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Rough seas: A scorecard of the EU’s last institutional cycle

It was a different world five years ago when the last round of EU personalities assumed office. It quickly turned into a rough ride. Within weeks the covid-19 pandemic turned everything upside down. And when it started to fade, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borell went to Moscow to try to reset that relationship, only to be publicly humiliated by his Russian counterpart.

Nothing could have prepared the continent for what followed.

Two wars raging in Europe’s neighbourhood, an escalating trade war between the United States and China, and serious calls for the European Union to finally expand its own borders. Indeed, it’s been a turbulent ride in a period of unpredictable challenges, mounting confrontations, and rising dangers. Up against this, the EU’s record of the last five years is unavoidably mixed. But these unstable times have forced major changes in European foreign policy. The immediate task for the new institutional cycle is to take stock of these successes and failures as the EU moves further into unchartered waters.

On Russia

But when Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, a year after Borell’s ill-fated mission, the security order of Europe was suddenly under fundamental threat. Brussels’s attempt at shaping a strategic compass was hastily redrafted to take in at least something of the new reality before it was adopted a month later. Just as quickly, the EU implemented a robust sanctions response to Russian aggression. Its merits over the war can not only be determined by speed, but also by its careful coordination with Washington. Most EU officials hadn’t really believed Washington’s warning of a coming invasion, but when it came they were quick to adjust and react. And once it had set its course of sanctions, the EU has been determined to stay on it. Fears of fatigue and divisions turned out to be largely misplaced with, as usual, Hungary as the exception.

For all its speeches and its economic and industrial strength, the EU still hasn’t been able to become the strong arsenal of democracy that Russian aggression in Ukraine clearly calls for

But for all its speeches and its economic and industrial strength, the EU still hasn’t been able to become the strong arsenal of democracy that Russian aggression in Ukraine clearly calls for. It took a year into the war for Brussels to understand this was a war of attrition that required a mobilisation of not only sanctions but also resources in the shape of weapons and defence systems. Despite some initial support, it took a further year to really get things moving, and it was only in March this year that the EU delivered just half of the promised million artillery rounds to Ukraine. Financial aid to Ukraine has flowed slightly better. By the end of this summer the EU will have trained 60,000 Ukrainian soldiers, and the creative use of the European Peace Facility has been important in achieving this.

On trade

The handling of Russian aggression has certainly helped strengthen the EU’s bond across the Atlantic, but other parts of its relationship with Washington have been struggling. The EU-US Trade and Technology Council has failed to live up to expectations. In the absence of an adequate US trade policy on technology, and with the EU’s technology policy focused almost solely on regulating US companies, this is hardly surprising.

The EU did not initially fair much better in its trade approach to China. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China, concluded in the very last days of 2020, has proved short-lived. It soured relations across the Atlantic, only to be later shot down by the actions of Beijing and Brussels. Eventually acknowledging that decoupling from China was never an option, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen instead took the lead with talk about de-risking the relationship. Although, the EU has so far remained vague on the matter of economic security, and de-risking in particular. This may be an attempt to deal with rapidly deepening concern over the competitiveness of the European economy and ultimately to avoid the uncomfortable truth that a more secure economy may also mean a weaker one. But with the US as the global innovation superpower and China as the global producing superpower it’s simply not enough for the EU to be the global regulation superpower.

Elsewhere, the EU has had mixed results on its efforts to strike up trade deals. It can boast a new agreement with New Zealand, but that same effort with Australia has so far failed. Talks with India are struggling while the prospects of the important trade agreement with Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay, otherwise known as Mercosur, have darkened by the day.

On neighbourhood policy

Five years ago EU neighbourhood policy wasn’t the priority it should have been, and little more than lip service was given to enlargement. But with Russia’s aggression challenging the very core of European security, those in Brussels soon realised that enlargement had to be revived. While previously a Ukrainian accession had been unthinkable, it has now become a strategic imperative, as enlargement remains the EU’s by far most powerful long-term policy of peace, and perhaps the biggest geopolitical success of the outgoing European Parliament. Now, accession negotiations have started with Ukraine and Moldova, and there is talk of a new momentum in the Western Balkans.

On the other hand, the wider neighbourhood policy has been a struggle. Migration agreements with Tunisia and Egypt might have been seen as necessary by EU leaders, but critics have raised serious questions on their alignment with EU values, and the policy itself has been ineffective at stopping irregular migration. Further south, the European policy on the Sahel has virtually collapsed after a chain of coups have thrown French, EU, and UN efforts out and often invited Russia in.

And then came Hamas’s attacks on Israeli civilians on 7 October and Israel’s war on Gaza, and with it the end of decades of EU efforts to forge themselves a role in the Middle East peace process. Von der Leyen waved one flag and Borell tried to hold another, but overall the efforts of EU were meet with contempt by Israel, while the EU lost what was left of its credibility with the global south, and EU members dug their heels into their respective, diverse, positions. Across the world, questions started to be asked about how many standards the EU really had, and whether all the talk about a rules based global order was just for the birds.

Looking ahead, more of this haphazard approach is likely. We might well see an EU squeezed between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, battling its own populists, and more events that splinter the global order. In the face of such challenges, the EU must build its strategic capabilities, ensure economic competitiveness, and do its utmost to stay united. In particular, there must be peace in Brussels. Infighting in Rue de la Loi is not conducive if the continued efforts to make, at some point in time, the EU into a global actor of some weight and consequence. For the minute at least, in a world of huge turmoil, Europe remains small.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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Author: euro news

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