Last week, three major foreign policy issues have moved the global audience: the use of chemical substances in Syria, the sudden inter-Korean meetings which led to unexpected promises from the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in the matter of denuclearization, and Donald Trump pulling out of the Iran deal (officially known as The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The European Union (EU) appears to have come out on the losing side or simply was not invited to the table.
Blows and backseats
With the rise of Xi Jingping in China and the election of Donald Trump in the United States the global stage seems to be getting back on track of realpolitik and power clashes. The EU had apparently taken a back seat in world affairs, showing up here and there with no major impact. A strong common voice cannot be found among the 28 members and no strong globally recognized personality has taken the seat of High Representative to this point. It is hard to imagine Federica Mogherini together with presidents Xi and Trump negotiating at one table. The Chinese leader has been masterfully playing the European 28 against one another and the trade balance has been significantly leaning towards the Asian power, while Trump acts upon his own will as always; unpredictable, unilateral and with far-reaching impact.
Europe’s current situation forces the EU to focus on internal, rather than external matters. Instead of the peaceful neighbourhood boosting economic growth and allowing to focus on comprehensive foreign policy strategies, the EU found itself having to cope with major conflict on its borders, be it Syria, Ukraine or even growing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in recent days. The influx of migrants as a consequence to political instability had member states focus on internal causes as a follow-up. The French-German axis power boost everyone had expected after Macron´s election had to be postponed due to Merkel´s internal political struggles in Germany and pressures growing from painfully slow Brexit negotiations.
The silver lining
Foreign policy of the Union, unfortunately, does not fulfill its potential and failed to build on its former moderate regional successes. However, European forces have been praised for their involvement in the fight against piracy around the Horn of Africa or set an example in the Serbian-Kosovo negotiation mediation. In the latest major event – despite not being able to provide a major solution to the conflict – all members stood by economic sanctions against the Russian Federation after the annexation of Crimea. The ability to act in unison has been proved also recently in the ad-hoc refugee deal with Turkish president Erdogan, despite loud criticism of several NGOs. Member States can come together after all, or at least use their right of abstention. Foreign policies of individual European states largely overlap and reinforce one another. Unfortunately, these mutual principles are not stressed frequently enough and efficiently used in common cause.
The capacity does exist, and it reaches beyond soft power. Despite the absence of a united EU military force, the Member States make up about 16% of global military expenditures. This amount places them between the USA and China. Moreover, commitments have been made to NATO to increase defence expenditures in national budgets. The biggest strength and negotiation leverage still remains the economic standing. Backing diplomatic efforts with economic triggers fits into the value standards and presents an effective means of conducting foreign policy in the modern era.
The needed push
The EU needs to strike a major political win soon as it has been playing the second fiddle in the political (gentle)men club of global politics for too long. A strong voice needs to emerge and promote unity among members in order to act on the global scene. The foundations have been set years ago. The opportunities are countless. Be it saving the deal with Iranians, which could have a consequential effect on the Koreans, or providing viable solutions to the neighbourhood drenched by conflicts where for now there is no light at the end of the tunnel. The means are definitely there, unite and use them.
Author: Petra Adamková