Europe in a multipolar world Athens January 2011

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Europe in a multipolar world

Athens January 2011


A multipolar world is emerging. The dominant powers will be the US and China, maybe India and Russia. Perhaps one day also Brazil, Turkey and South Africa. What about the EU?
It is clear that in a world where giants such as China and the US vie for global influence, individual EU countries alone cannot achieve much. The EU is obsessed with the division between big and small member-states. From the perspective of China or India, there are ONLY small countries in Europe.
So if Europe wants to be a player in the world, it needs to act united and together. Can it?
The European Union started as an internal project. The purpose was to make war in Europe impossible by integrating European countries, economically and politically. The idea of a common European foreign policy is more recent.
Ten or even five years ago, the EU seemed to be a power on the rise. It had more or less finished the single market, launched a common currency, gone through successive rounds of enlargement; it appeared to be finding a common voice in international negotiations, in particular on trade.
Today, the Union is still widely respected for its prosperity and political stability. But it no longer looks like a power in the making. Russian, Chinese or Indian policy-makers are often critical when they talk about the EU. They view it as a trade bloc that had pretensions to be a power but has failed to become one because it is divided, slow-moving and badly organised.
Even America, Europe's closest ally, is turning away from the EU. The US could be losing the belief that the EU can make a real difference in shaping the global order, contribute to solving the world's most pressing security problems, such as Pakistan, or even guarantee stability in its own neighbourhood.
The EU needs a more coherent foreign policy, and soon, because the world is changing in ways that may not suit Europeans. It is clear that the world is becoming more multipolar but is not clear whether this multipolar world will be multilateral or power based. Multilateral is world in which all countries accept international rules and work through international institutions. Power based is a world in which the big and powerful countries pursue their objectives through the assertion of military and economic might.
The foreign policy of each and every country or bloc of countries reflects what goes on inside. The EU itself is the prime example of a rules-based community. Everything the EU does is based on law. The EU's common institutions are so sophisticated that they allow binding decisions by majority voting.
The EU by its very nature is a multilateral organization and its view for the world is one of multilateralism. Hence, the EU puts much emphasis on rules and values in its foreign policy, as the documents that emerge from the Common foreign and security policy (the CFSP) testify. The EU wants to encourage and help its partners to become more democratic and open on the inside so that they can become responsible and law abiding on the outside.
However, the other major players on the global scene – the US, Russia, China, India and so on – often think differently. These countries could be called instrumental multilateralists. They accept interational rules and work through international organisations, but only if they think that it serves their purpose. If not, they are also happy to act uniltareally. The global trend is towards a more power-based world. The most important emerging powers, in particular China, appear unwilling to make a sustained effort to maintain and develop the international system.

How should the EU react to such changes?

Up until now, the EU has been proud of its soft power -- the ability to persuade others without using hard power such as military power or economic sanctions. The EU's soft power stems from the fact that offers an attractive social, economic and political model. It is more stable, safe, green and culturally diverse than most parts of the world. This is why neighbours want to join and many migrants want to come here. The EU is leading global efforts to construct a post- Kyoto system for tackling climate change. It imports more goods than any other trade bloc or country and, together with its member-states, gives more than half the world’s development aid.
But the EU’s soft power is eroding. Even before the euro crisis, a lot of people in fast-growing countries in Asia and elsewhere had little respect for the EU economy. They saw it as slow-growing and sclerotic, with a declining workforce and not enough innovative enterprises. And now with the eurozone in deep crisis, there is a riks that our prime asset in terms of soft power – our economic success and stability – could be lost. The reluctance of the Europeans to give up their many many seats they have in international organisations such as the IMF and the G20 has become a major obstacles to reforming the institutions that we use to govern the world economy.
At the Copenhagen climate conference over a year ago, the Europeans were sidelined as the US and China talked to each other. Something similar is happening in the Doha round of multtlateral trade talks. Since the EU considered itself the global leader on climate change and since it is the world’s biggest single market, that is very concerning for the Europeans. In addition, with EU enlargement proceeding very slowly nowadays and the EU's neighbourhood policy looking ineffective, the EU may be losing the ability to stabilise its neighbourhood.
The EU's shortcomings in hard power are more pronounced. Hopes were high ten years ago when Javier Solana was appointed as the EU’s first High Representative for foreign policy. At the same time Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac invented the ‘European Security and Defence Policy’ (ESDP). Under the ESDP the EU has deployed two dozen missions of peacekeepers, policemen and civilians to troubled parts of the world. Some of these have been very useful. There are ongoing talks on better co-ordinating the EU’s militaries. The urgent need to consolidate state budgets across the EU is finally forcing EU countries to work together more in developing and buying new military equipment. But the fact is that Europe spends too little money on defence, it often spends it badly and most EU countries are not willing to put their soldiers in harms way on international missions.
The EU can also boast some achievements in its common foreign policy. Britain, France and Germany, together with Solana, have led the international diplomacy that has sought to prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons. The Europeans have held together and drawn the US, Russia and China into the negotiations. They have not however persuaded Iran to abandon the enrichment of uranium. One EU diplomat calls the Iran policy a process success but a policy failure. The EU also has a pretty coherent, if not always totally effective, policy on many other parts of the world, from the Balkans to Sri Lanka. But on global hot spots such as Afghanistan, Pakistan or North Korea, the EU is largely absent or at best incoherent.
It could be argued that the EU should leave Asian security and the war on terror to US leadership. But even on those issues that matter hugely and directly to Europe, EU foreign policy can be weak and incoherent.
Russia is perhaps the best example. Russia is the EU's biggest neighbour, single biggest energy supplier and one of its most important markets for exports. What Russia does also matters for many of the EU's international priorities, from fighting climate change to keeping Iran from building nuclear weapons. Officially the EU has a strategic partnership with Russia. In practice it is not always clear what this means. Like the EU’s foreign policy generally, its Russia policy has been based on the assumption that other countries would become increasingly 'like us'. West Europeans watched the Central and Eastern European countries transform themselves from communist central planning to orderly EU membership in a decade and half. And many, not only inside the EU but also inside Russia, assumed that Russia would be on a similar path towards democracy and open markets.
So the EU and Russia proclaimed a ‘strategic partnership based on common values'. They established dozens of co-operation programmes to push integration forward and so help Russia on its journey towards democracy and capitalism.
However, despite these efforts, Russia has become less democratic and open over the last decade. Although the country has made huge progress in moving towards a market economy, there is now a reversal and the state is once again playing a bigger role in the economy.
Although the EU and Russia have many common interests -- energy security and stability in the common neighbourhood are the most obvious -- the two sides find it difficult to get one. Most EU-Russia projects, such as building four 'common spaces' and drawing up a new bilateral treaty, are stuck. The relationship is sometimes tense and often frustrating.
The reasons for this stalemate are a good illustration of what are generally seen to be the obstacles to more coherent and effective EU foreign policy. Russia is rightly said to be the test case for the common foreign and security policy.
* Russia has not moved into the direction that the EU wanted, namely towards democracy, the rule of law and open markets. However, the EU finds it hard to let go of the idea that it should do so. Russians politicians resent what they perceive as lecturing and interference into their country's internal affairs. Russia might be described as a hyper-realist country. While we, the Europeans believe in pooling sovereignty, working together and finding win-win solutions, Russia highlights in the balance of power and zero-sum games. Here lies the broader challenge for the EU in a multipolar world in which other powers do not always support rules and institutions. The EU needs to move towards a more hard-nosed interest based policy without letting go of its values.
* The second issue is that the EU often struggles to define what the 'European interest' is. On Russia, the individual EU nations have different attitudes and their interests often diverge. The Germans, French and Italians like to have cozy bilateral ties and can be reluctant to criticize Russia for its human rights record. They are happy to let the EU speak about human rights but are otherwise not always prepared to give Brussels a big role in shaping Russia policy. Many in Central and Eastern Europe are fearful that Russia may try to reimpose dominance over its former satellites. They want the EU to be tough on Russia. The likes of Sweden, Denmark and the UK are outraged by human rights violations in Russia and want the EU to impose conditionality. Such divisions are most pronounced in the EU's stance towards Russia but they exist also with regard to China and other big partner countries. Such divisions allow partner countries of the EU to divide and rule. A divided EU is much less than the sum of its part.
After this somewhat gloomy expose, there are also reasons for optimism about Europe’s role in the worlds.
* The EU is in fact becoming more united. In the first few years after eastward enlargement it did indeed become more difficult to make decisions among 27 countries, in particular on certain foreign policy issues. Some of the new member-states harboured grievances and were not always able to compromise. More recently, these countries have become more adept in feeding their views into the policy-making machinery, while the big countries have realised the importance of listening to them. On Russia and other issues, there has also been at least some re-thinking in the capitals of the bigger member-states, as politicians have become disillusioned.
* One of the big impediments to coherent EU foreign policy making was the institutional set-up.: the combination of the High Representative, the external relations commissioner, the European Commission President and the rotating presidency led to inconsistency within the EU and confusion and frustration among the EU's partners. With the Lisbon treaty the EU has gained a more streamlined foreign policy machinery. The foreign relations departments of the European Commission and the secretariat of the Council are being merged in a new External Action Service to which diplomats from individual EU countries are also added. There is now a single High represenative for foreign policy, Catherine Ashton. It is true that the birth of the new EAS has been chaotic. But the EU should let the new institutions bed down for a while.
*The fact that the US is paying more attention to Asia Pacific today and less to Europe may be a good thing because it forces the EU to take charge. There are so many potential trouble spots around the EU's borders, from Ukraine to the Caucasus, from the Israel-Palestine conflict to stability in Egypt and Tunisia – the EU simply has to get its act together. And as the euro crisis is showing once again, the EU grows through crisis and necessity.
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