Navigating a dark and dangerous world: a primer for von der Leyen

Frankly Speaking

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Director for Europe & Geopolitics at Friends of Europe

Dear Madame President,

We don’t know each other yet. But the contents of this letter have been swirling around in my head for weeks. I’ll keep it short and simple. And, yes, I’ll be speaking frankly.

First, the bad news. You are stepping into a dark and dangerous world. Mean-spirited, malignant and malicious. Europe’s summer of shame – refugee boats denied access to EU ports, more refugee deaths in the Mediterranean, humanitarian NGOs treated like criminals – has left its reputation in tatters.

Elsewhere too, violence, hate and racism did not take a vacation. Terrorists killed, protestors and police/army clashed in Hong Kong and Kashmir, wars raged in the Middle East and Yemen. Dissenters were repressed, activists thrown into jail. You couldn’t do or say much about it of course. But once in charge, you will have to answer a key question: can Europe carve out a role for itself in a conflicted and confrontational world?

At first glance, the answer is a loud ‘No’. Europe is beset by too many domestic difficulties, internal divides and unresolved dilemmas. The US, a once-important ally, is now openly anti-EU. Brexit is an unending tragic distraction. Russia is meddling, China is assertive, India and Japan still don’t really pull their weight on the global stage. Europe clearly needs more oomph.

Old-fashioned notions of sovereignty need to be revised in a globalised world

One option is to focus more on defence and security. As a former defence minister, that’s probably a priority. Yes, hard power matters. It’s a world of Great Power rivalry which requires increased spending on arms, the development of even deadlier weapons, killer robots and so on. The EU can’t be just a soft power. It has to flex its military muscle, get its defence industry in shape, engage in global security conversations, cooperate more with NATO. This is all good stuff.

But it isn’t enough. No one else has the soft power skills that the EU possesses. It’s easy to scoff at Europe’s weak response to crisis, its failure to play the new Great Game, its continued commitment to multilateralism when the rest of the world is flexing its nationalist muscles. Guess what? ‘Vegetarian Europe’ and its cooperative approach, the focus on partnerships, dialogue, reaching out to civil society actors, not just governments, is unique. Europe’s network of trade agreements is getting deeper and wider. It can engage in difficult conversations, reach out to the people that cocky ‘Super Powers’ just can’t. Old-fashioned notions of sovereignty need to be revised in a globalised world.

Yet, as EU Commission President, you will only be able to really hold your head high on the global stage if you practice what you preach. You must have the courage to take action against EU governments that are in breach of the rule of law, democratic standards and media freedoms. They are openly and actively undermining the EU from within. Leaders of Poland and Hungary are gloating about their role in getting you the Commission job. You will have to prove your independence.

Dealing with European bullyboys will be bad enough – but you’ll also have to tackle so-called ‘strong men’ in every nook and cranny of the world. Don’t be duped by US claims that it is looking forward to a fresh start and an end to ‘impasses’ with the current EU Commission. The US doesn’t want a Europe that can say No. And America’s bellicose view of the world doesn’t reflect EU interests or values.

Keeping up with the changing times also means making some tough decisions. It is time to scrap the G7.

The world is changing for good, the old order has unravelled and the West no longer calls the shots. The shift of economic power to Asia, moving quickly on to Africa and Latin America, cannot be stopped. Wailing and raging against the changing world is pointless. The US can wage its trade and tech wars and actively promote a ‘conscious decoupling’ from China. But for the rest of us, ‘one world, two systems’ isn’t an option. We still have to engage with each other on climate change, trade, nuclear disarmament, Agenda 2030. The list is long and time is short.

And here comes the hard stuff. Keeping up with the changing times also means making some tough decisions. It is time to scrap the G7. The latest very pointless G7 summit should be the last. The group is well past its sell-by-date. It does not reflect the power realities of today’s world. Yes, French President Emmanuel Macron enjoyed his moment in the sun and pictures of the high-heeled, well-adorned ‘first ladies’ provided some sartorial entertainment. But seriously, it’s time to let go.

Second, now that Kristalina Georgieva looks set to be the next head of the IMF, you should graciously accept that the next time around, merit and qualification rather than nationality will drive the organisation’s selection process. Europe can’t hang on to its out-dated privileges forever.

Finally, no pressure, but as the first-ever woman to lead the European Commission, you will be a role model and a trailblazer. You’ve succeeded in recruiting more women into the EU executive. You are pushing the right policy buttons. With German Chancellor Angela Merkel on her way out, the global spotlight on you will be even more intense.

With a few exceptions, because women in top jobs are still rare, they tend to be reluctant to unleash their full female power. Here’s a tip: have a quick, early conversation with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose leadership skills are testimony to the strength of female politicians who can tame even the fiercest bullyboys and are tough as nails when needed – but can also act with empathy and compassion.

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