Santander is the capital of the region of Cantabria on the northern coast of Spain. In this city, at the former royal palace of La Magdalena, an international university to open Spain to the world’s culture and science was set up during the second Spanish Republic in 1932. When democracy returned in Spain in 1975, the Palace became again the siege of the International University Menendez Pelayo (UIMP). Since 2001, when I was a member of the European Convention, I have been directing there a one-week seminar to focus on the main topics regarding the future of Europe. The seminar is entitled Quo Vadis Europe? and has become a key event of public debate and reflection on Europe during the summer break.
This year, our focus was on how to build a geopolitical Europe. The 2021 edition has been indeed a very useful moment for me to take a step back from the pressure of everyday crises, share in-depth reflection with experts coming from the whole world and listen to the questions and worries of the young generations from Europe and abroad. In this blog post, I want to focus on the main takeaways of that fruitful and stimulating event.
In the opening session, with my friend Enrico Letta, (former Italian Prime Minister and currently Secretary of the Democratic Party), Nathalie Tocci (IAI) and Jose Ignacio Torreblanca (ECFR), we focussed on the challenges of a post COVID-19 world as well as Europe’s role in it. After this crisis, the world will probably be more digital, more Asiatic and more unequal. Undeniably it will be also more multipolar and conflictual. However, it will require also more multilateralism, particularly in the areas of health and climate. If Europe wants to play a key role in shaping this world, it must strengthen its internal cohesion and engage more effectively with all regions of the world, beyond our immediate neighbourhood.
For Enrico Letta, it is due both to Brexit and to Germany's change of attitude toward its partners compared with the financial crisis of 2008-2011 that we were able to agree on the Next Generation EU plan, which has been one of the biggest achievements of the European Commission so far. However, to enable us to effectively strengthen Europe's cohesion, much will depend on the quality of its implementation, particularly in countries such as Italy and Spain: as Letta pointed out, both countries will receive almost 40 % of the Next Generation EU funding. The implementation will be decisive to be able to perpetuate this type of joint action, which Letta considers indispensable, giving it in the future a more truly transnational dimension.
We continued the discussion on the implementation of Next Generation EU and what it particularly means for Spain, with representatives of all institutions involved: the European Commission, the Spanish Prime Minister's Office, the European Parliament and the region of Cantabria. The discussions focused on the indispensable rigour in the implementation of projects financed by Next Generation EU and the reforms to be carried out in parallel. This initiative is not just a countercyclical tool to face the pandemic, but mainly a way of preparing the future, of “building back better”.
The quality of the dialogue on this subject between the Spanish government and the European Commission was underlined by our speakers, as well as the significant differences in this respect with what had occurred during the eurozone crisis ten years ago. An important question, however, remains unresolved at this stage: how should the budgetary rules be applied after the crisis and how should they develop? Certainly, the pre-crisis rules have become de facto inapplicable due to the level of public debt reached. We need to start an open debate on this subject, which will not be an easy one, but important for the future of Europe.
In another session, my colleague Commissioner Thierry Breton presented the challenges linked to EU strategic autonomy in the field of technology and the action of the European Commission in this area. We discussed this subject with experts as Anu Bradford (author of the book "The Brussel effect). We must indeed build on our power as "norm setter", which remains a key strength of the EU. However, speakers underlined also that we must invest much more together in the high tech sector. Next Generation EU will allow us to do so.
We then debated the issue of human rights with Michelle Bachelet (UN High Commissioner for Human Rights), who described the difficult situation in this field on a global scale. The EU is undoubtedly the global actor that most prominently integrates human rights in its foreign policy, and the EU's ability to impose sanctions against individuals and entities involved in human rights abuses is significant and has a real impact. It has been further strengthened by the 2020 adoption of a new universal sanctions regime. However, there are still often contradictions between the EU's values and interests. Speakers stressed that this contradiction remains difficult to manage in our relations with the major world powers. And I am well placed to witness that in my daily work! Nobody does more than the EU on the defence of human rights, but there is a clear demand to do more.
We discussed how to align better our interests with our values. This can particularly be the case in the area of trade agreements, where the defence of social and environmental rights globally contributes to support our own producers. In that respect, the importance of the future directive on due diligence for multinational companies was stressed. It will push all involved private actors to take their responsibilities in that field. We also discussed the difficult issue of asylum and migration stated by the political philosopher Sami Nair. I stressed that we must of course fulfil all our obligations in the area of asylum, doing this as humanely as possible and coordinating better our actions. To enact a functioning migration regime, we need to fight human traffickers and also to develop legal migration routes, and increase our investment, cooperation and development aid with our partners, especially in Africa.
We had also a very interesting session devoted to the future of multilateralism in a more anarchic world. The situation is certainly difficult in this respect, but the outlook is probably less bleak than it might seem - as for instance the agreement on the taxation of multinational companies reached within the OECD and G20 framework has demonstrated. The issue of climate change and the COP 26 in Glasgow next November will be decisive in that regard. For sure, the EU will continue to put all its weight behind the reinforcement of multilateralism and the development of international cooperation.
We also had specific discussions about EU relations with Latin America, which is still not present enough in EU foreign policy, and with the United States, Russia and China. The latter was centrally referred to during almost all sessions. It is quite impossible to summarise here all these debates or to mention all the panellists, including MEPs like Reinhard Bütikofer and practitioners and academics like Ricardo Hausmann, Ivan Krastev, Andrey Kortunov, Alina Polyakova, Anne-Marie Slaugther and Carmen Claudin, to mention just a few.
Unsurprisingly, the geopolitics of the pandemic, the issue of the unequal access to vaccines and the effectiveness of the support to less developed countries was very present in all debates. Voices from South America and Africa were complaining about the big difference between the vaccination rates of rich and poor countries. In that respect, Europe is doing a lot, mainly through funding the COVAX initiative, but our actions often do not have same visibility of direct interventions like the ones of China and Russia. The EU exported half of its vaccine production, but we certainly have to donate more vaccines to low-income countries as the President of the Commission has recently proposed. However, it is important to keep in mind that the vaccines purchased collectively through the Commission belong to the member states, not to the Commission. For any collective commitment to donate a certain amount of vaccines, it is up to the members states to decide how many vaccines they donate, to which country and when to do this.
To conclude: the open and frank discussion we had last week on the main geopolitical challenges for Europe, with a highly qualified group of panellists and a very motivated group of participants, was a useful and inspiring contribution to the debate of the future of Europe. I am grateful to all involved who made this possible.