The EU Isn’t Built to Lead

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell speaks at a media conference in Brussels, Sept. 21.

Photo: Associated Press

Ursula von der Leyen, the former German defense minister and Angela Merkel protégé now serving as president of the European Commission, has said repeatedly that Europe needs to think and act geopolitically. She is right, but judging by recent events, a geopolitically effective European Union isn’t coming anytime soon.

It was bad enough before the Armenians and Azerbaijanis started fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh again. The EU faces crises in the north (Belarus), east (the Syrian war and tension in the Eastern Mediterranean), south (Libya) and west (the Brexit impasse) and is struggling to produce a response to any of them. To be fair, all of these problems are tricky and none have obvious solutions, but the primary issue is that the EU isn’t set up to be a geopolitical actor.

This is partly a problem of process. The European Union is not built for speed. On important foreign-policy issues, where any one of the 27 member states can block action with a veto, getting to a consensus requires so much compromise that the ultimate policy often loses all coherence and any real chance of success. So much time is needed to reach that likely ineffective policy decision that by the time the EU reaches the station, the train has already pulled away.

Take the crisis in Belarus. After weeks of wrangling, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, summoned the union’s 27 foreign ministers to Brussels for a climactic meeting. The plan was to support Belarusian protests against election fraud and to deter Russia by slapping sanctions on key regime supporters. But nothing came out of the meeting. The government of Cyprus, elected by the roughly 900,000 citizens in the portion of the island it controls, refused to impose sanctions on Belarus unless the rest of the EU (population about 440 million) agreed to sanctions on Turkey over an unrelated dispute. Another summit is scheduled for Oct. 12. The Kremlin—which wields significant influence in Cyprus thanks to deep banking and financial ties—must be quaking in its boots.

The unanimity rule could be changed so that foreign-policy decisions can be made by a majority. But that reform itself requires unanimous consent—and it is hard to see member countries, large or small, giving up their veto.

But it is more than a process issue. The European Union has no armed forces of its own, and its diplomatic service has limited authority and must compete with the diplomats of member countries to drive world events. Germany, France and Italy, the union’s most powerful member states, often speak movingly about the need for a common EU foreign policy, but when push comes to shove they remain committed to their own views and national interests. Italy and France back opposing sides in the Libyan civil war. When it comes to the dispute that divides Cyprus and Greece from Turkey over hydrocarbon resources under the eastern Mediterranean, France sent ships to the area in support of the Grecophones. Germany, which has roughly three million Turkish immigrants and fears that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will unleash another destabilizing wave of refugees, is trying to broker a compromise and wants to go slow over sanctions that would infuriate the Turks. Neither Paris nor Berlin thinks Mr. Borrell should have the power to resolve their dispute.

On the level of foreign policy, the European Union often looks less like a single actor pursuing a strategic vision than a competitive group of middle and smaller powers striving to undercut one another. Even when the EU speaks with one voice, its message often goes unheard. It is not only big countries like the U.S., China and Russia that ignore Europe when it suits them. Middle powers like Turkey, Israel and Iran defy Brussels with little fear.

While the union squabbles, its neighborhood continues to deteriorate. With Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko now forced to turn to Vladimir Putin for survival, Russia appears to have an opportunity to draw Belarus into a much closer and more dependent relationship. Turkey’s alienation from Europe continues to deepen. The war in Syria proceeds largely as if the EU didn’t exist, and nobody expects Brussels to have much voice in resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijani crisis. Europe has lost ground to China in Africa, and was wrong-footed by the Gulf Arabs’ recent tilt from the Palestinians to Israel.

Much has been written about how Donald Trump’s unconventional, disruptive and sometimes contradictory foreign policy views have undermined the Western alliance. The president’s critics have a point, but the EU’s inability to act effectively on the international stage is a far graver concern—and much harder to remedy. President von der Leyen is absolutely right that the world needs a geopolitical Europe, but if she has a strategy for creating one, it hasn’t been unveiled.

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Appeared in the September 29, 2020, print edition.

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