In her mission letter, President-elect von der Leyen emphasises that she wants the next Commission to be a ‘geopolitical Commission’. She envisages a more strategic, more assertive and more united Union in its approach to international relations, and she would like the High Representative / Vice-President to contribute to creating a stronger link between the internal and the external aspects of EU policies so that the external action becomes a systematic part of decision-making processes. More specifically, she would like the action to all external-facing Commissioners to be better coordinated, in particular by letting them participate in a dedicated group chaired by the VP for a Stronger Europe in the World.
These aims largely coincide with the requirements put forward in our memo to the High Representative, in which we called for a refocus from the internal to the external aspects of EU policies, emphasised the new linkages between the economic and foreign relations/security dimensions of its interaction with the rest of the world, and advocated a “change of mindset” to address the threats to the EU’s economic sovereignty. We therefore welcome this new emphasis as it indicates awareness of the magnitude of the challenges the EU is facing on the world stage, and of the need for a reset in its approach to international relations.
A number of questions arise nevertheless.
- Is the traditional separation between external economic relations and foreign relations sustainable?
This separation, which resulted from the primacy of the United States both as the ultimate provider of security to European states and the guarantor of the international economic system, is one of the key premises upon which the EU system was built. It has made it possible for the EU to keep foreign and security policy and foreign economic policy essentially unconnected. Beyond the stance of the current US administration, international relations are likely to be dominated by the US-China rivalry and its across-the-board implications for security, diplomacy, trade, finance, the internet and a series of other fields. Neither the US nor China separates the foreign affairs/security field from the economic field. Should the EU do the same?
- Do you regard economic sovereignty as an appropriate concept and if so, how would you define it in the present context?
Economic sovereignty means different things to different people. It is crucial for the EU to be as clear as possible about its aims. In the US, there is a growing debate about the benefits of trade openness and the potential gains from decoupling from China. But a decoupling strategy cannot be in the EU’s interest. EU prosperity critically depends on global economic exchange and China is set to become an increasingly relevant trading partner for the EU. It is therefore in the EU’s interest to retain its trade openness tradition and specifically to engage with China. While the US is in direct geopolitical confrontation with China, the EU is not. The central challenge for the EU is, therefore, to uphold its economic sovereignty while staying highly intertwined with both the US and China.
- Do you regard both Chinese and American attitudes as a threat to Europe’s economic sovereignty?
Europe is a collection of countries whose cooperation is largely governed by rules, whereas China is governed by a one-party system. China’s growing influence over individual EU countries, its blurring of economic interests and security/military goals, and its divergence from multilateral standards are all source of concern for the EU.
The relationship with the United States is different. The US has been Europe’s most important ally since the second world war and our ongoing alliance reflects Europe’s democratic values and history. But the use of the centrality of the US financial system and the US currency to enforce US preferences unilaterally is a blow to Europe’s sovereignty.
Europe’s response to this new situation has been piecemeal. It has shown a readiness to address the new challenges in various fields. But what it needs is a more encompassing strategy for a context in which partners and competitors are prepared to let economic relationships serve broader geostrategic goals.
- How will you trigger the necessary change of mindset?
A long-established EU tradition is that policies are run in silos and, to a large extent, depoliticised. This fragmented approach had its logic as long as the overall framework for international economic relations was stable. It has shaped attitudes, but also procedures and legislation. There are considerable obstacles on the way to a more coherent approach and there are even good reasons to retain a separation across fields. Within the Commission, policy in certain domains will and probably should remain independent from the overall foreign relations priorities.
- What are the organisational and procedural steps needed to ensure better coordination within the Commission?
How do you conceive your coordination role within the Commission? Who among your colleagues are those you should work with as a priority? Do you envisage creating an economic sovereignty committee with your colleagues for enlargement and neighbourhood, trade, development, humanitarian aid and migration? The External Action Service is currently separate from the Commission services. Does it need to be brought under the same umbrella?