‘Outward-looking Europe’ needs to look inward first

By Pavel Dostalik.

With the recent changes in leadership of European institutions, the European Union and its policy priorities are changing too. The incoming Commission of Ursula von der Leyen calls for ‘more Europe in the world’ and promises to enhance external actions of the Union. At the same time, the ability to turn the Union into a geopolitical power depends on what can be dedicated to this goal. And as the debate about the next long-term financial plan of the Union develops, the actual commitment to a more outward-looking Europe, expressed in billions of euros, will become clear.

Despite the European Union being an organisation founded on and driven by values, the nature of the Union is determined by money. More specifically, it is the European budget, or The Multiannual Financial Framework, which dictates what the Union spends its resources on over a period of seven years. During this time, priorities of political leaders might shift, especially in today’s turbulent world, however, the manoeuvring space is limited once the budget is adopted. Due to the consequential nature of this legalisation, the debates preceding its adoption tend to expose the varying attitudes not only of political groups but also of the European institutions themselves. While the European Parliament usually calls for higher spending to boost the Union’s influence on the continent and beyond, national governments seek to avoid expansion of the budget as in the end, it is chiefly their contributions that fund the European Union.

In May 2018, the European Commission of Jean Claude Juncker proposed a budget for “a Union that Protects, Empowers and Defends” for the period of 2021 to 2027. In the draft, the Commission proposed an increase in funding from 94.5 billion euros (2014-2020) to 123 billion euros (2021-2027). This proposal was introduced to the European Parliament, which can amend the Commission’s draft budget, and to the Council of European Union representing national governments. This is where the battle begins.

Both the domestic and global events of the last year have led to a reassessed approach towards issues like migration, security and foreign policy. Since the last adoption of a multiannual financial framework in 2013, Europeans have witnessed unprecedented flows of migrants heading to Europe, the first-ever case of a Member State leaving the Union, the transatlantic partnership with the United States being questioned, a period of turbulence for NATO (which a majority of EU Member States are part of) as the commitment of the United States to common security seems to be weakened, and European allies challenging Europe’s ability to be an independent global actor. Together with Russia’s digital attacks aiming to destabilise Western democracies, these events put the European Union in a position requiring an adaptation of its strategy.

Secretary Pompeo Meets With European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen
Secretary Pompeo Meets With European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen by the US Department of State.

The European Union’s role in this area has its significance not only in the eyes of politicians. According to the spring 2019 Eurobarometer, a European survey mapping public opinion on European issues, 74% of Europeans are in favour of a common defence and security policy at the European level and 66% for a common foreign policy between the 28 Member States. The incoming leadership of the European Commission reflects this as President-elect Ursula von der Leyen promised to lead a ‘geopolitical Commission’ over the next five years, boosting the spending on external action by 30% in the next multiannual financial framework.

At the Paris Peace Forum 2019, von der Leyen spoke of an outward-looking Europe contributing to the fight against global challenges. “Europe needs to develop a common strategic culture”, said the President-elect, who promised to ensure that Europe is “well equipped to be truly geopolitical in the way it thinks and acts” under her presidency. The task of turning the Commission into an important geopolitical actor will be the main focus of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy, Spain’s former foreign minister Josep Borrell. In her mission letter to Borrell, von der Leyen emphasised the need for internal unity among the Member States when approaching external issues. The credibility of the European Union is strengthened by the unity of its Member States; however, this principle applies reversely as well – an internal division in the Union undermines the credibility of European actions on the outside. Foreign policy and sovereignty are inherently intertwined which feeds division. Not only the diversity of national interests but also the institutional decision-making framework concerning foreign policy works to the Union’s disadvantage. The result is a constrained manoeuvring space on the European level despite the Union’s potential leverage, which in many cases forces European institutions to give way to different national attitudes.

Josep Borrell, a top diplomat unkeen on diplomatic language and ‘beating around the bush’, now finds himself playing a delicate balancing game. On the one hand, his political approach is founded in strong and provocative statements that highlight the point of his message. Such an asset should benefit a complex organisation like the European Union and could finally give the European foreign policy a voice other world leaders would recognize. On the other hand, the never-ending interinstitutional debates over power, responsibility and sovereignty require a soft and deliberate approach from the Commission. National governments are hesitant when it comes to vesting more power over external affairs to the European level, and a loud and heavy-handed voice coming from the High Representative might result in backlash.

Political communication at the highest levels in Brussels has always been nuanced and Ursula von der Leyen is attempting to secure her control over the College of Commissioners as well. “To ensure our external action becomes more strategic and coherent, it will be systematically discussed and decided on by the College”, wrote von der Leyen in the mission letter bringing the High Representative closer to the rest of the Commission. Or, perhaps, putting the Commission closer to the world outside Europe.

Hearing of Josep Borrell, High Representative / Vice President-designate, A stronger Europe in the World
Hearing of Josep Borrell, High Representative / Vice President-designate, A stronger Europe in the World by European Parliament.

In the months preceding the start of her Commission, von der Leyen said many times that “the world needs more Europe” and her ambition to turn the initially administrative Commission into a source of geopolitical power for the European Union confirms it. The main foreign policy focuses cannot be exclusively on the neighbouring states: today’s globalised world requires the Union to expand its area of influence, as further destabilisation in Syria brings imminent consequences on the European soil, just like the expansion of deserts powered by climate change triggers further migration towards the continent. European foreign and security policy has indeed stretched its extent in the past years, however, without a coherent and resourceful institutional basis, it will struggle to reach the ‘geopolitical’ status. And yet, there are benefits of a strong geopolitical Europe beyond the Union itself. The European Union now effectively stands as the last global champion of multilateralism and without its voice, the ideological foundation of the Union could collapse in isolation.

No matter how ambitious the vision of the incoming Commission is, the debate over the long-term budget of the European Union will determine its potential to materialize the plans for a ‘geopolitical Commission’. And as it seems unlikely that this legislation will be adopted in 2019 as planned, we should look out for the crucial decisions coming in 2020. This means that at first, it is internal battles that the Commission has to ‘fight’ before it can look beyond the European borders.

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