The first few months of the Portuguese Presidency of the European Union were not easy at international level. Although the rotating presidencies of the EU have played a lesser role in foreign policy since the Lisbon Treaty, what is going on in the world continues to affect the Union’s strategic direction.
And 2021 has so far been an intensive course in geopolitics for Brussels. From a dispute with a large pharmaceutical company to a series of disproportionate counter-sanctions from China, the EU’s foreign policy is under pressure. There are important lessons to be learned, however, including how the Union can turn the much criticized disagreement between Member States into an asset and use it to defend its interests and values in the international order. The central question for the EU today is: How can Brussels use existing political instruments and look for new foreign policy approaches that can be used in an environment of competitive interdependence?
Covid-19 is the main antagonist. This is what keeps EU leaders on foot at night. As long as the pandemic is not under control, economic recovery will be delayed and exacerbated an already difficult situation. Under this brutal pressure, the EU has to make decisions. In addition, the fight against the pandemic appears to be contaminating relationships with allies and adversaries.
It all started with AstraZeneca. It failed in its “best effort” to provide the EU with contracted vaccines and the European Commission had limited tools to remedy this. The export control mechanism that has now been set up was first used in Italy and has recently been strengthened. If Europe continues to lack vaccines and public pressure increases, the mechanism must be activated to make it credible. The dilemma is that if it does, it can undermine vital diplomatic relations and hinder vaccination efforts if reprisals occur.
The EU’s relations with Russia, Turkey and China were even more difficult. Relations with the three countries have deteriorated in recent months. The failure of the EU High Representative Borrell’s visit to Moscow may have clarified the state of EU-Russia relations, but he did nothing to improve the level of bilateral dialogue, the stated purpose of the trip. The result is a reformulated policy of “holding back”, “pushing back” and “engaging”, the practical implications of which are unclear – what does this mean, for example, “pushing back”?
Turkey is the partner you can’t live with, but you can’t do otherwise either. Whenever the EU thinks things are getting better, they get worse. A few days ago, after a video conference with Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, who called for “decoupling” in the Eastern Mediterranean to promote a “more positive EU-Turkey agenda”, President Erdoğan decided to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention fight. Borrell, who was quick to criticize the decision, reiterated two days later that there were “positive signs of Turkish leadership …” (in the Eastern Mediterranean), a position confirmed by EU leaders on March 25.
China is the latest lesson in this geopolitical course. After unanimous sanctions against four Chinese officials and an agency involved in cracking down on Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region, Beijing raised the bar with a series of counter-sanctions against European parliamentarians and researchers accused of “disinformation.” . In addition, the 27 ambassadors of the Political and Security Committee of the EU aimed to attack the sovereignty of their member countries. The EU’s timid response so far means that it has either been completely surprised by the strength of the Chinese response or that the Union and its member states still do not know how to react, which is often the case.
After four years of separation because of Trump, the EU and the US are back in a relationship. But to an open relationship. The fact that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Brussels for consultations with leaders of NATO and the EU on March 22-25 and President Biden addressed the European Council on March 25 shows that Washington is indeed back. This American return to a more constructive foreign policy is a window of opportunity that Europe must seize, not least because it can close with the US midterm elections in 2024, if not 2022. There is no time to waste.
As the last three months have shown, the Union needs a foreign policy that seeks synergies, but also provides for differences and uses them strategically in its diplomatic relations in coordination with the Member States. The time to learn how to do it is now
At the moment it may be more difficult to reach an agreement with the United States on vaccine exports than it is on basic foreign policy issues. There, as here, the main goal is to put an end to the pandemic. However, recent international developments and expected developments speak in favor of a transatlantic approach to Russia, Turkey and China. The relaunch of the transatlantic dialogue on China announced on March 24 is a sign of this. But not everything is a rose bed. The EU and the US view China from different strategic perspectives: For the US, China is the long-term strategic rival; For many in Europe, China is a key economic partner. And there are other difficulties: the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, commercial problems, and digital guidelines.
The central dilemma the EU faces in its relations with Russia, Turkey, China and even the US is often the lack of a common position and conflicting interests within the EU. When there is a common and clear destination for the pandemic and AstraZeneca, the tone with Moscow, Ankara and Beijing often sounds dissonant or unpredictable. These differences are unlikely to change and may become the standard as the Union’s external relations become more complex.
Instead of being paralyzed by the lack of unity, the EU should strategically exploit this absence. If at some point it better serves the interests of the EU, “strategic disagreement” should be used as well as the so-called “common voice” that is so dear to Brussels. As the last three months have shown, the Union needs a foreign policy that seeks synergies, but also provides for differences and uses them strategically in its diplomatic relations in coordination with the Member States. The time to learn how to do it is now. May the intense course of the past three months help in geopolitics.
The author writes according to the new orthographic convention