EU’s foreign policy search: The big test for Brussels

EU’s foreign policy search: The big test for Brussels
Ursula von der Leyen

Each of the so-called mission letters sent to her new European Commission members by Ursula von der Leyen concludes in this way: She looks forward to seeing her team — which has no fewer than eight vice presidents — working closely together “at what is an exciting and testing time for our Union”.

As they go through the files left in their in-trays by Juncker’s class of 2014-2019 and survey the union’s diverse political and social landscapes at the start of a new decade, her team members could be forgiven for suspecting that the years ahead of them will bring more in the way of tests than excitement.

The scale of the geo-political problems facing the EU cannot be under-estimated, as has been made clear by Ms von der Leyen.

Europe, she says, is not ahead in the digital race that is reshaping the bloc’s economies. China is now seen as a “systemic rival”, while the US — as long as Mr Trump is president — can no longer be regarded as a reliable partner.

The EU is Syria’s largest aid donor, yet it has had little if any influence in ending that wretched country’s eight-year war. Moscow, not Brussels, calls the shots in Damascus.

What’s required, then, is a more assertive Europe that can improve its “competitiveness and sovereignty” in a world which when viewed from Brussels is perceived as increasingly unfriendly.

The commissioner who has the unenviable task of revitalising the union’s global role is Spain’s former socialist foreign minister — and perhaps not insignificantly a vociferous opponent of Catalan separatism — Josep Borrell, who is now responsible for the bloc’s foreign and security policies.

He hasn’t been noticeably chipper about his prospects for success. This is how he has described the monthly meetings in Brussels or Luxembourg of the EU’s foreign affairs council: “It’s where all the open sores of humanity come. They tell us their sufferings, we express our condolences and concern … but no capacity for action comes out of it and we just move on to the next one.”

His compatriot — the head of the council’s Madrid office — is similarly glum: “The council is in a really low moment. Not only in its institutional shortcomings, but also in the political configuration of the leadership and the appetite for doing things. It is not really a place where a lot of things happen in decision-making.”

It sounds like a vale of tears, but perhaps Mr Borrell has a plan that might bring together 27 member governments, more than a few of which — including our own along with those in Germany, Austria, Italy and Spain — currently comprise unravelling coalitions of one kind or another.

A solution being urged, reportedly, by EU diplomats would see the lead responsibility for foreign affairs being delegated to one country. That would be a vacancy for which President Macron — whose ability to govern France successfully has yet to be demonstrated — has an application ready for submission.

His vision of what the union’s global and defence role should be, however, has few supporters in small and medium-sized member states, especially in the east, that have grown tired of what they see as a Franco-German hegemony long past its sell-by date.

Ms von der Leyen and Mr Borrell must look not only at the geo-political constellations beyond the union’s borders but also at those within them.

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