Europe in the age of uncertainty

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Mikael Barfod
Mikael Barfod

Visiting Professor at the University of Huddersfield (UK). He formerly worked for the UN and the EU External services, in his most recent post as EU ambassador.

Donald Trump has regularly chipped away at multilateralism during his three years in power. From his policies on climate, immigration and trade, to his troop withdrawals, and ambiguity about defence alliances, Trump clearly prefers retrenchment. A cornerstone of EU policy, on the other hand, has been to encourage international cooperation. A traditionally open and liberal EU has a clear self-interest in preserving multilateralism. Could the EU – as has been previously argued – still take the lead in forming alliances to reactivate and possibly even reform multilateral structures?

Trump’s gradual dismantling of multilateralism will likely accelerate if he is re-elected in 2020. This time, unlike 2016, Europe should be prepared. Even if a Democrat did win, the damage done by Trump would not necessarily be undone. Populism will pervade US politics for years to come. Protectionism is still rife in the Democratic party, not least with candidates such as Bernie Sanders. Even a more ‘moderate’ Democratic president would be wary of undoing Trump’s policies for fear of midterm elections and fuelling the next ‘Donald Trump’.

The EU should respond by rallying around a liberal world agenda without waiting for the results of the US elections. Action must cover climate and trade, including a restructured World Trade Organization, capable too of handling state-capitalist countries. Gradually, Europe must wean away from reliance on the US in defence, starting with procurement, even within NATO. In matters of intelligence, the US’ fuss about Huawei should be countered by concerns about US government access to European secrets through its own tech giants.

The EU should join forces with the US to negotiate a more balanced trade relationship with China

With Brexit, the EU loses an important champion for multilateralism and liberalism. Or does it? The UK will soon realise how small it is as a maker of trade deals, not just with the EU but with the rest of the world too. If there is one thing a UK outside the EU will continue to support, it is multilateralism – not least if a trade deal with the EU fails.

British values will also discover that they match mainstream European values. The UK really risks ‘losing control’ if it does not join European initiatives to preserve and reform multilateralism. Working with France and the non-permanent European members of the UN Security Council would be a wise place to start. Reactivating the WTO and tackling climate change would be another. The UK has already shown that its position is closer to Europe than the US on issues such as the nuclear deal with Iran and Huawei’s role in its 5G network.

In terms of illiberal powers such as China and Russia, the EU should use its economic power and soft approach to contain their cyber-attacks and their assaults on democratic norms. Trade remains key to both Beijing and Moscow. The EU should join forces with the US to negotiate a more balanced trade relationship with China. If the EU were to sign a trade deal with the US and the US were to re-join the Transpacific Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, their combined negotiating power would be 70% of the world’s GDP. Compare this to China’s mere 20%. Such influence could persuade Beijing to enter serious multilateral agreements rather than their preferred bilateral trade deals.

The EU should also attempt to attract loyal allies to the EU agenda when it comes to ‘single’ issues

The EU should also persistently highlight and reward green approaches in its economic relations with China and Russia. The COVID-19 outbreak is an opportune moment to hint at the value of glasnost in dealing with global goods – and not just those related to health.

Countries with a strong interest in free trade and sharing liberal values, such as Japan, ASEAN, Canada, Mexico are obvious allies. But to be effective the EU should also attempt to attract loyal allies to the EU agenda when it comes to ‘single’ issues, not least regarding the climate.

European unity remains the biggest challenge – both among EU governments and within their populations. Diverging views between the EU-27 affect important areas of EU external policies, including on Libya, enlargement in the Balkans, migration, relations with Russia, Turkey and China, as well as European defence.

Strengthening multilateralism starts at home

The new EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell and his colleagues in the Commission should focus on the few issues in EU foreign policy where the Union can make a real difference. These include relations with the US, China, Russia and hotspots in the Middle East.

However, the EU must maintain its principles internally, if it is to remain credible abroad. This may involve withholding structural funds from offenders. While French President Emmanuel Macron offers daring visions, they will not bear fruit without the moderating force of a strong German Chancellor. Many issues will only fall into place with the right successor to Merkel. Let’s hope CDU/CSU decision-makers see it thus.

Strengthening multilateralism starts at home. EU institutions and leaders must grasp what went wrong with Brexit and take chances beyond electoral cycles. Once the Franco-German engine is up and running with its proclaimed ‘Alliance for Multilateralism’, the EU must find the strength to defend international rules. ‘Soft’ European trading and economic power still matters in deal-making and updating WTO structures, even if we are entering a period of ‘Westlessness’.

The evolution of ‘fair’ multilateral trade should gradually include more elements of rule of law to make trade more transparent and less conflictual. As defence priorities shift to data security, Europe should prepare to take responsibility for its own defence, including digital investments and research as well as defence procurement, albeit initially within NATO. Successful economic and defence endeavours can give Europe a larger say on human rights and democracy issues. First, however, the EU needs to make itself fit to take on a world with less Western influence or, what one could call, a new age of uncertainty.

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