Vassilis Ntousas / Dec 2019
Josep Boreell, the new EU foreign and security chief. Photo: Shutterstock
It’s been nearly three weeks since Josep Borrell, the former Spanish Foreign Minister and former President of the European Parliament, assumed the double-hatted post of the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission (HRVP).
For a Union that still feels being encircled by several crises and threats coming from (former) friends and foes alike, these are not undemanding times—as they were not when President Jean-Claude Juncker’s 'last chance Commission' began its mandate in November 2014. But what does feel like a departure from the past is a willingness by the new Commission and Mr Borrell himself to play the international game differently. The quip by Ursula von der Leyen, the new Commission President, that hers needs to be a geopolitical Commission certainly illustrates this willingness.
It is not that the EU has been in a geopolitical slumber. Nonetheless, despite her valiant efforts and endless hours of convening and flying, Federica Mogherini, Mr Borrell’s predecessor, ended her watch with few major successes beyond the tangible steps taken to deepen cooperation on defence, the creation of the EU Global Strategy, sustaining consensus on sanctions against Russia (now potentially under pressure from French diplomatic initiatives), and agreeing the Iran nuclear deal, which is unfortunately now on life support.
Changing this perception of (s)low delivery is clearly a priority for Brussels. In his first blog post as High Representative, Mr Borrell presented the guiding principles for his work in the next five years—realism, unity and partnership—, while underlining that he believes that "the European Union has what it takes to deliver on this crucial mission".
Yet, for all the rhetorical niceties, the task before the new HRVP is enormous in all these three aspects.
Starting with the ever-elusive objective of unity. Ten years after the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty—an institutional leap forward for the Union aimed at delivering faster and more coherent decision-making at EU level—many of the basic impediments to such an objective remain the same. This, even though many of the problems the EU is faced with and which Brussels is frequently blamed for, require a level of coherence that implies less time talking amongst Member States and more time liaising with external actors.
This raises important questions for the future. For instance, (how) is the new Commission’s declared aim of introducing qualified majority voting in some CFSP matters going to be operationalised? How are internal divisions going to be addressed, when, if anything, the recent disagreement between France and Germany over the future of NATO points to a potential future situation in which the trenches along which Member States clash are deeper and new ones are dug across different national axes, compared to the traditional North-South, East-West divides?
Infusing EU foreign policy with a heavier dose of realism requires dealing with a set of equally hard questions. Above all, how to square the circle between pushing back against being involuntarily dragged into the arena of great power competition, while keeping intact the core ideals that make the EU the European Union. There is little doubt that, sooner or later, the bloc will have to grapple more convincingly with the concept and practice of power, as Mr Borrell’s himself has admitted during his confirmation hearing. However, if the age of naïveté for the EU is coming to an end as President Marcon suggested earlier this year, this implies pain and compromise that is still unclear whether the EU as a whole, and certain member states in particular, are willing to commit to.
Take the EU budget for instance. At a time when ‘dine or be dinner’ dynamics are becoming increasingly dominant, considering the options on the menu is as important as looking at the price of each option. I have argued elsewhere that in a world of power politics, the Union has to spend in ways and amounts that back up its ambition to think and act as a global leader. And yet, only weeks after Ms Von der Leyen’s declared aim of Europe spending 30% more on external action than it does today, the Finnish presidency presented some quite disappointing figures in the submitted “negotiating box” in the framework of discussions on the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). In there, the figure allocated, for instance, to the European Defence Fund is halved compared to the original Commission proposal (€13b to €6b), while the respective figure for military mobility has been reduced by almost two thirds (€6.5bn to €2.5bn).
There is still a months-long way to go before the end of the MFF negotiations, but this clearly demonstrates an alarming trend. If the EU is sincere about having a more pragmatic external action, this is just one of the areas where real choices with real consequences have to be made: and as far as financing is concerned, the bloc cannot continue spending at EU level in a way and at a level that essentially assumes a benign international environment in which the EU is insulated from global instability and great power competition.
Finally, there’s the issue of partnership, which, for all intents and purposes, is intimately linked to that of realism. Mr Borrell is accurate in his diagnosis that today's global challenges require collective responses. The roots and the symptoms of these challenges cannot be tackled by Europe alone, and partnerships will be key in this regard. But every EU-led effort in this direction will mean being confronted with policy dilemmas that will intensify, rather than reduce, the drumbeat of anxiety that comes with having to fight for a place around the table.
How can the EU keep its own openness, when it needs to urgently push back against unfair competition? How can the bloc realistically aim to defend multilateralism, when its own divisions often prevent it from doing so; for instance, a number of EU Member States voted against the UN’s Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in 2018, despite the agreement’s non-binding nature? And for that matter, how can the Union be sincere vis-à-vis partners in Africa or the Middle East, given its own, sizeable issues of incoherence between the external and internal dimension of its policies? These are all areas where sensible, yet ambitious policy equilibria will need to be found, and where the homework that the EU needs to undertake under Mr Borrell’s guidance seems daunting, at the very least.
Of course, politics is the art of the possible, as von Bismarck’s famous adage rightly highlights. As a seasoned diplomat, and despite having a reputation for plain speaking, Mr Borrell’s first actions indicate that he is well aware of this. Amidst all the uncertainties, one thing is certain: all of the additional experience and gravitas he’s bringing to the post will be needed. We will soon know if the action can catch up with the principles.