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Hans-Gert Pöttering: "Europe Needs To Embrace Its Regional And Global Role"

Former President of the EU Parliament and of the Konrad Adenauer foundation, Hans-Gert Pöttering, explores the three difficult but fundamental challenges that Europe must to come to terms with, in this chapter written for the diaNEOsis book "The Future of Europe".

"The Future of Europe" is a collection of 20 important essays written by some of the most prominent EU figures in Europe and in Greece. The book is available for purchase, currently only in Greek, here.

From its very start, European integration has never been a merely economic project, but a profoundly political one—founded upon the conviction that only a united Europe, based on a common set of values, will stop the vicious circle of conflict and hatred. These values—human dignity, human rights, peace, democracy and tolerance—remain the backbone of the EU and should be the guiding principles to address one of its most urgent challenges, the increasingly volatile global and regional environment. For several reasons and more than ever, we need an EU which is able to be a capable actor on the international arena.

First, the EU faces increasingly assertive regional and global players, especially (but not only) China. The consequence: tomorrow’s world risks to be coined less by the EU and its values than it is today. The EU’s weight on the international stage will shrink, an evolution accelerated by Brexit. After the departure of the United Kingdom only one out of five seats in the UN Security Council will be held by an EU country. The EU’s shrinking demographic weight will furthermore have an economic impact. While currently four out of the ten biggest world economies are EU economies, by 2050 only one—Germany—will remain among the top 10.

Second, the Western world and universal values such as human rights and democracy are challenged by an authoritarian-isolationist discourse which refuses free trade, international institutions and the rule of law. Right-wing and left-wing populists embrace this discourse and often promote a gloomy and pessimist world view.

We need a veritable European employment agency which could enhance the links between the labour markets of the member states and also provide education and formation opportunities in order to reduce adaptation costs.

Third, while the US remains the most important and natural ally of the European Union, its international leadership cannot be presumed as a given on all global issues, as the retreat from the Paris climate agreement has demonstrated. More fundamentally, the preference for deals and the questioning of the relevance of international agreements has increased the insecurity in some parts of the Western world.

Fourth, threats have become increasingly transnational, such as international terrorism, cyber-attacks or other forms of hybrid warfare.

At the same time, the EU is looking back at almost a decade shaped by numerous crises: the debt crisis, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, the migration crisis of 2015, numerous terror attacks in various EU countries, the rise of left-wing and right-wing populist parties and last but not least Brexit. In addition, the EU, as the rest of the world, faces the challenges of globalization and digitalization and needs to adapt its economies and societies to the challenges of digitalization. The EU’s citizens have however become tired of crisis and expect the EU on the one hand to protect them from external risks and on the other hand to shape the future.

In the years to come, the EU will thus have to address three formidable tasks in order to respond to the above-mentioned challenges.


1. Creating an EU that protects

First and foremost, this is about guaranteeing basic security from terror attacks, cyberattacks and other threats. The past two years have been a painful reminder of the transnational and transborder nature of terrorism which each member state on its own will be unable to adequately address. This is also one policy field where the consensus for more European action has been the strongest. Therefore the EU needs a stronger cooperation on the exchange of information but also a veritable EU Intelligence agency network. Protection also means to jointly guarantee the control of our borders, a unified entry-exit scheme, and a strong and capable European Coast and Border Guard. Protection has however to be established in a way that respects our key principles and values. On the one hand the value of human dignity; those who escape war and conflict should still find a safe harbour in the EU. On the other hand the principle of solidarity; the states that are concerned with migration the most need to be able to rely on the other member states for support.

Furthermore, the EU will have to address the challenges of globalisation and digitalization, two global trends that have brought a lot of benefits to the EU community but which have affected states and regions inside the EU to a very different extent. One of the possible instruments to counter such imbalances would be enhancing the internal market and particularly the freedom of movement: we still do not have a veritable labour market in the EU which is the reason why unemployment in some regions is not absorbed by the demand in others. Therefore, we need a veritable European employment agency which could enhance the links between the labour markets of the member states and also provide education and formation opportunities in order to reduce adaptation costs. The conclusion of the digital internal market should equally be made a priority.


2. An EU that shapes the future

Second, the EU needs to guarantee future welfare and economic well-being by shaping the world economy according to its rules and values.

While protection is important, it should not lead to protectionism and isolation or to a questioning of the model of open societies. If the EU wants to shape the future role of the global economy, it can only do so if it engages in a pro-active trade policy particularly with those countries which largely share our norms and values. Due to the uncertain prospects of a transatlantic trade deal, it is even more important to conclude trade agreements with like-minded countries such as Australia, New Zealand Japan, Mexico or the Mecrosur. Only an active trade policy will enable the EU to shape global norms according to its own high standards. One should not be naïve when strategic sectors are concerned, however scepticism should not prevent an agreement with such key actors.

If the EU wants to continue being a unique success story for the coming decades, it will have to embrace its role and its responsibilities on the international level—particularly for its own Neighbourhood. Its activity should also be guided by its values, something which has moved somewhat into the background following the sobering experiences of the Arab spring, but partly also the different coloured revolutions in its Eastern Neighbourhood. This does not mean to conduct a naïve and uncritical policy; conditionality is still of crucial importance. However, the EU will have to make more attractive offers to those countries which embark on a road to reform and democratization.

While the absorption capacity of the EU and its delicate institutional frameworks sets certain limits to EU enlargement, some more advanced forms of sectoral integration in the EU should be considered: countries such as Ukraine, Turkey or the United Kingdom after Brexit may, for the time being, either not be interested or not eligible to be a full-member of the EU but nonetheless constitute key partners for the European Union.  They could instead be part of a European Stability Area which would include a wide-ranging market access as well as a Customs Union and strong cooperation in the areas of energy, migration and security.

If the EU wants to shape the future role of the global economy, it can only do so if it engages in a pro-active trade policy particularly with those countries which largely share our norms and values.

The EU should also engage more strongly with the reform countries of North Africa and offer far more in terms of market access to the EU in order to enhance their economic resilience. When looking south, the EU will also have to look beyond its immediate neighbourhood; this means to engage more strongly with African countries, entering investment partnerships and provide more opportunities for legal migration.

Due to its shrinking demographic, economic and political weight on the world stage, the EU and its member states need to aim at a more unified stance on the world stage. This includes one common seat of the EU in a number of global institutions. Another measure would be the adoption of foreign policy decisions by a constructive qualified majority as long as no vital interests of one member state are at stake.  More importantly, the EU should increasingly assume its role as one of the key guardians of international order and human rights.

More than ever before, the world needs the EU as a normative power.  In a world where many countries still measure power and status by military capabilities, the EU has no other choice than to strengthen its own military capabilities; while the creation of appropriate structures (inter alia a full-fledged EU military headquarter for the conduct of all military missions) is important, the focus should be on the enhancement of capabilities and putting boots on the ground. In that respect, the creation of a European Defence Fund is a key instrument which should be implemented quickly and be given the appropriate means. Further priorities should be the reform of the EU battle groups with the goal to make them more deployable, this should include also full-fledged military missions and not merely training missions. Once the battle groups have been deployed, we need to move forward to create more integrated military structures. Several options are thinkable; the basis the EU has with the Eurocorps might be a foundation for such further integrated structures. Ultimately, the EU’s readiness to act in crisis in its neighbourhood but also beyond (in Subsahara Africa for example) will be decisive. In this context a strong partnership with regional actors such as the African Union will be of utmost importance.

At the same time, a more active foreign policy needs stronger support among our citizens. It is therefore necessary to communicate differently to our citizen and emphasize the importance an active and common foreign, security and defense policy has for their own safety.


3. Remain a community of values

Third, the EU must remain a community of values. Apart from all the necessary reform steps outlined above, the relative demographic, economic and political weight of the EU and the global West as a whole will most likely shrink in the years and decades to come. Therefore, the EU’s “normative” weight and its normative leadership will become even more important.  The EU must be, more than ever, a community of values, both internally as well as externally. This does not mean that the EU has to renounce its interests; but the experience of the past decades has demonstrated that complying with one’s values will ultimately also benefit one’s interests.

Internally, it means that the EU must be built on key values such as human dignity, democracy, the rule of law, solidarity, subsidiarity and dialogue. The EU is currently challenged by a nation-centric, isolationist and sometimes also xenophobic rhetoric, which aims at instigating fear and an atmosphere of despair and cultural pessimism. The EU must oppose this discourse, not with naïve enthusiasm but with awareness and self-consciousness of its own successes.

The EU does not aim at harmonising national traditions; rather it respects the constitutional, historical and legal legacy of each member state. However, it is also based on the division of power, the freedom of the press and the protection of the rights of the opposition. If governments of member states risk departing from these key principles, the EU should primarily engage in dialogue but if this is fruitless it should also adopt tougher instruments such as a reduction of financial means. To tolerate such behaviour without any counter-measures would ultimately weaken the EU and also ultimately the support for European integration itself in the respective countries.

Externally, despite of a healthy dose of pragmatism regarding the impact the EU may have, it is equally of utmost importance to conduct a value-driven foreign policy; the EU has a responsibility to protect its neighbourhood. I would also disagree with the narrative where ultimately autocratic states might be preferable as long as they are stable. As the past 27 years in the Eastern and the Southern neighbourhood of the EU have demonstrated, autocratic regimes fail to provide stability in the long term and eventually become source of instability themselves. It is therefore in the interest of the EU to support those countries which attempt to embark on the road of political and economic reform.  

Τoo often, the European policy discourse in the member states remains self-centered and self-righteous. We need to learn that grave problems of one member state should concern all the other member states.

This means also that despite of all the uncertainties and certainly also some frustration with the current US administration, the EU must remain closely committed to the alliance with the United States. Before judging from a moral high ground, we should first and foremost also live up to our own commitments: moving our defense expenditure towards the 2% spending goal is not a gesture to please the current President of the United States but rather to honour our own promises. Despite our disagreements on key issues such as climate change, one should be very careful to put Beijing or Moscow at the same level as Washington. It is with the United States that we share most of our key values.

The EU will only be able to fulfil these tasks if it acts united and withstands the temptation to be divided by internal or external forces. In order to achieve this unity, the EU’s member states and their societies need to make a greater effort to listen to each other and to demonstrate a stronger empathy for each other’s position. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. Τoo often, the European policy discourse in the member states remains self-centered and self-righteous. We need to learn that grave problems of one member state should concern all the other member states. If the others choose to ignore this problem, it will become a problem for the entire EU. One example for this has been the stance on migration. While they were certainly not without mistakes themselves, for far too long, countries such as Italy, Greece and Malta have been left alone with the challenge to deal with the migration flows by the other EU member states.

The divergences between member states will not disappear overnight. It is however crucial to understand and to communicate that the EU means something different for each member state and for each society; for some it is primarily an economic community, for others a political one. Some societies primarily expect solidarity while for others it is a community of law in which rules have to be kept and implemented. When judging the European positions of member states it is therefore paramount to be aware of their expectations and their historic background. This cannot be done without a proper knowledge of the common European history as it has shaped the perspective of how different European societies see the EU and what they expect from it. Projects such as the newly opened House of European History in Brussels can help to be a first step to enhance this mutual understanding which will be of key importance in order to preserve our community of values and thus be a credible and capable actor in the future.