At the invitation of the Robert Schuman Foundation, I spoke on Monday on the topic The European Union as a global player. This was an opportunity for me to pay tribute to the Foundation’s namesake, the renowned French foreign affairs minister whose declaration of 9 May 1950 played a vital role in launching the process of European integration.
Seven decades on, our work is far from complete, especially in terms of foreign and defence policy, the area for which I am responsible. My talk, given from the perspective of early 2021, took stock of the five priorities that we will focus on to achieve our goal of making the EU a global player.
First of all, considering the growing number of significant challenges and threats on our doorstep – from the Balkans to Africa, and from the eastern Mediterranean to Russia – we must continue to devote much of our energy to our immediate neighbourhood.
As far as our relations with Turkey are concerned, since December 2020 Ankara has made some encouraging statements and taken a number of positive steps, such as resuming talks with Greece on the delimitation of maritime zones. Be that as it may, we need concrete proposals and tangible measures if progress is to be made. Our goal remains clear: we wish to leave behind the negativity that characterised 2020 and begin cooperating again. This will enable us to develop a mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey, which is both a neighbour and a key partner for the EU.
Our relationship with Africa will also be a key concern in the coming months. Given the current situation, our African partners will be paying close attention to the assistance we give them with overcoming the COVID-19 crisis, especially our debt relief efforts. The EU is also strongly committed to working with our African partners to ensure the stability and development of the Sahel region in the face of Islamist terrorism. This is a huge challenge.
Russia is another priority of ours. I am travelling to Moscow today, at a difficult time. The European Union swiftly condemned both the arrest of Alexei Navalny upon his return to Russia on 17 January and his sentencing on 2 February. We are calling for his release and continue to push the Russian authorities to urgently investigate his attempted assassination. We also condemned the large‑scale violent repression of protests in recent weeks. This crackdown has highlighted the dwindling tolerance for dissenting voices in Russia.
Nevertheless, Russia remains a neighbour and key partner with whom we must maintain a firm dialogue if we truly wish become a global player and be able to influence issues that have a major impact on our security, like the situations in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, Belarus and Ukraine. This dialogue is the purpose of my visit.
The opening of a new chapter in our relationship with the United States is also high on our agenda. Since taking office on 20 January, Joe Biden has shown us another, reassuringly familiar, face of the US. Our initial interactions with the new US administration have been very encouraging, laying the foundations for a principled, demanding partnership.
Of course, even though the EU and the US clearly still share common values, this reinvigoration of our relationship does not mean that we will always agree on everything going forward. Europe has gradually come to realise that it must undergo a transformation if it is to respond to the challenges of our age. A more strategically autonomous Europe will be a more effective partner for the US too. The EU’s priorities for its cooperation with the US include climate crisis response, trade and investment, and the regulation of new technologies.
As for foreign policy in the more traditional sense of the term, the EU and the US share interests in a great many areas. The crises in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood concern us both: we must work together to defend sovereignty and reforms in Ukraine and develop a robust, coherent approach to Russia. We also need to better coordinate our commitments in the southern Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
As the coordinator of the Iran nuclear deal, I endeavoured to keep it alive all throughout 2020. We must now work with the Biden administration to find a way of bringing the United States back on board while ensuring that Iran returns to full compliance.
Furthermore, we need to rebalance our relations with China. The EU’s unity is a core prerequisite here: no single EU country can defend its interests alone against this superpower. Cooperation with China is necessary in areas ranging from climate change and COVID-19 response to debt relief for poor countries.
Against this backdrop, the EU and China reached a comprehensive agreement on investment in late 2020. As a result, European companies will have better access to the Chinese market. We must nevertheless be realistic and make sure that China fully honours its commitments on issues like state aid and labour law.
At the same time, the Chinese government has plainly behaved unacceptably in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. We condemned its actions in no uncertain terms and will continue to do so. So depending on the area, we must continue to view China as a partner, a competitor and a rival.
The time has also come for us to implement European strategic autonomy. We have talked and talked about strategic autonomy as a concept, but the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to put it into practice. Strategic autonomy is not about ‘going it alone’ or adopting a protectionist stance, but rather about remaining in control of our own choices and setting our own course for the future.
This will require Europe to address its weaknesses in many areas, ranging from digital technologies and critical infrastructure to rare-earth elements, health and defence. Our next move here will be to adopt a Strategic Compass to serve as the basis for a European strategic culture and a common language on security and defence.
Last but not least, we urgently need to revive multilateralism. While the US’s return to the world stage is an important step in this direction, we hope that other countries – especially China and Russia – will agree to alter their overly selective approach to cooperation within the UN and elsewhere.
Even so, ‘a rules-based international order’ is never going to be as inspiring a slogan as ‘take back control’ or ‘America first’. For multilateralism to be credible again, we must ensure that it delivers tangible results for the world’s people.
This year, this is especially relevant for our approach to COVID-19 vaccines. With new variants emerging, no one will really be safe until everyone in the world has been vaccinated. This year, both in Europe and worldwide, one of the main questions on everyone’s lips is this: how many vaccines will we be getting, and when?
Given the situation, there is a very serious risk that ‘vaccine nationalism’ or ‘vaccine diplomacy’ may win out and richer, more powerful countries may put their own interests first. That is not what we want. While we vaccinate Europe’s people, we are also wholly committed to helping our partners vaccinate their people through such efforts as the COVAX global vaccination initiative, of which the EU is the largest donor.
Looking ahead to the COP 26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, our second major multilateral priority for 2021 is, of course, the fight against climate change. There will never be a vaccine for climate change: we must reverse emission trends without delay.
The EU has given itself the ambitious goal of being carbon-neutral by 2050, while China has announced that it is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2060. The United States has just decided to rejoin the Paris Agreement and must now set demanding targets for itself. We urgently need India, Russia, Brazil and other major emitters to come on board too, and will do everything in our power to convince them to do so.
In short, we have a lot of work ahead of us this year if we want to make Europe a true global player, even without the unexpected crises that are bound to arise, like the COVID-19 pandemic so devastatingly did in 2020.