The new European Commission is ambitious about improving the EU’s capacity to act on the international stage and ability to respond to the challenges of the next decade. But policymakers should understand that solving internal challenges and divisions is just as crucial as facing external crises.
Due to its focus on economic integration, the EU has often struggled to respond to geopolitical crises it has had to face during the last decade. The new leadership of the European Commission, as well as several EU leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron, is planning to change this in the near future, arguing that Europe needs to develop the means of becoming a geopolitical actor.
At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, the Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, argued that Brussels should complement its diplomatic efforts in Libya with hard power measures. The High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, said Europe should develop an “appetite for power” in its security and defence policy. Macron has been pushing for greater military capabilities for the EU, arguing that it would bring “credibility in terms of foreign policy”.
Such comments raise the expectations that Europe could finally overcome its classical dilemma of not living up to its foreign policy ambitions. But, as it thinks about how to respond to the challenges of the next decade, the new EU leadership must also consider internal obstacles and relations between the EU institutions and EU27 member states that prevent progress on this issue.
Foreign and defence policies are still run by member states, and there is no commonly held desired level of integration in defence. On one hand, there is an increased desire to move on in the sphere of defence – including spending and procurement – even though it is too premature to speak of a ‘European army’. Von der Leyen is planning to push for “a genuine European Defence Union” in the next five years.
On the other hand, several member states fear that it would affect transatlantic relations and refuse to contribute more. In an attempt to find a compromise between the different security interests of the EU27, the Commission presented a Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) proposal which cut funds from several defence initiatives such as space programmes, and consequently reduces Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ ambitions.
There is also a lack of coherence between different initiatives at the EU level (such as PESCO and the European Defence Fund) and outside of EU structures (such as the European Intervention Initiative, set up under France’s leadership). This is partly due to the differences in French and German visions and strategic cultures. Under Macron’s leadership, Paris is eager to emphasise capabilities and preparedness to respond to crises together, while Berlin follows a more integrationist approach.
Another internal challenge is the inability, or unwillingness, to change European voting rules in foreign and security policy. The Commission is pushing to move to qualified majority voting (QMV) on some foreign policy issues, as unanimity voting effectively gives a veto to all member states and constitutes an easy obstacle to efficient decision making.
Recently, Austria blocked the creation of a new EU mission in the Mediterranean, arguing that it would encourage more migration flows to Europe. Hours of discussion were needed before a common decision could be found. Such an approach is not reliable in the event of a crisis situation that requires an urgent response. As many member states do not show the political will to change voting rules, internal divisions will continue to plague the EU’s ability to act effectively.
Finally, there are visible internal disagreements about how to deal with the neighbourhood, whether it is the enlargement process in the Western Balkans, relations with Russia, or the conflict in Libya. The EU27 will now have to reconsider the format for its new security relationship with the UK, which will remain a major defence actor on the European continent. So far Brussels has been reluctant to grant the UK a special status in EU defence initiatives, meaning bilateral relationships, ad hoc meetings, or a new European Security Council with the UK’s participation could be the way to go.
Policymakers in Brussels and many national capitals would like the EU to be more relevant on the international stage in the next decade, but there is still much confusion about how this should be achieved. Going beyond the lowest common denominator will be crucial for Europe to develop its ‘strategic autonomy’. Nevertheless, current internal divisions between member states over issues such as the direction of defence integration, voting rules, or dealing with neighbours are likely to persist and be as challenging as any external crises the EU will face.
Anna Nadibaidze is an analyst of European politics focusing on foreign policy and security.