There is a change of the guard within the EU. At the 2019 UN General Assembly next week, the bloc will be represented by two outgoing luminaries—Donald Tusk and Federica Mogherini—flanked by a survivor, Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission.
By the end of the year, the new leadership will hopefully be on deck: European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel, and high representative for foreign affairs and security policy and vice-president of the European Commission Josep Borrell. They must contend with four transformative forces affecting Europe’s foreign policy.
1. Russia’s Global Activism
With Vladimir Putin in power for twenty years, Russia is forging ahead with its own brand of renaissance. Despite economic difficulties, growing domestic challenges to its political leadership, and little to offer to the rest of the world in terms of trade, technology, or research, Moscow is flexing its muscles.
Moscow is playing energy politics in order to maintain its position as the main gas supplier to Western Europe—a strong card, given that Germany is shutting down its nuclear sites. It is displaying its military capabilities, by relentlessly harassing NATO over the Baltic and Black Seas, and by keeping a dominant military presence in Syria. Last but not least, it is trying to attract Turkey into its military orbit. If this courtship succeeds, it will shake the very foundations of NATO’s missile defence architecture and destroy Ankara’s credibility in the North Atlantic alliance.
Brussels’s new guard had better draw up a consistent policy line for EU relations with Moscow. French president Emmanuel Macron recently surprised his European peers by sending a high-powered delegation to Moscow at short notice, to discuss ways to revamp dialogue. Time will tell whether this move towards engagement will remain just French, or if the EU’s leadership will have a strong role on this issue and other foreign policy headaches.
2. Turkey’s Shifting Ambitions
Turkey is currently undergoing a massive economic and financial crisis. Its rule of law architecture is being systematically dismantled by its leadership, under the guise of fighting terrorism.
The dominance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is being shaken, for the first time since it came to power in November 2002. The center-left opposition has badly dented the AKP’s power over large municipalities, and disgruntled AKP politicians are establishing two breakaway parties.
The challenges that Turkey poses to the EU, the United States, and NATO go well beyond its policies and the abrasive style of its president. They are also linked to the fact that the end of the Cold War pushed Turkey to reconsider its place in the world and, perhaps, to decide to detach itself from the West, and to seek instead the pivotal position of a power in the middle of bigger powers.
This great ambition can be seen in Turkey’s approach to Russia for missile defence (and more, perhaps), its provocative attitude in the eastern Mediterranean, its recurrent threat to send Syrian refugees to Europe, and its development of an autonomous defence industry. Ankara’s leadership may have dropped its strategic ambition to join the EU, but Brussels’s new leaders cannot afford to ignore a profoundly changing Turkey.
3. The United States’ Capricious Leadership
Since his first appearance at a NATO summit in 2017 in Brussels, U.S. President Donald Trump has managed to shock his European interlocutors with his unpredictability and unreliability. More recently, at the Biarritz G7 summit, he took his peers by surprise by spending an hour pleading for the return of Vladimir Putin to the table. Not to mention his abrupt moves to withdraw U.S. forces from north-eastern Syria and scrap the nuclear deal with Iran, or his rants about banning German luxury cars and taxing French wine.
Other world leaders such as Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Moon Jae-in, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and perhaps even Vladimir Putin, have had a hard time figuring out how to deal with the Trump White House. But from an EU standpoint, the bottom line is excruciatingly simple. For the first time since the post-World War II period, the leader of the free world is taking a hostile position against Western Europe. Brussels had better pay attention.
4. The EU’s Own Internal Fractures
The EU itself has generated a host of game changers. The agony of Brexit is far from over, and it remains to be seen whether the outcome will affect the EU’s stance in the world. If the UK leaves, the EU’s diplomatic weight will be diminished and new mechanisms will have to be imagined for intra-European cooperation, especially in the field of military operations and defence industry. If the UK stays, it may simply become a blocking factor in a number of foreign policy initiatives.
Hungary will remain a major issue within the EU for some time to come, after it introduced restrictions on judiciary, media and foreign universities that allegedly breach the bloc’s values and the rule of law. Its prime minister, Viktor Orbán, threw a major provocation at the European Parliament by nominating his former justice minister, László Trócsányi, as EU commissioner-designate.
Trócsányi is said to be one of the main architects of Hungary’s draconian new laws. Ursula von der Leyen’s proposition to give him the EU’s enlargement and neighborhood portfolio has added insult to injury. If confirmed, it would vastly undermine what’s left of the EU’s power to set democratic norms outside and inside its border.