Why global Europe must change in an "anxious age"


Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

Federica Mogherini’s appointment as the new European Union foreign policy chief offers an opportunity for an overhaul of EU foreign and security policy. With many EU leaders, ministers and senior officials slow to respond to world events given Europe’s traditionally long summer break, the 2014 summer of death and violence has left the reputation of “Global Europe” in tatters, highlighting the EU’s apparent disconnect from the bleak reality surrounding it. When she takes charge in November along with other members of the new European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, Mogherini’s first priority must be to restore Europe’s credibility in an increasingly volatile and chaotic global landscape.

It cannot be business as usual. A strategic rethink of Europe’s global outreach is urgent. Europe can no longer pretend that it is not – or only mildly – shaken by events on its doorstep. In a world where many countries are wracked by war, terrorism and extremism, EU foreign policy cannot afford to be ad hoc, reactive and haphazard. Given their different national interests and histories, European governments are unlikely to ever speak with “one voice” on foreign policy. But they can and should strive to share a coherent, common, strategic reflection and vision of Europe’s future in an uncertain and anxious world.

European governments are unlikely to ever speak with “one voice” on foreign policy. But they can and should strive to share a coherent, common, strategic reflection and vision of Europe’s future in an uncertain and anxious world

Changing gears is going to be tough. Many of Europe’s key beliefs in the use of soft power, a reliance on effective multilateralism, the rule of law and a liberal world order are being shredded by governments and non-state actors alike. With emerging nations, especially in Asia, gaining increased economic and political clout, Europe has been losing global power and influence for almost a decade. Despite pleas by NATO and the crisis in Ukraine, most European governments remain reluctant to increase military and defence spending. At the same time, the Eurozone crisis and Europe’s plodding economic recovery with unacceptably high unemployment continue to erode public support for the EU both at home and abroad. Populist far-right and extreme-left groups in Europe – including in the European Parliament – preach a protectionist and inward-looking agenda. Most significantly, EU national governments are becoming ever greedier in seeking to renationalise important chunks of what is still called Europe’s “common foreign and security policy.”

To prove her critics wrong – and demonstrate foreign policy expertise and flair despite only a six-month stint as Italy’s foreign minister – Mogherini will have to hit the ground running. Her performance at the European Parliament on September 2, including an adamant rejection of charges of being “pro-Russian”, appears to have been impressive. Admirers point out that she is a hard-working team player, who reads her briefs carefully and speaks fluent English and French in addition to her native Italian. These qualities should stand her in good stead as she manages the unwieldy European External Action Service (EEAS), plays the role of vice president of the European Commission, chairs EU foreign ministerial meetings, chats up foreign counterparts and travels around the world while also – hopefully – spearheading a strategic review of Europe’s global interests and priorities.

The tasks ahead are certainly daunting. There is need for reflection and action on several fronts – all at the same time. Eleven years after the then EU High Representative Javier Solana drew up the much-lauded European Security Strategy (partially revised in 2008), Europe needs to reassess the regional and global security environment, reset its aims and ambitions and define a new agenda for action. But this much-needed policy overhaul to tackle new and evolving challenges must go hand-in-hand with quick fire-fighting measures to deal with immediate regional and global flashpoints.

The world in 2014 is complex and complicated, multi-polar, disorderly and unpredictable. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have up-ended the post-World War security order in Europe. The so-called “Islamic State” is spreading its hateful ideology through murder and assassination in Syria and Iraq, not too far from Europe’s borders. A fragile Middle East truce is no guarantee of real peace between Israelis and Palestinians. These and other complex problems require multi-faceted responses.

The days of one-size-fits-all foreign policy are well and truly over. In an inter-connected and interdependent world, foreign policy means working with friends but also with enemies, with like-minded nations and those which are non-like-minded, with competitors and allies. It’s fine to pay special attention to China, India and other headline-grabbing big countries but it could be self-defeating to ignore the significance and clout of Indonesia, Mexico and other middle or even small powers. Upgrading ties with the US remains crucial. While relations with states and governments are important they must go hand-in-hand with contacts with business leaders, civil society actors and young people. Finally, Europe needs to acquire a less simplistic and more sophisticated understanding of Islam and its Muslim neighbours, including Turkey, which has been left in uncertainty about EU membership for more than fifty years.

The days of one-size-fits-all foreign policy are well and truly over. In an inter-connected and interdependent world, foreign policy means working with friends but also with enemies, with competitors and allies

Europe’s response to the new world must include a smart mix of brain and brawn, soft and hard power, carrots and sticks. Isolation and sanctions can’t work on their own but neither can a foreign policy based only on feel-good incentives. The EU’s existing foreign policy tools need to be sharpened but European policymakers also need to sharpen and update their view of the world. Mogherini’s youth and hopefully fresh stance on some of these issues could be an asset in this exercise. Importantly, Mogherini must work in close cooperation and consultation with other EU institutions, including the European Parliament and especially the European Commission whose many departments, including enlargement issues, trade, humanitarian affairs, environment, energy and development are crucial components of Global Europe. The failure of synergies among Commission departments is believed to be at least partly responsible for the weaknesses of the EU’s “Neighbourhood Policy”. Also, a coherent EU foreign policy demands close coordination with EU capitals. Recent experience shows that, as in the case of negotiations with Iran, the EU is most effective when the foreign policy chief works in tandem with EU member states. Closer contacts with NATO will also be vital if Europe is to forge a credible strategy vis-àvis Russia and Ukraine. Such cooperation is especially important if – as this article suggests – Mogherini embarks on a revamp of EU foreign and security policy.

An incomplete list of key issues which require closer scrutiny in the days and weeks ahead includes:


    • EU policymakers need to rethink relations with Russia following the Ukraine crisis and Moscow’s success in breaking down Europe’s post-World War security order. This requires a careful evaluation of EU-Russia relations which goes beyond the current focus on sanctions but includes the EU’s reliance on Russian oil and gas and the over-arching need to ensure immediate and long-term stability on Europe’s eastern flank. A key question to reflect over is whether US-EU restrictive measures can be effective in a world where other countries – in Asia, Africa and Latin America – are ready and willing to move in to the much-coveted Russian market. Mogherini has previously raised eyebrows for allegedly being soft on Russia but she has since told Italy’s Corriere della Sera that sanctions against Russia are necessary, adding at the European Parliament that Moscow is no longer an EU strategic partner. But even as sanctions are ratcheted up,is it in Europe’s interest to isolate Russia – and should it even try? More immediately, will an EU-Russia summit go ahead as planned later this year or is there an interest in trying to re-establish a constructive conversation with Russia again?


    • Events in Ukraine spotlight the failure of the EU’s goal of creating a “ring” of stable and well-governed states around its border and the glaring need to jettison the Neighbourhood Policy in favour of a less-exclusive and fresh strategy for a diverse region where none of the states are ready for EU membership and where the EU wields only limited influence given its modest financial resources and the increasing presence and funding possibilities from not just Russia but also China.


    • Europe’s quasi silence over the summer’s violent events in the Middle East has dented EU credibility in a region where it once enjoyed a certain degree of respect. The EU needs to regain its role as an important actor in any peace talks which follow the current Israel-Palestinian truce. While taking part in upcoming Gaza reconstruction talks, Mogherini and her team must also reflect on the long-term validity of a situation where EU-funded projects (the EU spends US$600m on Gaza territories each year) are regularly reduced to rubble by Israeli military intervention.


  • Even a more experienced foreign policy expert than Mogherini would find it difficult to hammer out an EU policy to stabilise Iraq and Syria in the face of the ruthless expansion of the “Islamic State”. Much will also depend on whether US President Obama is really as determined as he claims to be in leading a regional and international coalition to beat back the terrorists. European nations certainly have the military capabilities—such as the EU battle groups—to contribute to military actions together with the US. But there is no certainty that they will find the required political will – and public support – to take such steps. In any case, the EU needs to hammer out a medium to long-term strategy for political, humanitarian and financial efforts to stabilise the devastated region.
    • In addition – and in any case – the EU needs not only to avert any domestic terrorist threat posed by “foreign fighters” who return to Europe from the Middle-East but also enhance its knowledge of Islam, its different interpretations and variations, distinguishing not only – as hopefully they now do – between Shia and Sunni but also among the various, often quixotic and radical sects promoted by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Mogherini’s thesis on Islamic politics should help her to spearhead such a reflection.


      • More importantly a closer dialogue is needed with Turkey. Ankara may have been accused of allowing foreign fighters easy transit routes to Syria but its knowledge of the region continues to be valuable. Encouraged by the recent erratic and often-authoritarian actions of now Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the EU has let its relationship with Turkey fester for much too long. Even if membership negotiations remain erratic and certain European leaders send out contrary political messages, Europe must find a way to revitalise relations with this important country. A closer dialogue with Iran, once the nuclear issue is surmounted, will help. Indonesia, only now being considered an interesting partner for the EU, has arguable even more insights to offer.


      • The focus on the eastern and southern borders will not be enough. Europe’s hopes for being recognized as a valid and relevant global actor hinge on its relations with Asian nations, including China, India and Japan but also South Korea and the ten states in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). There is little the EU can do to directly tackle the so called “Asian paradox” whereby countries enmeshed in increasingly close economic networks are also embroiled in acrimonious territorial disputes. Mogherini would be well-advised to maintain strong EU ties with both Beijing and Tokyo while continuing to press for an easing of tensions between the two Asian giants. EU support for South Korean President Parks’s North East Asia peace and cooperation initiative (NEAPCI) to build trust in the region should be considered. Disputes over history as well as maritime claims have meant that no Trilateral summit between the three countries since 2012. Mogherini could try and encourage the opening of a purposeful dialogue among the three nations, allowing stability to return to an economically prosperous but politically fragile area.


      • Having injected new dynamism into its once lacklustre relationship with ASEAN over the last three years, the EU must not reduce its diplomatic and economic engagement with the region. This requires participation in all key ASEAN related events and a subtle but determined effort to become a member of the East Asia Summit, the region’s increasingly important dialogue forum. The EU already participates in many of the East Asia Summit’s activities through its cooperation with ASEAN in areas from economic and financial cooperation and environmental issues and disaster relief to education and research and technology.


      Mogherini will not be able to do it on her own. Much will depend on the EEAS team she works with and the knowledge, expertise and passion her aides bring to their work. Team work and leadership, not micro-management, will be required.

      With the crisis in Ukraine and the volatile and dangerous violence spreading through the Middle East, the EU needs to rethink its foreign and security policy, asking itself three key questions: can Europe’s most-modern attachment to soft power, diplomacy and multilateralism, which have stood it well during the last decades, survive in an increasingly unstable and volatile world? How ready is the EU to forge a more muscular and interventionist approach? And can Europe make such a momentous policy U-turn at a time of falling European defence budgets and amid continuing public wariness of getting involved in foreign conflicts?

      Putting these issues on the backburner is no longer an option. The change of guard in Brussels is the right moment to review and reconsider Europe’s role in the world. Global Europe’s disconnect needs to be tackled before it’s too late.

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