In the last few years, the European Union (EU) has been facing a growing number of challenges, both internally and externally. On the external level, military confrontation in Ukraine, the challenges emanating from the Middle East region and the terroristic threat all create pressures for a new and strengthened role of the EU in the international arena. However, this role is strongly affected by internal challenges such as the economic and financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and the rise of euroscepticism in many Member States.

All these issues have been at the core of the international conference “The EU in Global Re-ordering: Carving out a New Role for Europe”, held on the 5th February at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). This conference was the final event of a four-year research program led by the global network “Global Re-ordering: Evolution through European Networks (GREEN), funded by the European Commission’s DG Research and Innovation in the framework of the FP7 Program. This network involves sixteen members, among which fourteen universities and two think tanks (namely FRIDE and ISPI).

The panel, chaired by the EuroNews journalist Margherita Sforza, was composed of eminent personalities of Member States political environment and European institutions, namely the former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, the Vice-President of the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs Ioan Mircea Pașcu, the Director for Enlargement, Security, Foreign Affairs Council Support in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union Zoltan Martinusz, the Deputy Director General for International Cooperation and Development, Policy and Thematic Coordination of the European Commission Klaus Rudischhauser, and the Executive Secretary General of the European External Action Service, Ambassador Pierre Vimont.

The debate has been opened by a speech of the President of the ULB Éric De Keuleneer, followed by opening remarks by Mario Telò (Jean Monnet Chair ad personam at the ULB, emeritus president of the Institut d’Etudes Européennes, and professor at the LUISS Guido Carli university) and by Paolo Magri (Executive Vice President and Director of the ISPI).

After a brief presentation of the GREEN project, M. Telò explained that one of the basic findings of the research conducted was the existence of major external implications of the economic crisis, namely diminishing capacities and missions and growing competition among Member States about external relations issues. He listed a number of worrisome developments that occurred in the latest years such as the poor implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, the poor results in Libya, and the coming back of power politics and military confrontations in Europe. This appears particularly grave in a moment in which the European Union (EU) is facing major threats by external actors, whether informal (such as Al Qaeda) or territorially based (such as the Islamic State).
M. Telò then exposed the conditions that currently strongly push the EU to assert a new role on the international scene.
On the external side, the EU is currently surrounded by instability, dramatic migration flows, and in general by a “global unstable and unsafe context”. Moreover, the EU appears less and less popular to its global partners, as a model and as a policy maker, as a result of the internal crisis that has determined the projection of a negative external image. However, he affirmed, even though the old multilateral network created on the initiative of the United States in Bretton Woods (1944) order and the United Nations is undoubtedly in troubles (it suffers from an implementation gap and legitimacy crisis), multilateralism may have a better future. In this respect, he underlined the recent growth in number, relevance, and scope of regional organizations and mini-multilateral fora and arrangements. He indicated this development of multilateralism as a possible resource in order to halt power politics, to cope with fragmentation tendencies and to develop a better, multi-layered and multi-level global governance.

Secondly, M. Telò noted the emergence and strengthening of bottom-up tendencies in the recent years. In particular, he referred to the growing participation of transnational advocacy networks and non-governmental organization in international fora and regional organizations, which forms the basis of the rise of a new form of legitimacy. On this point, he recommended that the EU support this emerging regionalism and multilateralism. This support should also be combined with a transformation of European external relations and strategic partnerships from a kind of “one-way teaching” based on a hub-and-spoke model into a “more balanced, more symmetrical, and mutual-learning process”.

At the same time, the Professor stressed the link between the internal and external dimension of the EU’s action. He claimed that the EU’s external relations will be successful again only provided that the EU is again economically and socially performing, both as a market and as a social model, “even at the price of a two-speed Europe” and of the “sad perspective” of a Britain’s exit. In his view, it is essential to stress that further integration does not mean necessarily an increased democratic deficit, an increased poverty, or a tendency to build a “fortress Europe”.

Finally, M. Telò argued that, even though the EU is a regional and a global actor, it will remain a peculiar and unprecedented one: Europe will not be “a second United States”, it will not become a superpower and a military power, mainly because of structural factors. A “low profile in international relations” is deeply rooted in European history. However, much can be done to improve both the efficiency and the legitimacy of the EU’s foreign policy. In his perspective, even if the European External Action Service (EEAS) represent a major diplomatic tool for the EU, important limitations still exist for an effective European international role, such as the lack of coherence and coordination between Member States, the poor consistency between the various EU policies, and gaps between discourse and practice.
He concluded by affirming that 2015 is the time for “a new start” for the European institutions.

P. Magri opened his intervention with some provocative questions raised by recent events, such as “EU’s foreign policy: when if not now?”.
He listed a number of ingredients that have characterized, since the inception of the European integration process, all the new policies devised by the EU (internal market, competition, enlargement, euro…): extraordinary challenges providing the sense of urgency, institutional arrangements (notably new treaties) backing the new policies, and structural and organizational adaptation enabling their implementation. These conditions, according to P. Magri, did not come always in the same order: sometimes visions came before structures, other times structures came before visions, or crisis occurred before the other ingredients.

Analysing the current situation, P. Magri concluded that all these three ingredients are currently there, and moreover they came in the right order. Indeed, first there was a process of institutional adaptation represented by the signing of the Lisbon Treaty (which enabled the EU to speak with a single voice) and the establishment of the EEAS. Only at the end of these processes came the challenges. The crises we are facing are, according to the speaker, likely to undermine the three main pillars of the past EU external projection: to the East, the enlargement and neighbourhood policies; to the South, the Mediterranean policy; to the West, the transatlantic dialogue.
As regards the East, the EU has proved so far united on the issue on sanctions to Russia. However, according to P. Magri, it is still hard to grasp a “EU exit strategy”. On the Middle East, Europe was to a certain extent united in reaction to the Arab Spring and in the fight against terrorism, but one can hardly acknowledge the existence of a EU “grand strategy” to deal with a dramatically changing Middle East. On the transatlantic side, the Europeans are struggling to balance the increased attention that the EU are paying to Asia.

The interventions of the panel were preceded by a message by the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz. His message built on the assumption that, even though Europe is confronted with major challenges internally and externally, at the same time Europe’s contribution in world affairs is necessary, as 2014 has shown how precarious the international scenario is.
The President of the European Parliament argued that the European Union must demonstrate its ability to be a contributor to, rather than a consumer of, security. This result must be achieved through a number of responses. Among them, the EU needs to develop the financial capability to meet new and emerging challenges, for which a new system of own resources also for foreign policy is needed. Moreover, M. Schultz advocated the creation of a “genuine European defence”. Indeed, he remarked, most of the security challenges Europe faces have a hybrid form, involving state and non-state actors, terrorist organizations, organized crime, and organizations for human trafficking. The nature of these challenges is such that no state alone is able to cope with them.
The President concluded his message by recalling the major role that can be played by the EEAS and the High Representative in achieving these goals, and by stating firmly that the EU “is, and must be, part of the solution”.

Later, the floor was given to the distinguished panelists.
E. Letta contribution focused on three main points: the new team in the European institutions, the EU external dimension, and the peculiarities of the current situation.

First of all, he stated his optimism with regard to the new team in Brussels. In particularly, the former Italian Prime Minister welcomed the new legitimacy of the European Commission as regards its relationship both with the European Parliament and with the voters. In his view, far from being enough, it however represents a first step towards further democracy at the EU level. In this respect, he reminded that the program of the Commission was presented to the voters and the European Parliament, which makes it for the Commission itself difficult not to respect its program.
Another reason for hope is, according to him, the high level of the new College of Commissioners, which is composed of many former ministers and eminent political personalities.
Finally, he welcomed the introduction of policy clusters and new vice-presidents in the Commission, which he defined as “a crucial step” towards overcoming the issue of the relationship between the number of EU Member States and the number of the commissioners, which has so far remained unsolved. Moreover, the fact that many of the vice-presidents come from small countries is in his perspective an important step in the affirmation of a Commission composed of personalities committed to a “European mission”. In this respect, he also stressed the importance of the role of the vice-president Frans Timmermans.

As far as the EU external dimension is concerned, the main issue, E. Letta stressed, is that the EU has been adopting in the last five years an “inward-looking approach” as a consequence of the economic crisis. Indeed, the political leadership of Member States was during this period completely focused on economic issues and, in his view, “we missed a lot of opportunities around the world”. E. Letta concluded on this point by stating that the fact that today Europe is required to be present in many areas of the world can be an important impetus for the EU to shift to a more outward-looking approach and to a “global leadership role”: if the EU does not, he argued, it will be a problem also for its domestic agenda.

Finally, E. Letta made some considerations about the peculiar moment that the EU faces, with Greece rising again as a major challenge and euroscepticism spreading in many of the Member States, notably in Italy. On this issue, he showed as an example the opinions he collected during his recent visit in an Italian school. Asked about the main reason of the rise of the eurosceptical parties’ popularity in Italy, the students were presented four possible answers: the economic crisis, immigration, the crash of the equilibrium among EU Member States (that is, the perceived dominance of Germany), and the overburocratization of the EU. The reason chosen by the majority of the students was the dominance of Germany, and E. Letta claimed to be “shocked” by this result, as he expected to hear the students answer that the roots of the eurosceptical rise should be found in the economic crisis and unemployment. Therefore, E. Letta concluded that it is fundamental for the EU to acknowledge the mood of the voters and to cope with the issue of euroscepticism, which is not limited to marginal countries or groups of voters.

Asked about the possibility to overcome the issue of unanimity in foreign policy, E. Letta answered that, in his view, the main problem is not represented by institutional rules but by Member States’ behaviour. Indeed, he claimed, Member States must understand that it is better to have a common position rather than having a position as an individual country but being ineffective.

I.M. Paşcu began his intervention by outlining the factors that define an international actor, in order to assess whether the EU possesses these qualities or not. Among them, he listed power, authority (namely stemming from a moral standing), attraction, and recognition as an international actor, for instance in international fora and organizations. He provided the example of the United Nations, where the EU only enjoys an observer status, which clearly shows that in this context the EU is not recognized as an international actor.

Looking at the broader international context, he argued that the international system that Europe (along with the United States) contributed to establish is currently threatened as a result of a global redistribution of power, a process which was undoubtedly accelerated by the economic crisis. The speaker claimed that, in the areas in which it is more integrated (e.g. trade), the EU performs much better and has a greater impact compared to other fields such as foreign policy. In this respect, he regards the establishment of the EEAS as a positive development for two main reasons: first, it helps pool the EU’s multiple instruments together and use them more efficiently; secondly, they offer an interface to external partners. He concluded on this point that the results achieved reflect “what was achievable under the circumstances in which the EEAS was created”.

He later highlighted the paradox that currently affects the integration process: on the one hand, many observers agree that the answer to the crisis must be “more Europe”; on the other hand, “more Europe” is being provided by “the embodiment of intergovernmentalism”, namely the Council. However, he wondered whether this could be done in any other way, given that the EU was created by its Member States.

I.M. Paşcu agreed with E. Letta that a major issue is that the economic and financial crisis has deprived the Member States and the EU of funds and has made the EU look inward, and neglect what happens outside and along the borders. However, as the events in Paris have shown, these challenges are likely to spill in.
He recalled that the EU is currently facing two kinds of security threats: one, terrorism, affecting the security of individuals, and one which is more “traditional” and territorial (namely military confrontation on the EU’s Eastern borders, where, he underlined, the illegal annexation of Crimes represents a “challenge to the political and legal order in Europe and to the post-cold war security system”). In particular, he identified the Black Sea Region as the geographic area in which these two kinds of threats (embodied in the Ukrainian territorial issue and in the security threat posed by the ISIS) articulate most dramatically.
In his view, the two dimensions of security must be put together in order to shape a “comprehensive security concept” that has to be distilled in a European security strategy.

Later, the floor was given to Z. Martinusz, who provided a detailed overview (supported by graphs and figures) of the main topics on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in the recent years. He underlined the importance of this institution in the realm of foreign policy, as European foreign policy is still conducted primarily by Member States; therefore, the Council is the institution where national positions come together to be amalgamated into a “European position”. He underlined that setting the agenda is a major institutional power and recalled that, whilst before the Lisbon Treaty the task of agenda setting in foreign policy was owned by the rotating Presidency, the High Representative now plays a major role.

Overall, since 2011 the top three items on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council were Syria, Libya and the Middle East peace process: therefore, the Council tended to focus almost only on issues related to the Southern neighbourhood. The Eastern Partnership, Russia and Ukraine were only occasionally mentioned before 2013.
In the Southern neighbourhood, whereas most issues tended to move in and out of the agenda rather quickly (for instance, Tunisia was discussed immediately after the revolution but rarely after that, Libya was discussed during 2011 and became prominent again in 2014, Egypt was discussed mainly in 2011 and 2013), the only constant object of discussion was Syria.
As regards Africa, Z. Martinusz noted that the points on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council clearly revolved around three main crisis areas: the Central African Republic, the Ivory Coast, and Mali-Sahel. In these areas, the discussion was mainly limited to the crisis period and the agenda was highly event-driven.
Another recurrent issue, Z. Martinusz showed, has been the Western Balkans, namely the Serbia-Kosovo relations and the granting of a candidate status to Serbia.
Finally, he noted that the EU’s strategic partnerships (namely with Japan, China and the United States) were rarely discussed (for instance, he noted, Myanmar was discussed more often than Japan, China, India, and South Korea combined).
Later, Z. Martinusz mentioned a number of thematic issues that have been at the core of the Foreign Policy Council discussions: namely energy, human rights, environment, and the EEAS itself.

After this overview, he made some overall observations about the Foreign Affairs Council’s agenda. In particular, he stated that the Council has had an excessive focus on the South. Secondly, in his view, agenda setting was mainly reactive rather than proactive (he noted, the EU was less effective in keeping the interest high after the crises). Finally, he highlighted a lack of discussion on global and long-term issues and on strategic partnerships.

K. Rudishhauser’s intervention mainly focused about long-term developments in the international system. As he underlined, economic activity and population are both shifting rapidly to the South and the East, and there will be no longer a situation of a rich North and a poor South. Among the issues to be addressed, one of the most important is how to cope with the issue of poverty, given that inequalities are increasing in both developing and developed countries.
In addition, long-term global developments such as climate change require new governance approaches. In this respect, K. Rudishhauser noted the greater role played in the recent years by regional organizations, the BRICS countries and other emerging powers, which seems to be a basis for the emergence of a more multipolar world and of a “new global governance”. In this context, not only the governments are important actors, but also more and more transnational actors and networks play a major role.

Overall, he identified a number of major challenges Europe will be facing for the next twenty or thirty years. First of all, crisis and conflicts in the neighbouring regions, which have been increasing in the recent years. Secondly, climate change, which must be addressed more seriously, as otherwise it will become more and more costly to do so. Thirdly, terrorism. Finally, sustainability issues, namely those related to water and food resources.

Switching the focus onto the EU’s international role against the background of these long-term issues, K. Rudishhauser noted that, when it comes to “hard power”, the EU is not yet a very strong actor. Moreover, hard power represents a challenge insofar it is likely to determine major divisions among Member States. However, the EU is much stronger as far as “soft power” is concerned. According to him, the impact of the EU’s soft power is often underestimated, but it has the potential to play a major role especially with regard to the aforementioned long-term challenges. For instance, he underlined, when it comes to climate change Europe is the most proactive and progressive actor on the international scene. In addition, Europe provided many good examples to others, for example in terms of governance, inclusiveness of the political process, and external effects of its internal regulation on global regulation (for instance in the realm of trade, but also in other area).

In his view, it is also often underestimated that the EU is present and active in every crisis around the world (even more than the USA), even though sometimes only in terms of humanitarian assistance. Moreover, the EU has a multitude of instruments, ranging from financial resources to frameworks for political dialogue, crisis instruments, instruments for fighting terrorism, regulation, and humanitarian assistance. In this respect, he provided the example of the newly adopted policy for Syria and Northern Iraq launched by the European Commission, accompanied by a package of one billion-euro support.

In sum, K. Rudishhauser concluded that the EU’s role in the world is underestimated, mainly because its citizens and external partners have extremely high expectations. However, he claimed to be rather optimistic: as he argued, even though there are many improvements to make, we are already showing good examples of a future international role for Europe.

The last speech was given by P. Vimont, who firstly draw a clear and concise picture of the context in which the EU currently stands.
To begin with, he noted that the main feature of today’s international context is the return of power politics. However, since there is no real leading power in the world, we are witnessing “power politics without power”, which leads to instability.

The Ambassador agreed with K. Rudishhauser that we should not be so critical about the EU’s record on the international scene, as none of the other actors (for instance the USA, Russia or the other emerging powers) seems to be controlling the situation. He reminded that the EU has however achieved some results, such as the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, or the pursuit of important negotiations in Africa.
However, P. Vimont pointed out, if we look at “hard crisis” (i.e. Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Yemen, Libya) it is clear that the EU is not performing well. Even in regional and global issues such as migrations, climate change, terrorism, and energy, the EU is struggling to find its role.
He concluded on this point by describing the current record of the EU in the world as a glass that is “half empty and half full”.

Turning to the reasons of these shortcomings, he highlighted the role played by the lack of a “real political will”. Indeed, in the view of P. Vimont, the reason why we are not playing a great role is that we are divided. For instance, as far as the relations with Russia are concerned, approximately one third of EU Member States refuse any kind of political and diplomatic initiative towards Russia, one third wants to reach some sort of agreement with Russia, and one third is in the middle. Similar divisions have occurred to some extent also with regard to Syria and Libya. Moreover, he argued, the provisions inserted in the Lisbon Treaty about qualified majority have never been used so far.

Asked whether there was sufficient discussion at the EU level about the possible consequence of pushing for the signing of the Association Agreement with Ukraine, Ambassador Vimont draw a clear distinction between two phases of the Ukrainian issue. There was indeed a first phase, up to the Vilnius summit, in which the EU strongly pushed for the signing of the agreement. Later, a second phase, after the Maidan revolution, was marked by Russia’s reaction. According to Vimont, there was a mistake by the EU in assessing the political situation in Ukraine, and the EU’s approach should have been more cautious. In his view, the problems with Ukraine stem from two main sets of difficulties. First, the EU is considered by Russia as part of the problem, which makes it hard for the EU as such to assert its role in the search for a solution. Secondly, the EU is, as said above, divided on Russia, which makes it hard for the EU to take a proactive stance. For this reason, France and Germany have taken the lead in the talks with Vladimir Putin.

On this point, I.M. Paşcu disagreed with P. Vimont: according to the former, even though the EU should have undoubtedly considered the possible consequences of its approach to Ukraine, no one would ever think that Russia would be able to modify unilaterally the borders of a sovereign state by military force. I.M. Paşcu is thus convinced that, even if dialogue and cooperation with Russia are desirable, the EU should not convey the message that it acquiesce of Russia’s aggressive actions. “Because of history”, he concluded, “we look very suspiciously in that direction”.

Ambassador Vimont regretted that very rarely “a real political debate” and a serious discussion on what to do with our relations with important partners as the United States, China, or India, is held at the level of foreign ministers and of Heads of State and Government. In order to remedy to these shortcomings, P. Vimont is convinced that inventing new informal ways to discuss these issues would be a major breakthrough.
He joined E. Letta in the acknowledgement of the inward-looking mind-set adopted so far by the EU. In fact, for P. Vimont, a shift towards a more outward-looking attitude is a primary condition for success, and would allow the EU not to miss the reality of the outside world.

Finally, he highlighted the contradiction that has been characterizing the EU’s action for many years: on the one hand, the EU has a self-deprecating attitude; on the other hand, it “lectures the whole world on what they should do”. According to the Ambassador, the EU must be aware that we are not the only interlocutors of our partners, and the emergence of new important actors is creating a competition on the international stage.

Giulia Bonacquisti