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A new agenda?

20/06/16

As EU heads of government debate the new European Union Global Strategy, Balazs Ujvari, of Belgium’s Royal Institute for International Relations, the Egmont Institute, assesses the long-term prospects of the EU’s multilateral agenda

The European Union’s action on the international stage is soon to be given a new impetus in the form of the European Union Global Strategy (EUGS). Uncertainties about the document, however, abound. Initially to be finalised by early June, the document is now to land on the table of heads of state and government in the European Council at the end of June.

Yet, the referendum of 23 June on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU may easily thwart this timeline – whatever the outcome. Should the ‘remain’ vote win, the Strategic Planning Division of the European External Action Service (EEAS) may consider that, with the Brexit scenario fended off, it is worth going back to the drawing table and potentially up the previously set ambitions in light of the UK’s reaffirmed faith in the integration project – even if a narrow victory of the ‘unionist’ camp would likely do little to temper Westminster’s long-standing ambivalence towards community thinking in foreign policy terms.

Similarly, in the event that the ‘Brexit’ does materialise, the remaining 27 member states may be tempted to boost their joint ambitions knowing that one of the most persisting impediments to EU-level foreign policy action is soon to peter out.

New vision

Whatever the case, one of the key deliverables of the EUGS is certainly to equip the EU with an updated vision of how the international system should function. This calls for a new multilateral agenda for the union. Indeed, in an age of unprecedented global interdependence and connectivity, no country or regional entity can play a leading role in international policy making without such an agenda.

The European Security Strategy (ESS) of 2003, the quasi predecessor of the future EUGS, made some tentative steps in this regard: the document expressed a commitment to building an ‘International Order Based on Effective Multilateralism’. This ‘effective multilateralism’ doctrine of the EU, which essentially amounted to support for legally binding commitments agreed upon by the largest number of nations possible through strong multilateral institutions, has not necessarily come to define the international relations of the past decade.

While policy making via universal deals has endured with regard to certain dossiers such as the Paris climate deal or the Iran nuclear talks, decision making in other areas has tended to shift to plurilateral, minilateral or bilateral fora. This has been the case especially in the field of development and trade policy, where the landscape is characterised by an increasing number of parallel structures (regional multilateral development banks) and initiatives (mega-regional free trade agreements). In addition, while the ESS did specify how the EU should act on the international stage, it failed to specify on which policy areas the union should focus on doing so, leaving its multilateral agenda too generic and devoid of priorities.

Minilateral

Arguably, the ongoing reflection process on the EUGS offers a chance to redress the above shortcomings plaguing the EU’s multilateral action. Yet, as rule-based multilateralism remains deeply entrenched in the union’s DNA, the EUGS is unlikely to represent groundbreaking innovations as to how the EU should act in international affairs. As Alyson Bailes points out, the EU’s ‘deepest interest lies in making others – and eventually the world – more like itself’.

At the same time, the feasibility of proceeding in such a way across all domains of international policy making – as may have been wished for by the ESS of 2003 – is increasingly questionable in present days. It seems therefore inevitable that the EU’s approach be more flexible, giving room to other forms of multilateralism such as ad hoc coalitions, minilateral formats, strategic partnerships and transnational networks at the detriment of formal institutions. While such arrangements are often less inclusive and legitimate than international institutions, entailing also the risk of duplicating efforts, they can also allow for flexibility, innovation, compartmentalisation and speed.

If used strategically, minilateral initiatives, in particular, can also serve to pave the way towards broader multilateral frameworks, as with the approval by the United Nations Security Council of the outcome of the E3/EU+3 negotiations with Tehran.

Co-operation is key

A joint publication of the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations and the European Policy Centre edited by this author asked a number of analysts of EU affairs about their vision of a future EU multilateral agenda. The overarching conclusion that has emerged from this paper is threefold.

First, co-operative relationships between the EU and key emerging powers (especially China) on the international scene will be increasingly central. In view of the gradually fragmenting global governance landscape, it appears all the more important for the EU to extend its outreach efforts to a much larger number of partners than before when acting in multilateral milieus. The EU’s protracted recovery from the **2008/2009 financial crisis combined with emerging powers’ newfound assertive and proactive role in international policy making results in a global environment where an increasingly wide consensus is needed that embraces an ever broader set of views.

Focusing solely on the EU’s strategic partners will not be sufficient. The EU can only be successful in promoting its interests on the global stage if it attaches adequate importance to understanding the wide range of positions taken by its negotiating partners – not only individually, but also as a bloc – as well as the interests underlying these stances. Depending on the policy area in question, the key partners for, and adversaries of, the EU will change and can only be identified through ample outreach activities in the run up to multilateral negotiations.

When promoting counter-terrorism efforts globally, for example, the EU may need to co-operate especially with North African and Middle Eastern countries along with the United States, while the championing of a global climate regime will demand more outreach towards the rapidly industrialising and growing nations of Asia.

Innovative international affairs

Second, in approaching multilateral affairs, the EU needs to demonstrate innovative thinking and embrace the changing nature of international affairs. Rather than clinging to the traditional formal institutions, the EU member states would benefit from adopting a more flexible attitude. As a first step, this could entail the joint assessment of the recent wave of BRICS-led international organisations, which have the potential of shaping the orthodox policy discourse in areas such as poverty reduction by drawing on the positive domestic experiences of its founders.

Europeans, however, do not necessarily have to remain passive observers of the reshaping of the global governance scene. They, too, could launch novel multilateral mechanisms or minilateral processes which could help pave the ground towards veritable global deals. Furthermore, it will be increasingly inevitable for the EU to shift its perceptions with respect to emerging and developing countries and regard them as equal partners instead of considering its relationship with them as a one-way street.

By giving more attention to what Europeans can learn from Latin American and Caribbean countries, for example, the EU will also stand a better chance of securing their diplomatic support when advancing its objectives in multilateral fora. Moreover, in acting on the international stage, the EU could also enhance its effectiveness by drawing on a so far unorthodox mixture of policies: a closer integration of scientific knowledge with security and trade policy considerations could, for instance, considerably enhance the EU’s ability to remain at the cutting edge of international policy making in these areas.

Multilateral future

Finally, as the foremost embodiment of multilateralism, the EU must maintain its ambition in pursuing multilateral solutions. The fact remains that the union is best off in a world that reflects the functioning of the EU itself. This does not mean that the 28-country bloc must necessarily call for legally binding international agreements through formal institutions with the broadest membership possible across the board – as the ESS of 2003 may have envisaged. The solution of global or regional issues will increasingly shift from traditional institutions to more informal networks and ad hoc coalitions, and this is not all bad news for Europeans.

The EU needs not to necessarily compromise on its ambitious proposals but rather to make an informed choice as to the multilateral/plurilateral/minilateral platform where it seeks to advance its agenda. International policy making could thus continue to be driven by the EU, but should not necessarily be defined by it. Building on this first mover advantage, the right choice of platform and the involvement of the stakeholders affected most directly by the issue at hand, the EU will continue to stand a good chance of securing support for its multilateral actions – however ambitious they be.

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