The EU will soon launch its long-awaited Conference on the Future of Europe, a multiyear participatory endeavor involving member states, EU institutions, and the public. It’s anticipated that, by 2022, the conference will yield a set of practical recommendations for the development of EU policies and instruments. Discussions are expected to focus on topics that matter most to European citizens, such as healthcare, the environment, social equality, innovation, digital transformation, and EU democracy. The EU’s international role will also be debated but is unlikely to feature high on the agenda. Yet, realistically, the future of Europe will to a large extent depend on the evolving global constellation of forces and on the way the EU chooses to position itself. It’s therefore useful to explore possible strategic options for the EU’s global engagement.

Stefan Lehne
Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.
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Discourse about the EU’s place in the world has changed over the past decade. European politicians used to speak about foreign policy in terms of building a global liberal order, strengthening the transatlantic partnership, and safeguarding effective multilateralism. Now politicians tend to focus on developing European sovereignty, ensuring strategic autonomy, and protecting the European way of life. The bloc’s confident self-image as a role model and vanguard of a renewed rules-based international order has been replaced by a defensive attitude, lower ambitions, and a more narrow regional focus. The core idea of the European Neighborhood Policy—that the EU would help its neighbors with democratic and economic reforms—was quietly downgraded and replaced by an emphasis on stability and resilience. Attitudes toward migration and asylum are increasingly marked by a fortress Europe mindset, with most governments prioritizing the security of external borders above all other objectives.

Trade and other economic policies, which used to be engines of progressive liberalization, are now being recast to protect the EU from potential harmful influences from China and other rising foreign powers. European elites worry that the EU might be left behind by economic and technological progress and become a rule follower rather than a rule maker. And in political terms, there is a widespread sense of vulnerability and loneliness: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out” and “we Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands,” as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put it.

The Crisis of the Universalist Message

Europe’s changed mood partly reflects a genuine rebalancing of global influence. By the end of the century, the EU’s share of the world population is expected to shrink from 6 to 4 percent. Its share of global GDP might decline by half in the same time frame. By 2050, no European state will belong to the G7 group of the world’s biggest economies. While Europe will likely continue to offer a comparatively high quality of life, its overall weight on the global scale is bound to decline, as other countries catch up or move ahead.

But a second reason for the shifting mood is that the universalist philosophy that had informed European and North American global diplomacy for decades has run into trouble. Since the end of World War II, Western countries have promoted a set of universal principles, including democracy, respect for fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, as well as free trade and a liberal market economy, which in their view serve as foundations of a rules-based world order. A system of multilateral institutions established under U.S. leadership in the 1940s and 1950s aimed to spread these values globally. For several decades, the Soviet bloc and parts of the developing world pushed back, propagating an alternative world view. However, when the Cold War ended, the road toward a truly global order founded on universalist principles seemed to open up.

However, the hope that countries around the world would embrace the universalist credo turned out to be an illusion. As the United States reduced its global footprint for reasons of both will and capacity, many countries reverted to traditional forms of power politics, triggering competitions for regional hegemony. The global wave of democratization that characterized the 1990s and early 2000s lost momentum. Numerous states are now in the hands of strongman rulers such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Analysts such as Bruno Maçães and Christopher Coker have identified the rise of the civilization state as one of the key challenges to the liberal agenda. According to them, the idea of a single normative order did not survive the shift of world power toward Asia. China, India, Russia, and Turkey view themselves not as nation states cast in the European model but as civilization states that promote and defend their distinct way of life. Their objection to the West’s universalist message doesn’t relate to market economic principles, even though they generally favor a stronger role for the state than one finds in developed Western economies. Instead, while some of them pay lip service to democratic governance, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, they insist on their own interpretation of these principles. Above all, representatives of civilization states reject a form of accountability that transcends national borders. They consider concerns raised by foreign governments, NGOs, and the media about their record on democracy and human rights an offensive legacy of an era of Western dominance that they now see as over.

In international forums that discuss human rights, the West is now on the defensive. In June 2020, the UN Human Rights Council passed—against the votes of most European members—a resolution China introduced, titled “promoting mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of human rights.” The resolution will likely refocus UN work on technical cooperation and capability building at the cost of accountability. A year earlier, twenty-two countries had sent a letter to the council condemning the repression against Uighurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, China. But this letter was soon followed by another letter ultimately signed by fifty states that commended China for its achievement in human rights and opposed the “practice of politicizing human rights, by naming and shaming, and exerting pressure on other countries.” China is skillfully using the leverage of its economic relationships to assemble a broad coalition against the universalist philosophy. Some of its partners probably don’t need much convincing. In many Asian and African countries, the resentment against what they perceive as interference by their former colonial masters is widespread.

Of course, votes in the UN are neither a good way of establishing the validity of a viewpoint nor an accurate reflection of the constellation of powers. When taking into account international governmental and nongovernmental institutions, media, and top educational establishments, the Western approach to rules and norms still appears reasonably robust. But clearly the overall balance of influence is shifting away from Europe.

What to Do About It

Today, identity politics threaten the EU’s universalist philosophy, and the decline of Europe’s political and economic power threatens to turn the region into a playing field rather than a player. How should Europeans respond to these developments?

Very crudely, three basic strategic options could secure the EU’s position in the world:

  • Protecting the European way of life
  • Reinventing the West while containing China
  • Relaunching multilateralism

Realistically, because foreign policy is complex and constantly evolving, the EU will need to pursue elements of all three strategic options. Nonetheless, it’s useful to separately discuss the options, as it may clarify their respective risks, costs, and benefits and also help set priorities for the EU’s engagement with the world.

Protecting the European Way of Life

When Emmanuel Macron started talking about European sovereignty during his campaign for the French presidency, it raised some eyebrows. For decades, sovereignty has been the banner under which nationalists have marched against European integration. Macron made clear that European sovereignty would not supplant national sovereignty in the sense of building a European state but rather complement and enhance it. While the concept’s meaning was never fully explained, it could be characterized as self-determination—the ability to resist external coercion and retain the capacity for autonomous action. At a time when the United States and China tend to weaponize their economic and financial power through extraterritorial sanctions and threats to limit access to markets, there is an excellent case for strengthening resilience and developing instruments to counter hostile action. And, in fact, EU institutions are working on measures to achieve these aims.

However, there is a fine line between protection and protectionism and between strengthening autonomy and turning against interdependence. The sovereignty narrative can easily become part of a defensive mindset that calls into question the liberal worldview that has characterized EU politics for decades.

The adherents of such a defensive view accept that the EU economy will continue to rely on trade, but they would welcome the reshoring of industrial production and the shortening of supply lines. They would see the gradual emergence of several regional trading blocs—one centered around the EU—as a positive development.

Consistent with this strategic option would be a restrictive migration policy, designed to perpetuate the current ethnic composition of Europe—even when faced with a rapidly aging population. In terms of foreign policy, the EU would avoid power struggles in distant parts of the world and instead focus on maintaining stability and managing migration in its neighborhood. In the area of security and defense, strategic autonomy would remain the overall objective—though questions remain about the extent to which member states would mobilize the necessary resources to make that a practical reality.

A union asserting itself in an environment of identity politics would ideally affirm its own well-defined identity. However, European leaders are finding it almost impossible to speak about this subject. The notion of a “European civilization” is tarnished, as it served for centuries to propagate European supremacy and legitimize colonialism. With few exceptions, only politicians on the nationalist right like to use this terminology.

Protecting the European way of life seems to be a more acceptable though vague formula to express the need to safeguard Europe’s identity. But when the new European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed this term for the portfolio of Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas, she encountered massive opposition from center-left and liberal parties in the European Parliament. Because Schinas would also supervise the migration portfolio, parliamentarians worried that protecting the European way of life would in effect mean keeping migrants out.

When asked what she meant by the European way of life, von der Leyen referred to Article 2 of the EU treaty, where the values of the EU (for example, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law) are enshrined. She thus highlighted the circularity and shallowness that characterize much of the EU’s debate about its identity. The EU cannot, on the one hand, insist that these values are universally shared by all humankind and, on the other hand, claim that they form the unique essence of Europe’s identity.

That EU leaders are forced to resort to such rhetorical gimmicks reveals deep divisions about the relevance of various strands of European heritage (for example, Judeo-Christian or Enlightenment values). The emergence of miniature civilization states within the EU does not help; Hungary and Poland have become increasingly critical of the universalist agenda and instead promote their own national values and identity. But even French leaders couch their current controversy with Turkey about religion and the freedom of expression (the cartoon crisis) in strictly national terms (Republican values). Faced with the heterogeneity of its membership and the fragmentation of its politics, the EU is unlikely to clarify its identity for the foreseeable future.

Today’s more challenging international environment obviously requires the EU to design more robust policies and build its capacity to defend Europe’s interests. However, two risks must be avoided. First, while some EU leaders talk the talk of European sovereignty and strategic autonomy, member states preoccupied with their national priorities might not walk the walk and commit the necessary resources. Second, an excessive emphasis on protection and defense might harm the EU’s open and liberal outlook. If the EU focuses all its attention on defending the status quo, it will lose its ability to shape the future. Facing an ongoing shift in global forces, an aging European population might just hope for a comfortable retirement at the margins of world politics. But given the dynamics of change and the interdependencies of the modern world, this is not a viable option. A graceful management of European decline will bump up against the harsh realities of unresolved global challenges ranging from the climate transition to digitalization. Only far-reaching, proactive change will protect the European way of life.

Reinventing the West While Containing China

The U.S.-China rivalry will almost certainly become the defining characteristic of this decade and possibly the next one. China is determined to become the leading power in the Indo-Pacific and to enhance its clout elsewhere, whereas the United States is determined to contain this development. The recent election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States will not end the rivalry but rather change the nature of it. While President Donald Trump, with his general disdain for all international partnerships, launched parallel trade wars with Europe and China, the new administration will view its alliances as a major asset in this struggle. Pressure on the EU to align with Washington in the areas of technology, trade, and foreign and security policy will increase.

Siding with the United States will not come easy, however, and will carry important economic costs. China is the EU’s second most important economic partner. Through  investments in European companies, via its Belt and Road Initiative and the 17+1 forum, it has established a significant presence on the continent. EU member states maintain diverse economic ties with China and therefore find it difficult to agree on a common approach to China’s rise. Additional U.S. pressure could deepen these divisions further. However, U.S. influence in Europe remains very strong, and in terms of societal, political, and economic structures, Europe is much more aligned with the United States than with China. The EU will try hard to avoid taking sides, but if it has to, it will end up supporting the United States.

Even so, while Europe and the United States have similar economic and security concerns overall and could agree on a joint agenda on China, the long-term goals of their policies might be quite different. Whereas Europeans would like to see a China that plays by the rules and is a responsible stakeholder, the United States strives for a China that remains less powerful than itself.

Many Europeans who sorely missed U.S. leadership over the past few years would welcome a revival of the West. Allying oneself with the strongest power in the world promises not only protection but potentially also enhanced leverage to pursue one’s interests. As the U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific intensifies, the roles of the United States and Europe could change, leading Europe, with U.S. support, to assume greater responsibilities in its own neighborhood.

However, this new transatlantic relationship would be distinctly different from the earlier U.S.-European partnership during the Cold War. Though China and the United States have different societal preferences and values, China so far shows little inclination to export its ideology to other parts of the world. The Cold War was largely a fight over different ideas for organizing society; this time, the fight will be mainly about power and control. Thus, the bonds of shared ideals and values between the United States and Europe will not be as relevant.

Also, the Cold War was principally about Europe, so while the United States led the response, its European allies had considerable input into the shaping of U.S. policy. By comparison, the U.S.-China rivalry will be about the Indo-Pacific, and Washington might not listen closely to what European capitals have to say about it. There is a real danger that Europe will end up sharing some of the risks and much of the costs of a policy that it can hardly influence. A deteriorating relationship between the United States and China could thus accelerate the marginalization of Europe’s role on the global stage rather than slow it down. Europe should wisely use its (limited) influence to mitigate the rivalry and to preserve as much cooperation as possible with, as well as between, the two antagonists.

Relaunching Multilateralism

A closer look at today’s reality reveals that the universalist agenda is in trouble but not dead. It is true that self-styled civilization states rejecting universalist values are wielding greater power than before, but these countries are still few in number. Even some of the most successful Asian countries—including Japan, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan—have open societies espousing universalist principles. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of the states in the world are democracies of some sort and only 13 percent are autocracies. Using a different methodology, Freedom House notes an overall decline in global freedom beginning in 2006, currently aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. But it also underlines that there is progress in some parts of the world and that the desire for freedom and democratic governance among civil society is as strong as ever.

Globalization has weakened in recent years but is unlikely to be reversed altogether. Digitalization will continue to reduce the significance of geographic distance and facilitate international communication and exchanges. Already today, downtown areas in big cities share similarities. For example, people living in London, Shanghai, Sydney, and Vancouver can choose from an eclectic range of food, fashion, culture, and architecture. And while cultural influences used to be one-sided—mostly coming from the United States—this is rapidly changing. Whether it is Chinese movies, South Korean boy bands, Japanese anime, or Latino music, today’s cultural influences move in all directions.

Of course, a convergence of lifestyles driven by economic and technological developments and by mobility and cultural exchanges does not automatically translate into shared universalist politics. The West’s hopes that a rising middle class in China would quickly lead to Western-style democratization were clearly misguided. Internet platforms bring people together but also polarize societies and drive fragmentation. They can empower citizens and make authorities more accountable but also spread disinformation and facilitate surveillance. Still, it is hard to imagine that the global amalgamation of modes of life will not over time make the claims of some states to represent distinct civilizations with their own separate value systems hard to sustain. Also, rising education levels and dynamic civil societies—which are prompting people from Belarus to Thailand to demand more political rights—give reasons for hope.

The urgent need for more effective multilateral cooperation has rarely been as apparent as it is now—particularly for defeating the pandemic, combating climate change, and maximizing the benefits of digitalization while mitigating the risks. Many partners around the world are ready to work with the EU on increasing multilateral cooperation. Initiatives such as the Alliance for Multilateralism, launched by France and Germany, are steps in the right direction. Biden has also stated his readiness to renew U.S. engagement as the country’s next president.

However, revived multilateralism will look different from the twentieth-century version. Traditional UN organizations will need to be complemented by more flexible and agile forums for collective cooperation, as the latter are sometimes more suited to achieving results rapidly. At the same time, the cooperation must be more equitable, meaning that Europe must address its overrepresentation in some bodies and enable more systematic involvement of civil society.

If the EU decides to step up its support for a rules-based international order, it will have to increase its investment in international regimes and organizations and show leadership in mobilizing like-minded countries. It will also have to strengthen coordination between EU institutions and capitals and ensure coherence between various strands of its external policy, including on trade, development, mobility and connectivity, foreign policy, and security. But most of all, the EU will have to maintain an open and constructive outlook that perceives interdependence not as a threat but as an opportunity to resolve common challenges through collective action.

The EU’s Comparative Advantage

The three policy options presented above are not mutually exclusive. European leaders will have to build better defenses against pressures and coercion from abroad, ensure a functioning transatlantic relationship to successfully manage relations with a rising China, and promote effective multilateralism. Still, to set the right priorities and avoid a clash in interests, it will be useful for the EU to discuss what the fundamental orientation of its external policy should be. The Conference on the Future of Europe would be an excellent occasion to do so.

Reflecting on the EU’s very nature as an international actor could serve as a good starting point for such a discussion. Von der Leyen has said she will lead a “geopolitical Commission,” but as a diverse multilevel entity held together by law and values, the EU will never be very good at geopolitics. Its comparative advantage lies in its ability to resolve controversial issues through fact-based dialogue and results-oriented negotiations. This capacity will be crucial for solving the global challenges confronting the world today. The return of power politics and some countries’ rejection of the universalist agenda has made the job more difficult but not impossible. Europe will simply have to try harder.