Global Europe 1: The EU's path to super-power status

Frankly Speaking

Global Europe

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt urges a massive re-think of the EU’s role on the global stage, and calls for a debate to shape an assertive new geopolitical strategy.

With the world in flux and geopolitics pulled in unpredictable directions, now is the time for the EU to develop a global strategy that’s distinct from its European one. It’s a propitious moment for Europe to assert itself as a multilateral honest broker.

Despite the Ukraine war, the cost-of-living crisis and weakened productivity and competitiveness, the European Union has a chance to arrest its slide towards global irrelevance. Bold new actions on some key fronts could counterbalance Europe’s shrinkage to five per cent of the world’s population and its trending economic and technological decline.

If the EU doesn’t seize the opportunity with an unprecedentedly ambitious global strategy, history will not be kind and the consequences of its failure will be felt far beyond Europe. The world will be a poorer and more dangerous place if Europe slips into the second tier of global power and influence. As it is, Europeans find their interests increasingly squeezed between those of the United States and China, and their position vis-à-vis developing nations of the so-called ‘Global South’ is far from clear.

Yet the EU has powerful levers with which, to quote Archimedes, it can move the world. It has been striving to exercise this leverage, but in an uncoordinated and underfunded manner. There’s little recognition that European development aid, when the UK is included, is two-thirds greater than that of the US, and that the EU gives much of its assistance through grants rather than the controversial loans made by China.

The EU was built gradually over the post-World War 2 period, but must adapt more swiftly to pressures of the new century

Although the richer countries’ aid to Africa and other poor regions falls far short of the €1.3 trillion the World Bank believes should be spent every year on infrastructures like energy and education, the EU has built a dominant position in global development. It spends half of all aid worldwide, but its profile on this is disguised by the plethora of different programmes.

The present European Commission calls itself ‘geopolitical’ and is doing its best to increase outreach. In late 2021, it unveiled its answer to China’s Belt and Road Initiative with the ‘Golden Gateway’ drive that will cost €300 billion by 2027. Then there is ‘Team Europe’, a range of post-Covid investments by various EU lenders, and the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument which groups other EU programmes. In short, European aid has too many brands.

Development isn’t the only area where Europe needs to be more assertive. From global security to the reforms of outdated international institutions, the EU could identify more closely with emerging powers. This is crucial in a world wracked by climate change, Sino-American rivalry and widening gaps between prosperous nations and the debt-laden and poverty-stricken.

This wouldn’t mean Europe turning its back on the US; the transatlantic trade and investment links are so strong as to be indissoluble. The EU-US partners must nevertheless acknowledge that America’s ‘pivot to Asia’ changes the relationship and frees Europe on international issues where Washington has wanted its support.

The EU should establish its own clearcut positions on the questions that trouble developing countries and have helped China to recruit their support. These include reforming the eighty-year-old United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank and discussing more openly the future of the G-20. There’s also the difficult question of Europe’s role as a security guarantor, in Africa and elsewhere, even if that means revaluing NATO.

Has Europe the political and organisational bandwidth to develop such a strategy? It’s no secret that the Union’s larger members stand in the way of more concerted initiatives, and that the UK’s Brexit has weakened the EU’s global clout. At the same time, Europeans are uncomfortably aware that the world is on the threshold of powerful forces that can only be managed collaboratively. The EU was built gradually over the post-World War 2 period, but must adapt more swiftly to pressures of the new century.

The second part of this article – ‘Global Europe 2: The price to be paid if the EU falls behind‘ – will appear on 17 October 2023. The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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