Author: High Representative Josep Borrell

There is a considerable debate on the ‘how’ to build EU foreign policy and on ‘who’ frames it. The most important thing is how to avoid paralysis, because in most cases, Member States are very much divided. This inevitably leads us to the debate on how to make decisions. Should the decisions be taken at unanimity or according to the rule of qualified majority?

The consequences of not having a shared strategic culture must also be taken into consideration. Without a common understanding of the world, it will be very difficult to adopt a common foreign policy. In the end, European foreign policy is how Europe projects itself to the rest of the world and therefore the way to exert its influence (through sanctions, norms and standard setting).

There is less European influence then there ought to be. Yes, there is a geopolitical awakening across the EU, but translating this awakening into action remains a work in progress. The challenge for Europe is to ensure that as world history is accelerating, our response does as well, in terms of speed and scale. But that is not the case.

Foreign policy is a highly complex business, especially in the EU because it is not a state. In the EU, there are many actors and also many veto points. That is why the European success rate is often low. But that is also true for the foreign policy of superpowers. We must remember that foreign policy is about changing the domestic politics of other countries. What is foreign policy for us, means domestic politics for others.

It is worth distinguishing between three different types of problems:  first, the problems of dysfunctional politics, second the problems of power politics and finally the problems of collective action.

In many places around the world, the core of many problems is dysfunctional politics: a disagreement on the nature of the state and society. A lack of a political settlement and a lack of governance. From Afghanistan to Libya, the Sahel, to Lebanon, or Venezuela, the list goes on: the state is weak and contested. We call this ‘poor governance’. The key insight here is that the problem doesn’t lie in the lack of resources such as the lack of financial, natural or military resources. When you take a look at Afghanistan over the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of troops have passed through, hundreds of billions dollars have been spent in this conflict, and yet, in Afghanistan as elsewhere, what has happened is that local forces have not reached an agreement on a viable and legitimate political settlement and we, as outsiders, cannot do it for them. They are the only one able to do so, even if we know that this failure to produce functioning politics will inevitably have collateral damages for us, with increased insecurity, migration flows, etc. This is where our security starts. To get progress, we have to understand the local forces at play, be it Venezuela or Chad. So, one lesson I learned is the need to invest to truly understand local forces at play. What forces are driving the conflict? How can outsiders work along the local protagonists to build functioning politics?

The second category of problems has to do with power politics. Everyday we witness Putin, Erdogan, Xi Jinping and their behaviours: ready to use force, economic coercion and openly linking everything with everything. It is almost a cliché now to say that Europe needs to wake up and look at the world as it is, not as we want it to be. We must get rid of a certain naiveté and recognise that we live in a world where we do have many partners but also some strong adversaries — people out to harm us and our type of political system and society. Europe must be able to take care of itself. We cannot solely rely on the US, no matter how pleased Europe is to have America back with Biden, or on the approach which assumes that open markets and global rules will solve everything.

Open markets and global rules will not solve everything, especially after the pandemic. On the issue of masks at the beginning of the pandemic, and now regarding vaccines for instance it is clear that access depends in part on political considerations. The same applies to strategic investment: 5G, AI, rare earths minerals, etc. We must remain the masters of our own future and cannot outsource the protection of our interests. Hence this concept of strategic autonomymuch debated in 2020. In 2021 we ought to put it in action. This awakening to a world of power politics will require new mental maps and a new vocabulary. For more than eighteen months now, I have been fighting for Europeans to learn ‘the language of power’. We have more work to do in defining more clearly what our political priorities are, i.e to prioritise we must better prioritise where we can make the difference.

The truth is that Europeans have more power or levers of influence than they realise. When we put together our normative power (rules setting called the ‘Brussels effect’) — our financial assistance, our trade and investment policies, our CSDP operations, our delegations: it adds up to a lot.  But where the US is able to make ‘grand strategy’, where China does issue linkage under the Belt and Road Initiative, we, Europeans are masters of silo thinking and disjointed efforts. Each policy tends to develop according to its own logic and rhythm. The way to go is to use these instruments as part of one political strategy.

In short, in Europe we have a problem of mentality (reluctance to think in terms of power, priorities, trade-offs) and of organisation (linking goals and means) remains. But step by step, Europe is becoming better at this even if it remains a work in progress. The framing of China as a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival is probably the most striking example. These concepts are now leading to concrete and comprehensive decisions on investment, foreign subsidies, procurement, due diligence, AI etc.

The third category of problems falls under the heading of public goods and collective action like health (access to vaccines for instance) or action on climate change and biodiversity, but also the fight against extreme poverty and rising inequalities. The big issue here is that the multilateral system that has been created to handle these problems is being challenged like never before, precisely by power politics. Therefore, the WHO and WTO are struggling, the G20 and UNSC are often paralysed, and there is a growing number of problems without multilateral ‘regimes’, like cyber, AI, and other emerging technologies. The EU should do much more to revitalise multilateralism and make it fit for purpose. Europe must be ready to invest in multilateralism, building consensus among great powers if possible, and be more creative with the ‘emerging types of multilateralism, beyond the state-to-state’s framework. Experiment more with multilateralism and work more with regional organisations like AU, ASEAN, etc.

While this might be a sobering analysis, the good news relies on the fact that making a change is mainly down to us, and to the collective choices of Europeans. Above all we must change our mentality. As Luuk van Middelaar wrote in Le Grand Continent: “Where Europe fights to minimise losses, others fight to win.” We ought to change this situation. And I, as the HR/VP, will do everything in my power to push this agenda.

Before becoming geopolitical, Europe should become political. Geopolitics is geography plus politics. If you want to be a geopolitical actor, you must be a political actor first. And this means having a certain kind of political unity. For now, the problem is that the European Union is not political enough. Europe is not a political union, and actually it seems some Member States do not want to be part of a political union. The British for instance, left because of that, but there may be members within the EU that share some of the same outlook. When the President of the Commission said she wanted the Commission to be a geopolitical Commission we should take into consideration that the Commission alone cannot be geopolitical. It should be the EU as a whole because the Commission has only part of the necessary competences you need in foreign policy and defense. It is extremely complex to be geopolitical when you lack these two legs. The EU as a whole has to be geopolitical, but first, it has to be political.

We say we want to speak with a single voice. But we do not need a single voice, we need a single message. I do not mind if we have several voices repeating the same message. The problem is different voices with different positions. For instance, the strategic agreement on investment with China which went quickly in the last few weeks of last year before the end of the German presidency clearly responds to certain priorities which affect some countries more than others. For some countries, it is critical, for others it is less relevant. We have to understand that we have not reached the level of political integration that can allow us to be geopolitical in a way that the US or China are.

That is the reason why the concept of strategic autonomy is debated so intensively. It will be the first step towards acting as a third pole. I have spent the whole year discussing it, and I have the feeling that Europe has been playing word games. This debate has been increasing and again, one realizes that some Member States do not share the same view about autonomy. From a military point of view, they like to be dependent on the aid provided by the US because they do not believe in the idea that if things go wrong, Europe would have enough capacity to participate in tough situations. That is very clear on the Eastern border because they have the memory and the history of what happened in ‘39 and what can happen in the future. I agree with Kishore Mahbubani on the fact we are not going to see Russian tanks flowing into the plains of central Europe. Putin, whatever one might think, is not Stalin. However when you speak with Ukrainians and tell them not to worry about an invasion, they will reply that Russia already has Crimea. Everything depends on perspective.

The threats and challenges we are facing are not perceived the same way from Riga to Madrid. From Riga, the Sahel is not a problem, and in Madrid, Russia seems very far away. This is why we must work on a cultural process in order to share an understanding of the world. I am old enough to know that this understanding of the world depends on history and culture. Someone from Poland and someone from Spain cannot share the same approach to the US, because the Spanish have fought against the US and had one of the most awful wars against them, whereas Poland owes its freedom to the US. So we have to build a common culture, which is going to take quite a long time.

There is also the matter of identity. We have been very good at overcoming the fight between identities inside Europe. The German and French are no longer fighting about identities like they once did. They overcame the antagonism of identities, which is an extraordinary success, but we have not yet built a common identity. Yes, we are Europeans and we share a lot of common ground, but the feeling of belonging and being part of a political union remains flimsy. One realises the weakness of this feeling of belonging when the financial framework, which is the level of solidarity of the European people inside the European framework, is discussed. While it only represents 1% of GDP, it is over that tiny part that the fiercest battles occur as leaders want to deliver toward their national opinions. Above all, leaders want more than what they give, which is not a clear sign of a shared identity. This is something that will require time and will.

Concerning sanctions, I spend my time trying to understand the world and to travel, because sanctions are not a policy per se. In fact, the sanctions Europe can implement are not only economic sanctions – such as the American ones – but personal sanctions against individuals and entities. I am very much aware that using only sanctions affects our capacity of building and implementing our foreign policy. The treaties require us to base our foreign policy on our interests and values but also to stand up for them. Where is the balance between interests and values? Can we sanction everybody everywhere in the name of values? No. In fact, sanctions depend on ‘who’ and ‘where’ and are intrinsically asymmetric. It is clear that we do not sanction the same things everywhere, so we must look for a better balance. However, we cannot renounce on human rights violations happening inside the borders of Russia and China. It would mean that both countries could do whatever they want within their borders? Our public opinion will not accept this. In the meantime, EU Member States are always asking for more sanctions, despite their impacts perhaps being limited and the consequences getting costlier. The European Union needs to think about it and better coordinate with the US but the US also uses sanctions that the EU does not use because of the unacceptable consequences from a moral point of view. So, it is not easy to find the right balance between defending values and defending interest.

A common understanding of culture means a common understanding of threats. I am sure that in the US, people living in Alaska and people living in Miami all understand that China is a threat because they share the same political culture. For us, it is a completely different situation. The EU must build this culture with the knowledge that we will not play the role of being a leading military power in the world. The EU has to look at its economic strengths: on investments, foreign subsidies, economic coercion, the international role of the Euro, and our industrial policy. On many of these policies, we have been extremely naive. When China joined the WTO, the EU hoped that le “doux commerce ” would create a Chinese middle class aspiring to political freedoms and a multi-party system. And at that time the EU thought that welcoming China in the WTO could help to reach these objectives. Now we know this is not the case, quite the opposite. The Chinese Communist Party has had strong support for the last forty years that have been -by far- the best years of China since the discovery of the steam engine. The political system has continued to provide progress and as long as it will be the case, they will not change their political system, and neither will we. Once more, it shows the complicated balances that are crucial to define a European foreign policy.

On the economic side, I have been very critical towards our answer to the Euro crisis during my time as a scholar at the European University Institute where I had time to think, to listen and to write. Indeed, the European answer to the Euro crisis was a mistake. It is this kind of failure that we must avoid. When I hear people say that we must quickly deal to reduce debt and deficits, I think, “My God, let’s not make the same mistake again.” Look at what is happening today in the world: there are new questions and concerns. It is clear that the US is doing the opposite of what the EU has been preaching about economic policy for years. The fiscal push in the US is much bigger than ours. True, we started talking about a recovery plan last Spring, but an economic tool that takes a year and a half to be designed and implemented is not exactly the right answer to an economic crisis that requires us to act quickly. A year and half is too long to deliver. Europe decided to share a currency but we still have different economic policies so when we decided to work together, we spent one year discussing and another year implementing. But thanks to the ECB – as also happened during the Euro crisis – we are more or less surviving. To finish I think this idea of three poles is interesting and illustrates the quest for hegemony. In fact, why does the US worry about China? Is it because they are concerned the Chinese will land in California? No. It is about who is in command of the world. This is also why Europeans must consider to be more than the epigon and have their own capacity to act in the world.


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