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EU crash course in geopolitics: Lessons from the foreign policy 'battlefield'

Foreign policy / COMMENTARY
Ricardo Borges de Castro

Date: 31/03/2021
2021 has been, so far, a crash course in geopolitics for the EU. From a dispute with big pharma to a set of disproportionate countersanctions from China, EU foreign policy is under pressure. But there are also important lessons to be learned - including how the EU can turn the much-criticised disunity among member states into an advantage, and use it to defend its interests and values in the international order.

2021 has, so far, been a crash course in geopolitics for the European Union (EU). From a dispute with big pharma to a set of harsh countersanctions from China, issues of power asymmetries and influence are testing the Union’s foreign policy. If the EU were a company, its shareholders would not be pleased with the first quarter results. The EU and its member states ought to go back to foreign policy basics and take the lessons from the last three months to sharpen their collective role in the international order.

Where we are

Facing a state of permacrisis, the EU is rapidly learning what it really means to be a geopolitical player. For the moment there are more bruises than medals, but that is part of the learning process. The key question is: How can the EU leverage existing policy tools and look for new foreign policy approaches that can be used in an enduring environment of hybrid (and not so hybrid) competition and disputes?

COVID-19 is the foe among foes. This is what keeps EU heads of state and government awake at night. As long as the pandemic is not under control, the desperately needed economic recovery will be delayed, making an already difficult situation worse. This constant pressure has turned decision-making into an extremely difficult art. What is more, it has also contaminated the EU’s relationships with adversaries and friends alike.

It’s complicated…

It all started with big pharma. Astra Zeneca failed its ‘best efforts’ commitments to supply the EU with the promised vaccines to meet the continent’s inoculation targets. Consequently, the European Commission had to face an ‘adversary’ with limited tools. The way forward was an export (transparency) control mechanism that was first used in Italy, and subsequently extended and strengthened with principles of proportionality and reciprocity. If vaccines in Europe remain in short supply and public pressure mounts in the member states, the mechanism is likely to be used again, if only to make it more credible. The dilemma is that, in case it is used, it may undermine important diplomatic relationships with close partners such as the US, UK or Canada and could potentially undercut vaccination efforts if retaliation ensues. But this is the nature of the game.

Even more complicated is the relationship the EU has with Russia, Turkey, and China. Over the last months the ties with all three countries deteriorated further. The slap on the wrist that High Representative Borrell got in Moscow was directed at the whole EU. The visit may have clarified the state of EU-Russia relations, but it did nothing to improve the level of bilateral dialogue, which was the declared goal of his trip. The result is a refashioned policy of ‘contain’, ‘push-back’ and ‘engage’, somewhat reminiscent of different Cold War periods but unclear in its practical implications – what does ‘push-back’ actually mean, for example?

Turkey is the kind of partner that you cannot live with or without. Whenever the EU believes things are improving, they just get worse. EU top brass were left gobsmacked by Ankara only a few days ago. After an online meeting with Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen who called for “de-escalation” and “confidence building” in the Eastern Mediterranean to foster “a more positive EU-Turkey Agenda,” President Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the Istanbul Convention to prevent and combat violence against women. While Borrell’s dismay at that decision clearly demonstrates the challenges that a new positive agenda with Ankara faces, only two days later Borrell reaffirmed in a meeting of EU foreign ministers that there had been “positive signals from the Turkish leadership…”(on Eastern Mediterranean), a stance confirmed by EU leaders on 25 March.

China is the latest lesson in the EU’s crash course. After finding the unanimity to impose Human Rights sanctions on four Chinese officials and one entity involved in the repression of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region, Beijing immediately retaliated with a disproportionate set of countersanctions targeting those that Beijing claims are spreading ‘misinformation’, including parliamentarians and researchers. What is more, they were also aimed at the 27 EU ambassadors that sit in the Political and Security Committee, thus infringing upon member states’ sovereignty. The EU’s timid reaction so far, as well as that of most member states, implies that either the EU was surprised by such a strong move, or that the Union and member countries are still at a loss on how to respond – as they have been on many occasions due to conflicting interests, from Syria to Belarus.

…in a relationship

After a few years apart, the EU and the US are back in a relationship. The fact that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent much of last week in Brussels in talks with NATO and the EU and that President Biden addressed the European Council on 25 March, shows that Washington means business. Europeans should also be ready to reengage and understand that this window of opportunity may close in 2024, if not in 2022 already with US mid-term elections. There is no time to lose.

Presently, it may be harder to agree with the US on vaccine exports, than on key foreign policy issues. Like in Europe, the pressure to exit the COVID-19 crisis tops the political agenda. But recent developments and shared interests are also favourable to a more coordinated transatlantic approach to Russia, Turkey, and China. The re-launch of the transatlantic dialogue on China announced on 24 March by Blinken and Borrell is a case in point and Beijing’s ban may have helped kick-start it.

But differences remain. The EU and the US have distinct approaches to China and look at it from different strategic standpoints: for the US, China is the long-term strategic rival; for many in Europe, an essential economic partner. Nord Stream 2, trade issues, and digital policy, among others, will also continue to be irritants in EU-US relations.

Great powers speak unlike

The central dilemma that the EU faces in its relations with Russia, Turkey, China and even the US, is the lack of a common position and conflicting interests among EU member states. If on COVID-19 and AstraZeneca there is a common purpose and a clear goal, with Moscow, Ankara, and Beijing, the EU tune often seems dissonant or erratic. This is not likely to change, and it may well become standard as those relationships become increasingly complex. But instead of complaining about the lack of unity, perhaps the EU should make use of it.

Disunity” or divergent interests should be used as much as unity or a ‘common voice,’ if and when they serve the EU interests better. As the last three months have shown, the Union needs a foreign policy that anticipates divergences and, in coordination with member states, uses them intentionally in its diplomatic relationships, through public and private tracks. This is not about back-door deals, but about the art of diplomacy where discretion is as much an asset as strategic communications or public diplomacy.

The same can be said about the ever-increasing role of the European Parliament in policies with obvious foreign policy implications, such as trade or climate action. Today, the EU may have more leverage over Beijing because of the recent sanctions against members of the European Parliament and the need to ratify the bilateral Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). If China’s interest to finalise the CAI is genuine and not just to score political points against the US, then it will need to backtrack on the backlisted MEPs. Although this is unlikely to happen, the lesson here is that this parliamentary leverage was there from the start and should be used more strategically in the future.

Where we should be going

The EU should go back to foreign policy basics and make use of the power tools and the collective influence that the Union and its members already have – from its economic and regulatory clout to its political and diplomatic sway. But more than that, the EU must figure out how to use the diverging interests of the member states, each with their own history and traditions – itself a defining feature of the Union’s open, democratic and diverse political system – to its advantage. If Europe wants to punch above its weight, the time to learn how to do so is now.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is an Associate Director at the EPC, and Head of the Europe in the World programme.

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