europe can stand up for itself in the next five years, (link above) he and Mark Leonard say that:
- “The EU’s foreign policy is inadequate to the task of keeping Europe safe in today’s world of great power politics and uncertainty;
- Over the last five years, trust between Brussels and member states dwindled, and policy came to reflect the lowest common denominator of popular opinion;
- The coming five years herald acute pressure on Europe, particularly as Russia, China, and the US undermine multilateral institutions and treat trade, finance data, and security guarantees as instruments of power rather than global public goods;
- The new high representative should move quickly to rewire European foreign policymaking to exercise strategic sovereignty;
- The high representative needs more support on this strategy – from deputies, special representatives, and foreign ministers tasked with specific roles;
- The new leadership team in Brussels needs to reoperationalise European defence, build Europe’s self-sufficiency through a strong European pillar in NATO, and consider innovations such as a European Security Council;
- Europe will only build greater unity by tackling controversial issues head on in the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council. The high representative needs to play a much more active role in these debates.“
Even allowing for my trouble with the idea that one can, somehow “reoperationalise” (is that even a word?) something that was never “operational” in the first place, how in the devil do they think that a Europe which, even without Brexit, is increasingly fragmented, can come together?
They concede that “The modern form of geopolitical competition puts the EU at a particular disadvantage. The very structure of the EU holds that global rules can govern economic considerations and keep them separate from geopolitical disputes. So, foreign economic policy issues such as trade and competition policy are the province of the Brussels machinery. Meanwhile, more traditionally ‘geopolitical’ considerations such as foreign and defence policy or relations with the US primarily remain member states’ concerns.” But they say that “Many in Brussels would reject the charge that EU foreign policy has weakened and even regressed in some areas. They would maintain that this remains a work in progress and that the last five years have seen slow but steady improvements in the machinery available to member states … [but, they add] … the world will not wait. Many of the trends that have put pressure on the EU could become more acute in the next five years.“
They have answers; Carl Bildt and Mark Leonard say that:
Rewiring Brussels ~ the goal, they say, is “not primarily to forge new foreign policies. Instead, it is to establish a machinery, an attitude, and a competence that member states can have confidence in. There are limits to how far Brussels can persuade member states to cooperate if they do not want to. But it can do a lot to induce them to want it. Brussels can set the agenda and ‘force’ member states to collectively address big issues they might prefer to ignore.” Given Dr von der Leyen’s extraordinarily narrow margin of victory and the all too visible fissures in Europe, I’m afraid that persuading European leaders to “agree on an agenda on ‘EU sovereignty in a multipolar world’ …[which would] … include: economic and financial elements (coping with secondary sanctions, the role of the dollar, payments systems, investment screening, and technology regulation); security and defence elements (promoting greater European responsibility and resistance to conventional and hybrid threats, including those in the cyber domain); and political-diplomatic elements (exploring European organisation on multilateral issues)” is not going to be easy. In fact, I suggest it is impossible to get Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia France, Finland, Germany, Hungary and so on to agree on much of anything, even on Europe retaining its “global green leadership” role, much less remaking NATO and reforming the €uro.
I think the authors can see the problems; I suspect they are right that the solutions have to be big and bold; I fear such big and bold solutions are socially and politically impossible when 27 or 28 disparate countries are involved. I continue to believe that the right answer for Europe is something akin to my multi-tiered cake approach. I continue to believe that a “grand union” (being a simple free(er) trade area) within which even Britain, Iceland and Norway would be comfortable is needed and upon that there can be several increasingly complex unions in which like-minded nations (say the Southern Tier ~ e.g. Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria) and the New Hanseatic League ~ the Netherland, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, maybe Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Sweden) would agree to sacrifice some national sovereignty in order to achieve, say, some common currency or open border arrangement.