In all this, think tanks play an important role, by bringing people with different backgrounds, together from all over Europe, and by injecting new ideas. I am always pleased to take part in these debates and I enjoyed the exchanges I had at the annual meeting of the European Council on Foreign Relations. For a good hour, in a conversation moderated by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, we discussed everything on the menu of EU foreign policy.
The starting point of our discussion was the recognition that the pandemic is acting as the Great Accelerator of world history. We have growing inequalities, within Europe but also globally – and even within countries - which risks creating a political backlash. We are seeing more geo-political competition, especially between the US and China, coupled with a crisis of multilateralism, with paralysis in the UN Security Council. This is a clear indication of the poor relations among the leading powers. There is also growing instability in our neighbourhood, East and South, with others not shy in using force, proxies or disinformation to get their way.
For me it is clear that it is not enough for Europe to define itself solely as a soft power. We have to be realistic and recognise the world as it is, including the inherently competitive nature of the international system.
I have said several times that we need to learn to speak the language of power. But clearly we are still in this process, while others have no difficulty in doing so: the US and China for sure but also Russia and Turkey. They think and act in terms of what some call ‘statecraft’: using all levers of national power in an integrated way to advance their interests.
In fact, Europe is much more powerful than it often thinks. We have to avoid a psychology of weakness. We do have many instruments of influence, things that people want: access to the single market, investment, research programmes, visas. We set rules and norms that have global relevance. And we are developing stronger security and defence capacities, even if there is still a long way to go. So we have a lot of cards but we need to learn how to play them politically in a better way.
As often these days, we spoke about strategic autonomy and how it can help Europeans to better address the threats and vulnerabilities they face. The concept originated in the domain of defence but has since acquired a much broader definition. For me strategic autonomy is a state of mind. We should look at the world through our own prism. We should avoid both nostalgia for a world that will not return and fatalism. We need to recapture a sense that, by acting via the EU, we can shape our future. Strategic autonomy is a way of framing our choices: we must be able to defend our interests, by ourselves if necessary.
It is clear that with the pandemic our appetite to think and act much more autonomously is increasing, from managing risks regarding supply chains, strategic investments and who controls future technologies. We should remember that the openness of our societies is key both for the effectiveness of our external instruments and the sustainability of our welfare states.
Naturally, we did not just discuss EU foreign policy from a conceptual angle. We talked a lot about Libya and the direct challenges to the UN arms embargo as well as the rising tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. I was recently in Greece and Cyprus and saw for myself the effects of Turkish actions (drilling, overflights etc.). The serious deterioration of our relations with Turkey is something that neither they nor we can afford. We need to defend the security interests of EU member states while working to de-escalate tensions and rebuild trust. At the very least, we need to be good neighbours of Turkey. I will be going to Turkey next week to take this forward.
We talked about the risks of Israel’s plans for annexation and the need to enhance our relations with Africa and the enormous importance and potential the continent holds. Moreover, we discussed transatlantic relations, the shared democratic values but also the disagreements we have had and the impact of COVID19 on the US’ standing in the world.
Our relations with China was another major theme. It is clear we need a more assertive approach where we combine holding China to its commitments to ensure more reciprocity and a level-playing field in the economic relationship with potential cooperation on issues where no global solution is possible without China.
On this, as on everything else, we need unity among member states and a bit of courage sometimes.
The good thing of the ECFR debate was that it was a truly pan-European one, with people participating from across the continent, with one shared goal: to make the EU a stronger player in the world. It was a small step towards that elusive but necessary common strategic culture.
You can find the link to the full debate here: