From diplomatic mishaps to national leaders undermining the bloc’s position, the EU’s foreign relations have been rocky for some time. Instead of being led by its principles and taking up opportunities to reinforce its alliances, the EU’s tendency to trip itself up and hinder its own efforts has become increasingly apparent. It’s now time for the EU to reassert its credibility on the global stage, Reinhard Bütikofer argues, by not only speaking the language of power but also acting on it.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said about Unites States foreign policy that, “Americans will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the alternatives.” In other words, in foreign policy the US always finds a way out, but only after it has thoroughly investigated all blind alleys and faux pas. If only it were possible to speak of the EU’s foreign policy with such optimistic sarcasm. Instead, only cynical remarks come to mind: “EU foreign policy is always able to come up with a brilliant strategy while making sure that nobody takes it the least bit seriously;” “EU foreign policy has invented the perfect perpetual motion machine, gaining energy from every defeat for future failures;” “The louder the EU calls for a unified foreign policy, the more certain it is that nothing of the sort will happen.”

The EU’s habit of getting in its own way

An example from this year is the humiliation served up to EU Foreign Policy Commissioner and EU Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell during his February 2021 visit to Moscow. Borrell had, contrary to advice from various quarters, travelled to the Russian capital ill prepared and from a position of weakness, only to be scolded like a schoolboy. Adding insult to injury, the Russian government subsequently declared that it no longer had political relations with the European Union. This move signalled starkly that Russia perceives the EU as weak. More followed in April: Moscow placed sanctions on European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová and European Parliament President David Sassoli in retaliation for European sanctions over the poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Almost without exception, you would have needed a magnifying glass to see any reaction from the European capitals. Only Jourová showed any emotion, while the rest remained impassive as ever.

By imposing mild EU sanctions on China for serious human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in March 2021, Brussels at least initially appeared willing to take symbolic action. Faced with the harsh reaction of the Xi Jinping regime, it was able to agree on a unified position. In the European Parliament, only the left-wing GUE/NGL group, which includes Germany’s Die Linke, stuck to the argument that economic interests, no matter how short-sighted, must take precedence. However, even here the German government – and above all the chancellor herself – proved to be a massive obstacle to much needed European unity. Merkel seemed intent on apologising to China’s dictator for the fact that the EU, against Xi’s and Merkel’s will, had found the human rights violations in Xinjiang sufficiently atrocious to merit sanctions against several of the individuals responsible. In passing, the chancellor’s office said that the oft-invoked “common values” were of no operational significance for German foreign policy.

April brought further stumbles when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel indulged in their own special piece of theatre with “Sofagate” during an official visit to Turkey. The background to this inglorious drama, which will go down in the annals of EU history, was the bad-natured competition between two presidents who begrudge each other their rank. This rivalry had already been demonstrated in the very first year of their respective terms of office, during a veritable race to the African Union in Addis Ababa, which briefly gave the impression that the EU might actually be interested in strengthening ties to the African Union. But that wasn’t the point; it was about presidential bingo: who could shake more hands with the heads of which delegations? In Turkey, the two presidents were obliged to operate as a pair because, while overflowing with confidence individually, they didn’t trust each other an inch. Charles Michel who, unlike von der Leyen, had a protocol officer, used this occasion to place her on a side sofa instead of an equally powerful armchair, and to humiliate her in the seating arrangement at the lunch table and elsewhere as well. Von der Leyen could have turned this faux pas to her advantage had she focused on the reason behind the visit – the EU’s policy towards Turkey – rather than on her own bruised feelings. She then miscalculated by blaming the incident on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, certainly responsible for his fair share of blunders but here simply a gloating observer.

The list of recent failures is so extensive that many of the missteps have faded from memory. The cancellation of an important August invitation to Ukraine by President von der Leyen’s chef de cabinet, in breach of protocol and on the implausible grounds that they would be too busy during the Brussels holiday month to send a signal of solidarity with Ukraine, nearly sank without trace. The fact that von der Leyen’s commission – who exactly was responsible remains unclear – poured oil on the flames of the long smouldering Northern Ireland conflict in a misguided attempt at a show of strength vis-à-vis Boris Johnson in the turmoil of Brexit back in January 2021 has been largely forgotten. The fact that the EU was a helpless observer of the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the summer of 2020 and was unable to dampen the conflict was again forgotten – after Presidents Putin and Erdoğan had exploited the situation for their own benefit.

Merkel and Macron have both wasted too much time talking about autonomy without proving their own ability to act.

Jump-starting a stalled transatlantic partnership

Throughout this period of geopolitical error and absence, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron had largely turned a cold shoulder to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the transatlantic relationship; Europe must not remain indifferent to this. Tremendous distrust of the US reigns in Merkel’s chancellery, while Macron is clearly intoxicated by his own concept of European strategic autonomy but has not ultimately identified to whom this is addressed: the EU as a whole, “core Europe”, or simply “la France éternelle”? Unfortunately, the fact is that Merkel and Macron have both wasted too much time talking about autonomy without proving their own ability to act.

Moreover, they seem unaware that Biden needs to work quickly if he wants to avoid becoming a lame duck president after the 2022 midterm elections, and he won’t wait for Europe forever. He is already actively engaged. The three recent summits – G7, NATO, and the EU-US summit – highlight his determination to bridge divides and bring like-minded partners together in solving the challenges of the 21st century.

A new beginning in the transatlantic relationship is emerging. The EU-US summit has made some progress. The fact that the wretched Airbus-Boeing dispute is finally to be buried after 17 years is satisfying, even if it triggers some head shaking about how the US and the EU have been able to deal with this strategic stupidity for so long. There is also an agreement on the EU’s proposed Trade and Technology Council (TTC), which is a step in the right direction. Progress has been made, but a lot of work remains ahead of us. Other trade disputes, such as US tariffs on European steel and aluminium, have unfortunately not been resolved. And in spite of all the summitry that took place, there was a glaring lack of progress when it comes to climate change. This is not a time for complacency. The transatlantic partnership is moving forward again, but it mustn’t lose momentum in tackling the pressing issues of our times.

Biden has understood that we cannot simply return to the status quo ante Trump, ante Obama. Too much has shifted in the world and the transatlantic relationship to simply recycle old formulas. US “leadership” must be redefined as “partnership in leadership”. Europe need to spell out the path to forming a common camp of democracies against authoritarianism with the US and other partners without merely subordinating itself to the hegemonic struggle between the US and China. It will not be at all easy to bring the bilateral relations between individual European nations and the US, woven of varying strengths, down to a common EU denominator. But if the EU’s two strongest countries, France and Germany, refuse to take on integrative leadership responsibilities in the EU in the process, all that will remain in the end is frustration and fragmentation.

Even when the EU has the instruments it needs for new approaches, it seems no one is willing to use them.

Speaking power, wielding power

Relations with China will be a litmus test of all parties’ abilities to hold their own on the global stage. Unfortunately, it often seems as if a self-deceiving fatalism prevails in the face of this challenge, as it does with climate change. Some still ignore or deny the magnitude of what must be done, while others have fallen prey to resignation, believing that they cannot effectively influence the direction of developments anyway. This position is not suicide out of fear of death but infirmity out of fear that a cure might not work. In the face of massive upheavals, only consciously designed change can create stability and yesterday’s failures cannot simply become justifications for continued apathy. Borrell rightly said that the EU must learn the language of power. There is hardly anyone who hasn’t quoted this true phrase. But even when the EU has the instruments it needs for new approaches, for instance the Connectivity Strategy, it seems no one is willing to use them.

Biden, on the other hand, is moving ahead and has used the G7 summit to push forward his proposal of an international infrastructure initiative – “Build Back Better World” – in response to the Chinese Silk Road. Still, so far it is little more than a strategic idea agreed upon by like-minded partners. It must be filled with action, but apparently the EU still can’t get its act together to use its Connectivity Strategy and move from conceptual work to a more concrete contribution to international governance.

The EU is not currently meeting the full potential of its foreign policy capabilities, nor has its power been sapped to the extent that recent events suggest. It would be a positive development if parliaments, often more sensitive to current challenges than entrenched executives, could play a more important role in foreign policy. Moreover, Germany also has an important role to play in a renewal that has been a long time coming. I hope that “where the danger lies, also grows the saving power”. The expectations currently projected onto the Greens reflect the aspirations of many to do better than the miserable status quo.

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