The EU as a Global Geopolitical Player • Scope and Limits

Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute



December 2014 •

Text of the speech of Jean-Sylvestre Mongrenier, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute, “Europe and East Asia – Opportunities and Challenges”, 31th Euro-Taiwan Conference, organized by the Institute of International Relations of National Chengchi University, in partnership with the Thomas More Institute, Taipeh (Taiwan), 7-10 December 2014

First of all I would like to thank the organizers of this important conference for their invitation. I am deeply honoured to be here, in Taiwan. Thus, we are gathered to discuss about the EU as a whole and its relationship with the outside world, in its geopolitical environment and beyond, especially in East Asia. The title of this first panel alludes to a “new start”. From an outside standpoint, this new start may be sparkled by a new parliament, a new European Commission led by Jean-Claude Juncker, a new High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Ms. Federica Mogherini. Lastly, Donald Tusk is the new president of the European Council.

All of this is supposed to allow the EU to be stronger and more affirmative on the international stage.

In fact, a “new start” in the international field was already supposed to be initiated five years ago, in 2009, when the Lisbon Treatw implemented. Let us recall that this treaty was signed in 2007 after the failure of the project of “European Constitution”).

According to many comments at that time, the EU should have been both more cohesive and efficient, with an ambitious foreign policy and the means to achieve its goals, EU’ foreign policy backed by a stronger European Defence. Thus, the EU should have been turned into a global geopolitical player or at least it should have made progress in this direction.

Five years later, the results are mixed and euroscepticism is a reality in many member states. In the past years, the Eurozone went through a very serious monetary crisis in addition to the global economic turndown. This situation had consequences on the public opinion, its support to the European idea, and hence on the European project including the field of foreign policy.

In fact, many people and governments in Europe have no real interest for the outside world and prefer to focus on domestic issues.

In consequence but also for substantial reasons, the EU is still an incomplete global player and the project of a European Federation remains a regulative idea – I mean an ideal – not a geopolitical reality.

However, an incomplete global actor does not mean a powerless actor: the EU and its member states have the capability to be more active and assertive on the international stage, and not only as a « Soft Power ».

This will be my approach: the EU as an imperfect but real global player with room for maneuver.

The EU: a Pan-European Commonwealth rather than a federation

First and foremost, we have to work on the EU as a whole and as a political entity that is very specific compared to other global players around the world.

Indeed, the EU leads a Foreign Policy supported by its member states. There is also a Common Security and Defence Policy and the EU has the ambition to be a real “security provider”.

If the whole project matures, the UE will be turned into a “Europe Power” as we say in France. The EU Foreign and Security Policy must enable the EU to speak and act as one in world affairs and give its member states far greater clout than each one alone.

In fact, this dimension of the European project does exist since the Maastricht Treaty that was signed in 1991 but it has been reinforced with the Lisbon Treaty.

The EU Foreign and Security Policy has been reinforced by creating the position of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and the European External Action Service (EEAS), i.e. the EU’s diplomatic corps.

However, it must be underlined that the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy is not the EU minister of Foreign Affairs.

All the member states have their own minister of Foreign Affairs and they meet each other within the EU Foreign Affairs Council every month and more often when deemed necessary.

The High Representative’s main role is to facilitate agreement between the member states and therefore make the EU Foreign and Security Policy more consistent

In addition, part of the external action is under the responsibility of the European Commission: mainly trade policy, negotiation and management of trade agreements, but also energy policy and climate negotiations

So, the EU’s external action relies upon a balance between the Foreign Affairs Council on one hand, and the Commission on the other. This is not an easy balance.

All this organization is placed under the authority of the European Council which brings together heads of states and governments. The principles and general guidelines of the EU Foreign Policy are established into the European Council. This council mandates the Commission to open trade negotiations and gives negotiating directives, and the policy-making process is based on consensus and most foreign and security decisions require the agreement of all EU member states.

Moreover, it has to be said the Common Defense and Security Policy remains modest and limited. In fact, the “European Defense” is not Europe’s Defense which relies on NATO, and so the strong US involvement in Europe. The “European Defense” is not tailored to hard security and war but soft security on external theatres (nothing more).

All in all, what does it mean? What does it imply?

The EU Foreign and Security policy lacks promptness, readiness and reactivity. The policy-making-process is a heavy machinery and this policy lacks the force required by the balance of power in a dangerous world.

When the competition among nations remains civilized and economical rather than geostrategic, this organization is efficient in supporting state-building and various reforms in a post-conflict situation (I think of Balkans/South-Eastern Europe).

This is less true in a very tensed situation that requires hard choices. We can observe that in our current relationship with Russia regarding Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe. The response to Russia’s challenge and aggressive policy, and the implementation of diplomatic and economic sanctions, depend on tight cooperation between the EU and US, and the reinforcement of NATO is absolutely crucial for the European allies’ defense

What does it say about Europe and the EU?

The EU is much more than a big market, but less than a federation with a supranational government. This is a Pan-European Commonwealth composed of sovereign states with flexible links and with various differences between those states: big, middle and small states, Western and Eastern states, Northern and Southern states, etc.

Very often, when times are difficult, we still need the US to gather wills and means, and to make hard choices.

That’s so, and we have to deal with it. In some way, this is in Europe’s political NDA.

The reinforcement of the Eurozone and its political scope

However, the Eurozone’s crisis in the last years has led to the reinforcement of this subgroup (the Eurozone) within the EU and we have to take into account this progress and its hypothetical political scope.

First, let’s look at the facts.

The Eurozone is the very example of variable geometry cooperation. It currently has 18 member states and the other EU member states are still sticking to their own currency.

It is well known that this group of countries who share the same currency is not an “optimal currency zone”.

Thus, after the stock market crash of 2008 and the economic turndown that followed, these countries have been hit by asymmetrical shock. Then, the Eurozone went through a deep crisis with significant threats on sovereignty debt of several countries, especially in Southern Europe.

In fact, the challenge has been faced down in the institutional field at least. The first response was improvised: the European Financial Stability Facility in order to react urgently and support Greece (2010).

Then, a European Stability Mechanism has been negotiated and implemented in order to be ready for another monetary and financial storm (2013). Lastly, a European Stability Pact has been signed and ratified for rolling back the deficit spending and go back to balanced budgets

Currently, a Banking Union is being set up. This is an oversight mechanism of all banks active in the Eurozone.

In fact, this set of reforms has led to a sort of monetary and fiscal federalism. According to various analyses, the Eurozone may be turned into a political hard core within the EU. These countries who share the same currency would be ready to go further toward a “Federation of nation-states”.

As an example, Jose Manuel Barroso, the former president of the European Commission, evoked a “quantum leap”. The reinforced Eurozone would be the driving force of the EU and could pose as a new global player.

In other words, the question is this one: Is the Eurozone at “Cicero’s moment”?

Let us recall that Cicero was a roman politician and a great thinker in the first century before Christ who lived in the end of the Republique and the eve of the Roman Empire a such.

So, “Cicero’s moment” means the turning point between two political forms: a city-State and an informal monarchy. In our case, it would mean the turning point between a very flexible Pan-European Commonwealth and a real European Commonwill with strong responsibilities in diplomacy and strategy.

In fact, I am rather skeptical about this prospect: Economics are one thing, Politics are another.

Indeed, all countries involved in the Eurozone have a common interest in making it more cohesive, but the Eurozone is not yet a cohesive area in the strategic and geopolitical fields.

For instance, France is still ready and prompt to use armed forces and get involved in external operations. Paris wants to maintain its position on the international stage.

By contrast, Germany is still reluctant to take on international responsibilities and its self-assertion is of geoeconomic fashion. Certainly, times are changing and the current relationship with Russia is leading Berlin to be more diplomatically active but it will be a very continental and defensive approach.

More broadly, many countries within the Eurozone are not much involved in diplomatic and strategy issues, especially on a global scale. On the contrary, some countries in Europe are very important for foreign affairs but outside the Eurozone.

I am thinking here of the United Kingdom which is an important military power and very involved in world politics. A common agreement between Paris and London was required to initiate the so-called “European Défense” and their military cooperation is essential for Europe’s Défense (today and tomorrow).

I also think of Poland, a growing power in Europe’s balance and a key for Eastern European affairs and the Russian challenge.

These two key-countries will not join the Eurozone (the UK may even leave the EU) and so, regarding foreign affairs, we have to work and progress in the EU framework.

The way to a more active and assertive EU on the international stage

Thus, we have to build and inject more strength and cohesion in this Pan-European Commonwealth, to complement NATO’s role and in coordination with the US.

Perhaps the new international context is more favorable to this task. It is indeed harder and tougher, so, the soft power rhetoric can no longer be a political way-out, and the Europeans have to face the real world and be more cohesive.

Right now, we can see that upon the Russian threat: convergences have taken hold over divergences.

Regarding the future of the EU’s foreign policy, we have to consider three areas: the transatlantic zone, the geopolitical environment of the EU (Eastwards and Southwards) and the “Open Sea” including Asia.

On the transatlantic axis, the EU-US relationship should be both reinforced and rebalanced. NATO is our common good and is necessary to face threats and risks. Certainly, the European allies have to do more in the military field.

In order to link more tightly US and the EU as such, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership should be concluded.

Diplomatic cooperation, burden-sharing and division of task should be our political guidelines. Step by step, the EU will have to accept more responsibilities, especially in its neighbourhood.

Of course, this is very important for the strength and the equilibrium of the Western world but also for East Asia. Indeed, if the burden-sharing is better shared within the Atlantic alliance, it will allow the US to rebalance their global foreign policy and face challenges in Asia-Pacific. Let’s underline that America does not have to make a choice, but it needs strong allies in both Europe and Asia.

As I said before, burden-sharing requires a more assertive EU neighbourhood policy that would take into account the balance of power and hostility toward Europe and the Western world.

This is not a matter of compassion or “Idealpolitik”. Defense and security of Europe are at stake.

Southwards, in the Mediterranean Basin and Middle East, the EU should do more to support reforms in various countries, but there are just a few countries on this track, and the cultural, political and social environment is not very conductive for European action.

Moreover, many situations are conflictual, and we know that the EU is not always the best framework for this type of action. Crisis management should rely on like-minded countries prepared to use force and coalitions of good will. Think of the coalition gathered against the Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.

Lastly, there is the “Open Sea” and Asia where Europeans are not involved enough. The world ocean and this part of the globe have been very important for the idea of Europe and self-awareness of the Europeans.

In the Middle Ages, “Europe” was the name of a Phoenician princess and a Greek myth, not of a continent. With Modern Times and great voyages of discoveries – America of course but also South and East Asia – “Europe” has become the name of this part of the world involved in maritime exploration.

So, an over Eurocentric and continental EU would be unfaithful to its history and destiny.

Pratically, in our time, Europe should not ignore East Asia and the Pacific, because of growth and economic opportunities, but also because of strategy, with risks, threats and fall-outs around the world.

Consequently, promoting democracy, freedom, rule of law and international cooperation in East Asia is a critical matter. For that, it is necessary to lean on regional countries involved in this political process and strongly support them.

However, the European Commission and the EU have a market and economic approach of the region. We know the role of the European Commission in negotiating trade agreements, and the Asia-Europe Meetings are focused on economics rather than politics.

This fact reminds us of the lack of political substance of the EU. Therefore, we have to deal with it and use economic interests as a vector for the development of the EU relationship with the region, especially with ASEAN.

And Taiwan?

I shall end my remarks with a few words about Europe and Taiwan. In this case, things are complicated by the “One China Policy” and the non-existent political relationship between Taiwan and the EU. However, the EU recognizes Taiwan as an economic and commercial entity: this card must be played. A trade agreement should be a second best.

In addition, the full participation of Taiwan in the regional economic integration of South-East Asia should be a way for tightening links with both ASEAN and Europe. It would be an indirect approach.

Simultaneously, it would be necessary to find support in Europe and at Brussels through many ways.

Economic interests, but also democracy and individual liberties, should be promoted to gain some support, with regards to those despairing about the future of freedom and democracy in the People’s Republic of China. In this very specific case, lobbying and soft policy with long term objectives are highly recommended.