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Thank you very much for inviting me here. Thank you first and foremost for all the good work we have done together in these five years. Thank you also because this gives me the opportunity to look in strategic terms, with a little bit more of a perspective, in hours that are worrying hours for the developments that are happening in particular in Syria in this very moment. We will discuss that in the European Parliament later today. I want to thank you for the invitation. I would also like to thank the authors [Nicoletta Pirozzi and Vassilis Ntousas] of this paper [“Walking the Strategic Talk. A Progressive EU Foreign Policy Agenda for the Future”] that has been just presented, for the policy recommendations. The basic idea of the Global Strategy was always to move "from vision to action", or to use your words, to "walk the strategic talk".
In many of your recommendations that I have seen, I find exactly the same spirit that has led us in these years, and some of the steps that are necessary from now on to complete that work or consolidate it, so that it becomes a stable building block of the European Union policy. I will say more about this in a minute, but allow me to begin with a broader question: Is there space for a progressive foreign policy in these times of great power competition? My answer is: yes, definitely there is the need, now more ever, to have that space. There is the need for a progressive foreign policy, as a credible alternative to current trends.
But there is a mistake that we cannot make, as progressives. We cannot afford to just look back at the past, in search for some golden age of international affairs – even if from time to time I miss part of the environment that I was operating in in different years. Today, the foreign policy debate is too often presented as a clash between two backward-looking options. On one side, there is a reactionary position: the position of those who want to destroy everything that was achieved in these years, go back to a foreign policy based on nationalism and power politics. This reactionary option has led to probably one of the most violent attacks – if not the most violent attack - against multilateralism and the UN system since its foundation.
The alternative to this reactionary position cannot be conservative. The alternative is not to keep the international system as it is - that is the point. A progressive foreign policy is about shaping a more cooperative system for global governance, preserving the achievements of the past but at the same time always trying to build on them, and to move one step forward.
At the beginning of my five years in office, we Europeans contributed to what has been a moment of true progress in global politics – I would say an expansion phase for multilateralism. Back in 2015 and 2016, we helped build a new wave of multilateral agreements – if you think of the Paris Agreement on Climate, the Sustainable Development Goals under the UN umbrella, and the nuclear deal with Iran that was perhaps our biggest success. We then tried to use this opportunity that was opened up with the Iran deal to set up a new regional and global environment to try to address the Syrian crisis. Just a few weeks after the nuclear deal with Iran was achieved, we established the International Syria Support Group – at the time it was the first time ever that we managed to gather all the relevant international, regional players on the Syrian file around the same table. And in the same years, we also worked with all other global powers to revitalise the Middle East Quartet – this seems very long ago and it is.
It was a moment of hope. But after such expansion phase for multilateralism, a contraction phase has followed. So it is only natural, I believe, that the European Union and Europeans in general have worked first and foremost to preserve our common achievements – from the Iran deal to the Paris agreement, with a very strong investment in saving the UN system. First of all, the values, but also – very practically - the UN agencies, for instance those that were going through serious budgetary crises.
But we have also tried to reform and expand the system as we preserved the achievements. We have in some cases managed to “create” multilateralism, even in a very difficult environment. Let me just mention four ways in which we have tried to "defend and transform" – to use your own words - the multilateral system. Four progressive ideas that have shaped our approach to global governance.
First, we have always tried to open and sometimes create the space for multilateral dialogue, even when dialogue and cooperation seemed to be completely impossible. This is what we have done with the International Contact Group on Venezuela, but also on Afghanistan – we have gathered together India, Pakistan, Russia, China, the United States and obviously the Afghans themselves - or with the Quartet for Libya – where we, together with the African Union, the Arab League and the United Nations, have gathered forces so that the unity of the surroundings would have helped the Libyans themselves to unite. We have always worked to find the right multilateral format to identify who exactly needed to be sitting at the table, using our convening power that is quite exceptional in the world and sometimes even “creating” the table – setting the table and creating the space for the different players to sit together and to feel comfortable to sit together, protected by the convening power that we have put at the disposal of these mediation approaches.
Second, the partnership approach. In your recommendations you mention – and I very much agree with that - the need for a true partnership with Africa. I believe this is really the key. We have moved somehow from the idea of working "for" Africa that has been the traditional approach that Europeans always had, to working "with" Africa. And I think this has made the difference for, first of all, trust and for respect. The recognition of a political partnership and moving away from the donor-recipient approach. We have tried to put this in practice in all fields, not only on development cooperation, humanitarian aid and migration, but also on cooperation that was completely new – I think of women empowerment that has never been completely new but we gave it a push; I think of digital, the role of youth that sometimes also helped on gender issues; I think of water and climate issues; I think of connectivity, you name it. And obviously, I also think of the rule of law and human rights.
This is the logic that has driven our work with the African Union, with which I would say we have today more than a partnership – a friendship. And if I measure the distance and the climate we had in our first meetings in 2014 and 2015 and the meetings we have today – today, we can call each other brothers and sisters without any doubt that we are speaking the truth, because we feel that we are on the same side and we are tackling issues together. By the way, there has been a lot of work that has been done also here across the institutions, and also across different political party groups, to help and accompany this process in a useful manner. So we have done that with the African Union, but we have also done that bilaterally with single African countries; and we have done that in the very innovative trilateral format with the United Nations and the African Union – for me it is very inspiring new model that could be replicated also in other areas. The European Union, the African Union and the United Nations put in together their energies and their political weight to address common challenges. And it is the logic of our cooperation, for instance, with the G5 Sahel and other groups of African states or sub-regional organisations.
The same logic also applied to many others of our partnerships – I think of Latin America and I think of South East Asia. A progressive foreign policy to me is all about building partnerships and coalitions with those who share our values and our interests. In the Global Strategy we say that investing in the strength of your partners, of your friends, and also of your neighbours, is a way of strengthening yourself. I think this has never been more evident than today.
And so I come to the third point. A progressive foreign policy is about joining our interests and values. I remember very well having this conversation with Nathalie [Tocci] five years ago. We started this conversation and then it continued for, I would say, one year and a half on whether we would have to put values or interests first. And that has been a deep and complicated debate. I believe that our progressive European values do not contradict at all our strategic interests – on the contrary, they somehow serve each other and they support each other – they go together.
Protecting human rights is obviously the key value for us – I say obviously, but sometimes it is not so obvious, but it should be. And it is also essential for sustainable peace and security. This is also a concept on which we have worked so much at the times of thinking through the Global Strategy. The international community has developed the concept of sustainable development and it took long. Why do we not work on the concept of sustainable security, because security is not only the security angle. What makes a society secure is also the sense of ownership and belonging that citizens feel in their own communities. And that concept of having a sustainable security is probably what indicates best how values and interests can join. You can impose security on a community, but if you want a sustainable security, you need to empower, you need to create spaces for civil society to grow.
Fighting inequalities all across the world, protecting workers' rights, creating opportunities for women, for young people and for minorities, protecting the environment and fighting global warming – these are values, they are our values and they are also vital strategic interests of the European Union. Thinking that the values are opposed to our interests and vice versa is definitely not serving the effectiveness of our work. Whenever we have shaped, for instance, a new investment plan – I think of the External Investment Plan for Africa, the biggest investment plan we have created in the European Union – we have put sustainability, education and women's rights at the core of our policy. Not just because it is right, but also because it is what is working better to achieve sustainable development and sustainable security. And whenever we negotiated a new trade deal, we have always made it a "free and fair" trade agreement. We have always included clauses on workers' rights, food safety and environmental protection. We have put our values into the mix, trying to give a heart to our very cynical world.
Finally, a progressive foreign policy is not just about a restricted group of diplomats and foreign policy experts. You need that, but in this century and in these times, I believe that a progressive foreign policy needs to be inclusive, it needs to be open, it needs to be a dialogue with all sectors of society. The core element of our idea of multilateralism is to make diplomatic processes inclusive and representative, so that decisions become not only more democratic, but also so that implementation starts effectively and any agreement can better stand the test of time.
Multilateralism is about bringing more voices to the table, and this goes beyond governments, institutions and international organisations. Here again I remember the discussions we had: when we talk about multilateralism, it is not only multilateralism of institutional actors and players, but it also the difference of actors and players you have to bring into the process.
I am particularly proud, for instance, of the work we have done with the UN to bring women to the negotiation and mediation tables all across the world – I think of Syria, Colombia, Yemen, Afghanistan. We are trying on Libya, but that is more difficult. A constant effort to empower women not just because their voices need to be heard, but because they have a powerful contribution to make not just as victims, but as those that can help contribute to solving the problems, especially when it comes to conflicts. Because normally they have not been fighting and they contribute better to finding a solution without having the sense of losing, which is one of the most difficult elements you need to take into your perspective when you negotiate a mediation.
If diplomacy is conceived as just a power game among nation states, it fails. It is not a matter of good sentiments, it simply does not work – simply because our world today is more complex than it ever was in the past. The point in today’s world is to not just have two signatures on a piece of paper, or having two strong men – and it is often men – shaking hands in front of cameras. They can shake hands, but then you need the reality on the ground to change. And for that, you need a plurality of actors and players to be involved. For that you need, I would say, participatory diplomacy.
Therefore, in these years we have worked with civil society and business leaders, with cities and with local authorities, with local tech sectors, religious communities, academia and so on and so forth, to open the space for diplomacy and foreign policy in a more participatory diplomacy and some of you on this room have been the main players in this.
I see this as an essential contribution to transforming multilateralism and making it more effective. Preserving multilateralism was never a conservative move: as we tried to preserve the achievements of the past, we work for better times to come. In this work, we have found many partners and friends around the world – from Canada to South East Asia. But let us also be very frank. There is no bigger global power than the European Union today that stands for this progressive approach to foreign policy. So, we have a responsibility.
If we want to protect and advance the idea of a more cooperative global governance, we need Europe to take on its responsibility as a global power and a global point of reference. The rest of the world already sees us this way. I often wonder if Europeans see themselves this way. We have an issue with self-perception that we need to tackle.
This is also part of our strategic autonomy – as you explain in your paper. Strategic autonomy obviously requires the capacity to take autonomous military action when necessary, always in a multilateral framework – I want to stress this. But strategic autonomy is also about something that goes beyond military action. It is about our ability to shape the rules of the international economic system. It is about having an independent and principled trade policy. It is about raising international standards in all fields – from labour to data protection. It is about having a strong use of our own currency – the euro. So these are all issues that are not necessarily proper, traditional foreign policy issues, but you know that in the world of today no issues are purely domestic. Everything has an external and global projection that can be used by the European Union to build a more recognisable and even more assertive role in the world. Not because we want to win a fight, but because others in the world need us to be there to avoid being lonely in a difficult fight.
No European nation state can do this alone and I think this is quite self-evident today. It was not self-evident five years ago, but it is self-evident today. But together, as the European Union, I believe that we have the power to be global shapers. No other power has that as we as European have it. If we recognise this power, if we see this power, and if we decide to properly use this power.