How to make the European Union a global player


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Selim Yenel
Selim Yenel

President of the Global Relations Forum and former ambassador of the Permanent Representation of Turkey to the European Union

The role of the European Union as an international power has been discussed for years. It is part of the G20 and indeed takes or shares the lead on a number of major worldwide issues such as climate change, but the EU’s role as global player has been limited. As the structure of global governance is redrawn, there is a real opportunity for the bloc to show its strength.

The accomplishments of the EU over its lifetime are remarkable. It evolved by achieving a single market, creating a new currency used by the majority of its members, realising visa free movement within its borders and setting high standards with regard to fundamental rights, among other feats.

However, the Union has encountered significant challenges, including the uneven process of the single currency and the Euro crisis, Russian aggression, the migration crisis and the rise of far-right populism.

The problems created by migration that fuelled the extreme right and policies of certain EU members persist. Brexit occupied the focus of the EU for years. Hungary and Poland, as well as the Czech Republic and Slovenia to a lesser extent, continue to backslide in terms of EU standards and democratic norms, while enlargement – one of the major successes of the EU – also took a toll.

The EU’s mistake is treating the Balkan countries as if they have no other choice but accession to the EU

Although the EU may be still seen as a success story, its inability to address internal and external problems is tainting its reputation. So, in order to become a global player, it has to confront a myriad of issues.

The EU firstly needs to tackle the authoritarian tendencies amongst some of its members. States on opposite sides of the fallen Iron Curtain demonstrate clear differences in dealing with democratic institutions, the judiciary, the media and non-governmental institutions. The EU needs to address these issues if it wants to keep up its perception of high values. The latest episode in Poland in which even the primacy of EU law is being challenged should be an alarming wake-up call.

Secondly, the EU must address its standstill on enlargement. Last month’s EU-Western Balkans Summit did not offer much hope for its six aspirants. Although some are in advanced stages of accession negotiations, the likelihood of any enlargement has been pushed back beyond 2030, and lack of a clear perspective is causing consternation among these countries. The EU’s mistake is treating the Balkan countries as if they have no other choice but accession to the EU, despite worrying influences from China and Russia, as well as Turkey. The fact that Turkey – a candidate country itself – is seen as a threat is an admission of failure to address the country’s relationship with the EU.

For decades Turkey has made tremendous efforts in shedding its ‘sick man of Europe’ image and eventually joined almost all Western institutions. Although a major goal for the country, its membership to the Union remains elusive and current relations with the EU are unsustainable and need to be redressed.

Finally, deepening its own integration would strengthen the Union too. Establishing an independent treasury and creating financial integration may appear to be hard choices but it is the logical next step if the EU is to evolve. Military integration is another aspect to be discussed if the EU is be globally influential.

Creating an EU that is a relevant global player is a joint endeavour for all involved

Today’s global challenges require speedy decision-making. At a time when China is growing not only economically and politically but assertively as well, as Russia tries to re-establish a semblance of its former empire and while the United States remains ambivalent in dealing with its allies, the EU has to look out for itself. The bloc must take on the task of creating a new identity if it wishes to remain relevant, let alone become a global player.

Will these issues be discussed at the Conference on the Future of Europe? Although the title refers to the future of the continent, many non-EU nations in Europe are excluded from the debate, despite having a stake in the continent’s future.

These concerns bring to mind the European Conference, a proposal by France tied into the Conclusions of the Luxembourg European Council of December 1997, to bring all EU member states and candidate countries into a multilateral forum that would take up relevant issues.

Perhaps it is time to heat up another old idea: establishing concentric circles in which the EU could manage a multitude of countries. The main objective is that there would be a core group of states and those that wish to move further towards integration could follow the requirements, while others could stay in the outer realms until they wish or are ready to integrate further. The concept of having only one kind of membership to the EU is frustrating enlargement. It would be easier to include the Western Balkan countries, Turkey and beyond in an outer sphere.

A united Europe has always been a dream of many. It is fully within grasp if the will exists to put past grievances aside. Those who are committed to this dream should look towards the future and try to envision a new Europe that is more encompassing. Creating an EU that is a relevant global player is a joint endeavour for all involved. One should not only think of the benefits of such a development for the continent, but who would profit if Europe remains divided.

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