Judy Asks: Can the EU Be a Global Player?

Lizza Bomassi – Deputy director of Carnegie Europe

Despite its regulatory and market power, the EU does not live up to its foreign policy potential. Its ability to exert influence largely depends on member states’ political dynamics and appetite for further integration.

Yes, it can, and it certainly has the potential. But does it really want to be a global player? It is an aspiration that remains quite nebulous to outsiders. This is normal given the diversity of perspectives inherent to the EU-27.

Yet, since the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, one of the EU’s biggest challenges remains the integration of a coherent foreign policy. The lack of cogency also weakens the EU globally when it has such a long laundry list of things it wants to do. In practical terms, it means the union usually ends up firefighting, stepping from one crisis to the next. This situation, coupled with often quite disruptive pendulum swings in its relationships with other big global players—not just the United States and China—but also with regional blocs akin to peers does much damage to the EU’s credibility abroad.

The EU is a big fish in the proverbial pond. But it is a big fish swimming among other bigger and more aggressive fish. It should focus on the things that it excels at—like its regulatory muscle—and find the niches where it can make a real difference and build lasting partnerships. There are key areas like trade, cyber, and climate which serve as testament to the EU’s potential, and these should be used as the inspiration to shore up its global ambitions.

Chipo Dendere – Assistant professor in political science in the African Studies department at Wellesley College, United States

There is no doubt that the EU can and will continue to be a global player because it is a huge market base. The bigger question in my view is how big of a player and what kind of a player. To that end, the EU—especially France—has to be willing to move away from colonial-type politics toward a more even-handed approach or partnership, especially with countries in the Global South.

France’s unwillingness to evolve and its desire to continue holding on to old standards of negotiation is to blame for the ongoing instability in West Africa. Germany seems to have managed to progress toward more modern engagement. If the EU follows Germany’s trajectory, then it will be a stronger and better global player.

Federico Fabbrini – Full professor of EU Law at Dublin City University

To become a global player, the EU would need to reform itself. Crudely put, there are several prerequisites to becoming a global player. Substantively, the projection of one’s interests requires a fiscal capacity and military capabilities. Institutionally, it requires a vigorous executive branch with the legitimacy to identify the interests and the authority to act in pursuit of them.

At the moment the EU lacks both, and while some member states have institutional structures that are suitable for foreign policy, none of them on their own have the substantive capacities to compete with world powers like the United States and China.

In this context, it is imperative for the EU to accelerate its integration, reforming its horizontal and vertical separation of powers—as the European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) just asked in its proposal for treaty changes. Only a stronger EU can protect the interests of its citizens and member states. And that requires a powerful EU democratic government, with fiscal and military resources to effectively pursue the EU’s strategic priorities.

Mamane Bello Garba Hima – Researcher at the Laboratory of Studies and Research on Economic Emergence at the University of Abdou Moumouni, Niamey, Niger

Yes, but there is a long way to go.

First, the EU must be coherent in its policies on economy and trade, security, migration, and climate change, especially in Africa. Indeed, for now, the EU is not recognized by others—for example the Sahel—as powerful in economic, military, political, and ideational terms. Nor is it credible, legitimate, or able to propose norms that others follow because of its double standards.

Secondly, popular frustration with the Sahel population—Niger in particular—is growing even among the elites and social scientists. The perception is that although the EU is different from France, the union always supports the French position.

Finally, the EU should stop being concerned about conducting elections—rigged or not—and about the lack of transparency in the management of African countries’ resources, such as uranium in Niger, where French industries are heavily represented.

Stefan Lehne – Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

As a multi-level entity with twenty-seven sovereign owners, the EU will never be very good at geopolitics. It is not geopolitics, however, but its economic policies that will determine whether the EU remains a player capable of influencing global developments or becomes a plaything of rivaling power blocs.

Many of the EU’s current policies—on trade, investment, competition, research, and technology—were developed in a benign international context, when economic relations were seen as win-win partnerships.

Today, at a time of the “weaponization of everything,” these policies need to be made more robust and resilient. The EU needs to reduce asymmetric dependencies, diversify supply chains, build strategic capabilities, and create mechanisms to resist economic coercion. Catching up on high technology, where Europe has seriously fallen behind, is particularly urgent. The completion of a banking union and a capital market union are equally important, as they will determine the global role of the euro.

A lot of work is ongoing in these areas, but the outcome is uncertain. Success will ultimately depend on whether member states are ready for deeper integration. But as the renewed rise of radical-right parties shows, the virus of nationalist egoism is spreading also to EU member states. It will require strong political leadership to contain these centrifugal dynamics and thus ensure that the EU can thrive also in a world of power politics.

Nick Westcott- Professor of practice in diplomacy at SOAS University of London

The question is less “can” the EU be a global player, because it must. The question is how?

The past eighteen months have profoundly changed the geopolitical landscape. China’s support for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, its expansion of the BRICS grouping, and President Xi’s decision to skip the G20 summit all illustrate Beijing’s intention to create an alternative global order to that created in 1945 by the United States and its allies.

But it would be an international order underpinned not by economic openness and growth but by political power and security. Global challenges, such as climate change, would be firmly on the back burner.

The EU’s survival in the face of this challenge requires a strong, consistent, positive, and united global role—all the more so as the U.S. political process will distract it for the next two years at least.

The war in Ukraine has worked wonders in focusing European minds on what really matters, though populist political pressure to go easy on climate and security policies and tough on migration will constrain governments. So, the European Council and Commission will need to show strategic leadership to demonstrate both the EU’s unity of purpose and willingness to act.

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