Table of Contents

The European Union (EU) has demonstrated a growing concern in recent years with rewiring globalization. The bloc’s focus on reforming key elements of globalization is not new, but it has intensified in the last decade. This is significant because many European governments and the EU collectively played important roles in shaping globalization; their policies over many years help explain why the phenomenon took on the characteristics it assumes today. The EU has increasingly questioned many elements of globalization for which it was partly responsible in earlier decades.

The EU has never seen itself as supporting unchecked, laissez-faire globalism. A narrative of taming globalization has long been at the forefront of the EU agenda. Indeed, European integration was partly about harnessing globalization and partly about containing it. The union has had a major influence over the regulations that provide global governance frameworks. This is the area in which the EU sees itself as making the biggest contribution internationally and reflects a conceptual preference for regulated globalism.

However, in recent years, the EU’s efforts to steer globalization in particular political directions have intensified. The EU’s emerging approach to rewired globalization is not yet fully defined; the bloc is in the midst of rethinking many of its global policies, and its internal debates are still lively and unresolved. Yet, the broad outlines of a recalibrated strategy have begun to appear. The central thread is an aim to combine global dynamics with a reassertion of sovereign control over key areas of international policy. A dominant narrative of European sovereignty and autonomy has started to imbue EU approaches to globalization with a different tone. European leaders and policymakers insist this is not a repudiation of globalism as such but an effort to take more strategic control over its contours.

To some extent, this EU approach echoes analysts’ calls for more measured forms of globalization. However, it is also an approach tailored more closely to the union’s immediate interests. Despite much European rhetoric about more equitable globalization, the EU’s rejiggered priorities do not constitute a form of globalization aimed at mutually beneficial problem solving or the kind of rebalancing sought by most other states around the world. If anything, the EU has moved in the other direction of a more competitive globalism, trying to craft a globalization more tightly attuned to its own concerns. A difficult and unresolved question is whether the EU’s strategy amounts to a qualitative rewiring of globalization or simply a preference for less globalism.

Global Trade

Over many decades, the EU was a powerful force in extending international trade. The union supported multilateral trade accords, the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the gradual widening of the trade agenda. In more recent times, the EU has sought to keep the WTO functioning as various of its procedures have atrophied. In the early 2010s, a crisis-hit EU turned to many, often subtle, forms of protectionism. However, rather than proceed down a path of outright protectionism, the union has more recently pursued a series of nuanced changes in its international trade policies.

Crucially, flanking its support for open trade, the EU has played a leading role as the world’s regulator of global markets. It is through this regulatory prism that the EU has found its most distinctive place in, and influence over, globalization. The EU developed a policy of regulated globalism in part because the union had to put in place regulatory frameworks for the governance of European integration, meaning that these frameworks offered themselves as templates when interdependence gathered pace at the global level. But this policy also represented a preference for managed globalism in the guise of rules on competition, healthcare, safety, the environment, and other domains.

Over the last decade, the EU has moved incrementally to adjust its international trade policies, with implications for the way the bloc positions itself with respect to globalization. In a delicate balancing act, the union has sought to contain other powers’ protectionism while defending itself from some dimensions of hyperglobalization. The EU’s narrative has shifted to embrace terms such as autonomy and economic sovereignty—or, in the words of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, an outlook under which “[we] rely on ourselves to guarantee our future.”1 The union’s adjusted approach to international trade denotes a different stance on globalization.

The clearest shift has been toward bilateral trade deals and a policy of setting tighter conditions on other powers’ access to European markets. In 2006, the EU reversed its prohibition on bilateral accords.2 In recent years, the EU has completed or launched more preferential trade negotiations than any other power. The union now has over seventy bilateral trade accords, and many other talks are still open.3 While the EU insists these trade agreements are WTO compatible, the union has clearly used them to tailor trade policy to its immediate commercial interests.4 The EU’s focus is increasingly on instrumentalized globalization through political negotiation, as opposed to rules-based market liberalization.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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The changed approach is seen equally in the EU’s evolving positions at the multilateral level. The bloc is now strikingly assertive in concentrating its efforts in multilateral institutions on pushing back against practices that run counter to its interests. For example, the union has fought in the WTO for tougher measures against trade-distorting subsidies and state-owned enterprises, fewer exemptions for developing states, and more scope for plurilateral deals to advance its interests. The EU has also come to share some of the United States’ interest in issue-specific multilateral accords.5

The EU has become less, not more, generous toward poorer economies in its trade policies. It is now somewhat less unconditionally supportive of the WTO’s system of special and differential treatment (S&DT) for developing states. The union no longer focuses so strongly on WTO reform as a development tool to make globalization more equitable. It has sought to bring developing countries that have done well more fully under WTO norms. The EU has not been as severe on S&DT rules as Washington but has looked for more subtle ways of narrowing states’ designations as developing economies to limit the extent of differentiation within the WTO.

The EU now shapes its economic partnership agreements with African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) states much more closely around its economic interests than previous agreements under the union’s ACP partnership; for this reason, many African countries have refused to sign such accords. The EU also uses many of these bilateral trade deals to push third countries to accept intellectual property restrictions that go beyond the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). The union’s approach has moved from nonreciprocal market opening to more reciprocal trade and investment policies.

As part of this shift, the EU has mobilized its regulatory influence in more instrumental and sharper ways. In the last several years, the union has made more efforts to get regulatory standards onto the WTO agenda than it has for commitments to further trade liberalization. The EU’s stated policy since 2015 has been to use its regulatory norms to protect consumers from many types of imports.6 A new Global Gateway initiative published in 2021 is based expressly on an aim to push third countries to adopt EU norms in return for the union mobilizing several hundred million euros worth of investment financing.7 The union is widely seen to have become more assertive in pushing EU technical regulations in an attempt to protect its commercial advantage.8 Other powers complain that this is a form of soft protectionism to hinder access to European markets and have increasingly pushed back against such regulations.9

Since 2018, several EU member states have been calling for the bloc’s competition laws to be relaxed to allow support for European champions to compete internationally. The union’s updated industrial strategy is framed expressly as necessary for “Europe’s sovereignty.”10 In addition, in 2020, the EU created a European-level investment screening process. Under this, by the end of 2021, the commission had considered over 400 bids and in 3 percent of these cases issued an opinion to block or limit incoming investment.11 An international procurement instrument has been working its way through the EU institutions for several years, designed to limit third country access to EU procurement contracts where they decline to offer EU companies similar access in return; the instrument finally cleared a European Parliament vote in December 2021.12 The EU insisted that this tougher push for reciprocity and market leverage paid off in the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment that the EU reached in principle with China at the end of 2020. If implemented, this accord would give European firms enhanced access to the Chinese market and dilute Chinese government requirements on joint ventures.

The coronavirus pandemic has intensified these trends in EU external economic policy. The crisis has deepened concerns about the EU’s dependence on global supply chains. French President Emmanuel Macron argued that France and other EU states needed to bring back manufacturing and medical production from China and elsewhere.13 The European Commission’s post-coronavirus recovery instrument included a clause on using new funds to support European champions against external takeovers. Most EU states and the United Kingdom opposed a TRIPS waiver to help vaccine production in developing states (although by late 2021 they were starting to consider a number of ad hoc, targeted waivers). The WTO called the EU’s moves in early 2021 to control vaccine exports the most serious threat to multilateral open trade since World War II—a striking indictment against the bloc, which promotes itself as the strongest upholder of those rules.14

Sinan Ülgen
Sinan Ülgen is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on Turkish foreign policy, nuclear policy, cyberpolicy, and transatlantic relations.

Responding to the coronavirus crisis, Borrell argued in April 2020 that the EU needed to bring production “as close as possible to the place of consumption . . . a balance between the undeniable advantages of open markets and interdependence, and between the sovereignty and security of countries.”15 A new trade strategy released in February 2021 confirmed this evolution; the European Commission promised an assertive defense of the union’s interests in reforming international institutions, supporting domestic industry, and protecting the EU from other powers’ trade practices.16 In a new strategy on multilateralism published the same month, the union tied itself to “a more interests-based approach” alongside support for open markets and rules.17 And in September 2021, the commission brought forward a new anti-coercion instrument that allows the EU more systematically to counteract offensive trade measures taken by other powers.18

These changes to the EU’s international trade and investment strategies are the result of both global and domestic factors. Policymakers have felt increasingly defensive as the EU has lost market shares around the world over the last two decades. Domestic politics have added further pressures. Most populist parties that have gained ground in recent years have exhibited varying degrees of hostility to open, international trade and large inflows of investment from China and elsewhere. Large-scale protests took place in many European countries against EU trade deals with Canada, South Korea, and the United States.

To rebut accusations of protectionism, the EU has increasingly adopted the terminology of open strategic autonomy—although some member states, like France, have expressed unease at the “open” prefix. In June 2020, then European commissioner for trade Phil Hogan defined this concept as standard support for open trade combined with “a tougher, more assertive approach to protect our businesses and consumers, notably through stronger trade defence and enforcement.”19 At the end of 2020, Hogan’s successor, Valdis Dombrovskis, reinforced the message that the EU’s approach was “to ensure that we remain open for business and trade, while at the same time becoming more assertive in defending and enforcing our interests, rights and values.”20

Technology Governance

The political tailoring of EU policies has been especially noteworthy in the digital technology sector. In February 2020, the commission oriented itself around the goal of “European technological sovereignty” and stressed that this required an effort to decrease Europe’s reliance on the rest of the world for important technologies.21 In her mission letter at the end of 2019, European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager was given an explicit instruction to foster European strategic autonomy in the digital domain.22 European control over European data has emerged as a guiding digital leitmotif. This has involved two components: constraining U.S. technology giants and supporting the EU’s self-reliance.

Restraining U.S. Tech Giants

It is well known that the EU has progressively toughened its policies toward U.S. tech giants. The current European Commission has moved to tighten restrictive measures against these companies. Both the commission and member-state governments have developed a more assertive combination of regulations, standard setting, competition policy, and taxation of tech giants. The EU fined Google €4.3 billion ($5 billion) in 2018 for antitrust transgressions.23 In addition, the union has increasingly pushed for rules to ensure that trade deals do not undermine digital privacy or safeguards on companies’ use of data.

In May 2018, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) placed a range of obligations on companies, including mandatory user consent, the anonymization of data, notifications for data breaches, and safe cross-border data transfers.24 Many other jurisdictions have used the GDPR template as a means of enhancing data privacy.25 The regulation and the related Osaka Track in the Group of Twenty (G20) are nominally aimed at building in guarantees that would help cross-border e-commerce. Still, many other powers see the GDPR as a protectionist tool, and several have raised the issue in the WTO against the union. Linked to this regulatory influence, the union has stepped up several connectivity initiatives in developing states to help governments that meet EU tech standards resist the Chinese digital orbit.

The EU’s proposed Digital Services Act (DSA) will oblige tech companies to increase the transparency of their algorithms and be more assiduous in removing and curating content. The penalties for breaking DSA rules will be severe, with fines of up to 6 percent of a firm’s annual revenue.26 In parallel, the Digital Markets Act will function like antitrust law, prohibiting tech gatekeepers from taking advantage of access to competitors’ data and forbidding them from favoring their own services over competitors operating on their platforms. Anticompetitive behavior will lead to fines of up to 10 percent of turnover, and repeated violations could mean the breakup of the company.27 This package is the EU’s most comprehensive assault to date on large tech companies. In April 2021, the commission took these steps further with proposals for a legislative framework to govern future artificial intelligence (AI) developments.28

Fostering EU Self-Reliance

In terms of the second component of the EU’s digital autonomy, the European Commission’s 2020 digital strategy set the aim of “reducing [our] dependency on other parts of the globe.”29 An AI white paper published the same year included a goal of attracting investment of over €20 billion ($23 billion) per year for AI development. The paper also talked of firms needing to develop AI based on EU data, not data generated in other countries.30 The European Investment Fund has coordinated AI incubation efforts through six venture-capital funds, while a new EU public-private partnership is attempting to spur a leap to the next wave of tech, based on edge computing and the like.31 Germany has launched a particularly sizable program to fund such efforts at the national level.32

In fall 2021, the EU introduced a European microchip act and a new fund for semiconductor development. The commission has set up an Observatory of Critical Technologies to monitor and prompt progress toward the now ubiquitously cited goal of EU technological sovereignty.

European decisions on fifth-generation (5G) technology contracts have not only reflected security concerns but also revealed the balances the EU now seeks in its position on globalization. The commission has published guidelines for common EU-level assessments to keep suppliers deemed a security risk out of sensitive areas while leaving member states to make their own decisions on these companies’ access to other parts of the 5G network.

Most EU members have opted to allow Huawei to participate in European 5G—but only in its noncore elements. Estonia, Poland, and Romania were strictest in wanting to ban Huawei’s access to 5G auctions. The French government introduced a de facto ban on the company, saying it would not renew licenses for operators that use Huawei’s 5G equipment—although Paris also approved Huawei’s plans to build a factory in northeastern France. In 2021, a new German law introduced a more severe trustworthiness test on tech companies that bid for 5G contracts. Fusing geostrategic concerns and changing views on globalization, the 5G issue has reinforced the EU’s desire to reduce its external dependencies on technological equipment and prioritize a degree of self-reliance over globalized markets.

At stake is what these developments in the tech sector say about the EU’s stance on globalization. The EU line is that its regulatory and other measures seek a less oligopolistic form of globalism. Other powers insist they cross the line into de facto market distortion and protectionism, and that they are tailored more to EU commercial concerns than to well-regulated, equitable globalization.33 The EU’s focus has been on trying to create space for its digital champions and responding to citizens’ fears about online control and business models.

The EU approach is mainly about containing and controlling digital technology and AI; the union has embarked on efforts to develop its capacities and competitiveness, but, as yet, these are less noteworthy than its regulatory approaches. In this, the EU marries healthy concerns about the social and security impacts of technology with a more interest-driven reflex to politicize globalism in this sector. Increasingly, the internet is fragmented among different regional models, and the EU has played its part in hastening this move away from digital globalism.

Global Finance and Tax

The same trend lines are apparent in EU positions on the global financial architecture. EU states have been unwilling to give up the privileged status in this system afforded to them by the post–World War II power configuration. After the United States, Europe is the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) most powerful bloc, even though developing countries now have a greater collective weight in the world economy. Emerging markets criticize the special treatment given to European countries, made possible by the bloc’s influence over the fund’s decisionmaking structures. While the EU insists it upholds rules-based multilateralism against other powers, in reality member states frequently bend these rules in global financial institutions to serve their national interests.34

Over the years, there have been various attempts to correct the overweighted European representation on the IMF’s executive board. In 2010, the Europeans agreed to give up two of their seats to emerging markets in return for the latter assuming greater responsibility on currency valuations. Still, member states have opposed changes to the current form of representation on the board. Although a proposal to consolidate European representation has been on the table of the EU Council since 2015, this has not advanced, and the European Commission has called into question the nominal 2025 implementation deadline for this goal. The current system allows smaller European countries, in particular, to punch above their weight in decisionmaking. At the same time, genuinely fair adjustments would require countries like France or Germany, which hold their own seats, to give up power.

International Debt

With regard to the international debt architecture, the EU has not supported debt cancelation. The union’s approach is to back only modest and gradual changes to rules to deal with the new global-power reality. The EU common position is that “neither the EU nor Member States would participate in discussions” that aim to establish a binding multilateral legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring processes.35

The EU has expressed concerns that the 2015 United Nations (UN) General Assembly resolution on sovereign debt restructuring does not adequately accommodate the preferred creditor status of international financial institutions or support the decisions of competent courts on debt issues. For the EU, the most appropriate institution to address technical capital-market issues related to restructuring sovereign debt is the IMF, not the UN. Yet, competing interests hinder ongoing efforts within the fund.

In late 2020, G20 countries, including European states and China, agreed on a common framework for restructuring government debt. The details of the framework were not disclosed. The absence of most developing countries from this deal sparked widespread criticism. From a European standpoint, new creditors and private lenders who do not participate in traditional groupings and often adopt less stringent risk-assessment procedures considerably heighten the risks of more ambitious debt-relief efforts. Adding to this unease over reform, the EU has expressed some concern over IMF loans to developing countries to help deal with the coronavirus crisis.

In February 2021, Macron, Germany’s then chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Charles Michel, Senegalese President Macky Sall, UN Secretary General António Guterres, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for the use of special drawing rights (SDRs)—an international reserve asset that supplements IMF members’ official reserves—to ease developing countries’ debt burden.36 Gelsomina Vigliotti, then director general for international financial relations at the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, called it “an absolute priority” to make additional reserve assets available to those in need.37 Vigliotti and IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva have pointed out that advanced economies that do not need their SDRs could donate their allocations to help developing countries.38 Still, EU states have still been willing to take only small steps in relation to these sensitive issues on international debt.

Global Taxation

Similar interest-protection dynamics are strong in debates on global taxation. Frustrated by slow progress at the global level, in 2018, the commission proposed two directives for taxing the digital economy. The first put forward a digital tax, while the second proposed to alter the definition of “permanent establishment” by introducing the notion of significant digital presence in determining EU tax obligations. The commission envisaged these as temporary measures while member states contemplated longer-term reform to the global tax system.

Yet, for a long time, member states failed to reach an agreement on such reform. Countries such as Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, and Sweden opposed EU measures, arguing that the broader international proposals of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) should precede European action. This impasse led several EU member states to enact unilateral digital taxes with sunset clauses to remove the measures in the event of an agreement at the international or the EU level.

Meanwhile, for several years, the commission continued to back OECD efforts and was concerned in particular to target U.S. tech companies. Little was achieved as the United States blocked progress, while EU states voted against developing states’ efforts to agree on more far-reaching taxes on multinational companies. The 2021 change in U.S. administration proved decisive, and, after many years of deadlock, an international agreement was reached on a 15 percent minimum global tax rate on large companies. Most European governments supported this agreement.39 While a group of member states, led by Estonia and Ireland, was initially hesitant, by late 2021, they too had come around to the new tax. Debates over separate European digital levies on U.S. companies rumble on inconclusively.

Climate Change

Climate policy has become an equally powerful factor in reshaping the EU’s approach to globalization. Formally, the EU frames the challenge of climate change as a way to reinforce its commitment to balanced, rules-based, open globalization. The European Green Deal, published in December 2019, has a strong global dimension that is defined in this vein, promising to use the union’s internal transition as a platform for shaping more sustainable, low-carbon globalization.40

The EU provides nearly half of the world’s climate funding, with climate projects in developing nations accounting for €23.2 billion ($26.9 billion) in 2019.41 These funds aimed at managing the global aspects of climate transition and helping developing countries plug into globalization based on low-carbon economies. The EU has also long sought to externalize its emissions-trading scheme as a means of globalizing its nascent carbon markets.42

However, if these aims suggest climate and globalization objectives moving in tandem, in several areas there is clear tension between the two. Numerous aspects of emerging policy suggest that the EU has been increasingly willing to place climate objectives above the open flows and connections of globalization.

One of the main links between the EU’s climate and globalization policies is its increasing use of climate-related trade conditionality. The EU is set to make third countries’ respect of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change a core precondition in all of its external trade deals.43 So-called green clauses have become a more prominent part of the union’s trade agreements and one of the most tangible ways in which the climate priority has begun to infuse other areas of EU external action.

In talks between the EU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the late 2010s, the union insisted on a cap on biofuel exports from Indonesia and Malaysia while these countries continued to undertake mass deforestation to produce palm oil44—and this pressure had an impact. France, Germany, Ireland, and others have held back an EU-Mercosur trade agreement in response to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s destructive actions in the Amazon. France and the Netherlands have launched proposals for a further upgrade of climate conditionality in EU trade accords. In its recent deals with China and the United Kingdom, the EU insisted on tougher conditionality measures to link trade to environmental standards. In late 2021, the European Commission proposed a ban on food imports from areas at risk of deforestation.45

More specific issues arise from the EU’s new Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which will put a carbon price on imports of selected products. This mechanism is set to have a significant impact on the global trading system. Its aim to stop carbon leakage will involve raising the costs of much cross-border trade, especially from developing economies. The European Commission insists that the new charge on imports can and will conform to WTO rules. However, other powers have already criticized it as a distortion to fair and open global trade and as protectionism dressed in the cloak of climate action: the EU will be charging carbon production outside Europe while member-state governments continue to subsidize it in their own countries.46

The draft EU regulation on the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism has established a mechanism that can potentially force other states to act: if they adopt carbon pricing, their goods will not be subject to the tariff.47 The mechanism was delayed by differences among member states over how wide a range of products should be taxed at the EU border, with some states like Germany wanting to narrow the coverage. Uncertainties persist in this regard, and the mechanism will not kick in until after 2025.

EU policies also foreground the notion of self-reliance as an integral part of climate policy. Since 2018, the commission has approved several instances of state aid for pan-European consortia in sectors like battery-cell manufacturing, thus waiving state-aid rules expressly to build European champions. The EU and many member states have increasingly called for a green industrial strategy, and this is nominally the centerpiece of the commission’s Next Generation package for the post-coronavirus recovery.

When the EU presented its European Green Deal in December 2019, the United States and other powers complained that it seemed to indicate that subsidy rules would be relaxed for renewable projects in the EU in a way that contravened WTO rules.48 In September 2020, the commission published a strategy for an industry alliance to reduce EU dependence on critical rare earths, framing this move as part of the wider post-coronavirus aim of bringing more production back to the EU, especially from China.49 The EU and individual member states have begun to call for more negotiated, geopolitical accords to guarantee supplies of critical minerals from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

While the EU promotes this cluster of measures as a benign and balanced form of ecoglobalism, other powers have tended to see this claim as disingenuous and the EU’s climate narratives as a pretext for narrow self-interest. Arguably, many of these policy developments contain strands of both of these interpretations: there are signs that the EU’s priority is climate action over unchecked globalization, but there is also evidence of a turn within climate policy toward direct EU geoeconomic interests, to the detriment of developing economies’ interests and comparative advantages.

Claims of Green Protectionism

Developing countries increasingly berate what they see as the EU’s green protectionism, which is more about defending European commercial interests than about fostering a genuinely rebalanced form of ecologically sustainable globalization.50 Developing states have also criticized the EU’s refusal to relax intellectual property restrictions on renewable energy technology to help its uptake across the world and have accused the union of prioritizing its commercial gains over climate goals. European governments have often insisted that EU-supported renewables projects in third countries be used to increase energy supplies to Europe rather than boost the energy resilience of the source countries.51

Nevertheless, the overall policy mix is still contested, and many aspects of the EU’s trade policies cut across climate commitments. Despite all of the union’s negative discourse about globalization and positive rhetoric about climate action, in practice, policy aims of economic globalism still often trump climate goals. Much of the trade the EU promotes is clearly detrimental to the environment,52 no matter how much the union insists on including formal references to climate goals in its trade agreements and stresses the need for open trade in renewables. The EU pushes third countries to sign up to emissions reductions but then presses them to sign trade agreements that will increase those same emissions.

The EU is the biggest source not only of climate aid but also of aid for trade. The EU-China investment agreement—were it to proceed—could cancel out EU climate policies, to the extent that it prioritizes automobile exports and the like. In the case of the EU-Mercosur trade deal, nine member states and the EU foreign policy high representative are pushing for Macron to lift his block on the accord, thus putting trade before climate preconditions.

While other powers complain about EU green protectionism, the union seeks to prevent these powers from using climate change arguments to block goods from Europe. The EU is also looking for new rules to ensure the easier flow of its green technologies to external markets.53 The EU’s efforts to gain access to critical minerals risk significant ecological damage in third countries. EU policies are in danger of widening a decarbonization divide by accentuating the instabilities of global systems. As yet, the European Green Deal does not promise a fundamental change in the union’s economic model; it focuses on emissions targets rather than a full-spectrum revision of growth models. As long as this remains the case, the spillover from internal climate action to the EU’s position on globalization will be less game changing than would otherwise be the case.


The EU occupies a curious place among the perspectives on globalization that this compilation examines. The union is part of the dominant, developed world that set the terms of globalization over many decades and was, in part, responsible for its many iniquities. Yet, in recent years, the EU has become one of the most defensive and ambivalent actors when it comes to globalism’s future. The defining problem has inverted from the EU worrying mainly about other powers’ ability to navigate globalization to a concern with Europe’s own vulnerabilities to open globalism. This is an approach oriented more toward the weaknesses and frustrations of European societies than toward global systemic imbalances. The gap between the EU’s and other powers’ visions of globalization has widened, not narrowed.

The EU’s emerging disposition is not antiglobalization, and the union is still a relatively open trader compared with many other powers. Rather, the EU is adopting a more instrumental position toward the gains and risks of globalization. Many in the EU have moved away from embracing globalization as a generically beneficial, win-win public good. Instead, they understand it as setting an international terrain on which the EU must battle harder to harness the potential of globalism and achieve relative gains over other powers. This conceptual shift is not absolute; many EU and member-state policymakers retain a more broadly positive perspective on globalization. Yet, the EU’s core trade, investment, and technology policies have taken on a more competitive, rather than cooperative, approach to globalization.

The EU increasingly seeks to shape globalization as one channel of its geopolitics, reflecting a more geoeconomic or mercantilist take. This adjustment flows from both international and domestic trends. Much of the change has been forced on the EU by power rivalries and the toughened approaches of other actors, while part of the adjustment is a strategic choice. The EU has lost trade and investment market shares, and the need for the union to reposition itself with regard to the U.S.-Chinese rivalry has also spurred a more political approach to globalization. The coronavirus pandemic has added a further exogenous prompt to EU repositioning. Domestically, populist forces have surged in most European countries, often on platforms that question globalization. While their rise is the product of many complex factors and not reducible to economic problems, it has reinforced the sense that EU policies toward the global economic system need to be rethought.

It is fairly clear that the EU now defends its short-term interests more rigorously than in the past and seeks to limit at least some globalization dynamics. It is less clear whether the union has a firm, long-term vision for a different kind of globalization. To some extent, the EU’s emerging policies take on board the many calls from analysts for a more measured and less hyper form of globalization, led by a careful calculus of domestic concerns.54 But this also entails greater deference to short-term and ad hoc interests and is not a strategy likely to command inclusive legitimacy as a long-term, sustainable form of globalism.

Globalization may not be intrinsically incompatible with notions like sovereignty and autonomy, but these concepts do not easily pull in the same direction. The EU’s adjustments are still tentative—the first steps in what is likely to be a long process of change. For now, the question remains whether the EU seeks minor tactical tweaks or can devise a fully worked and coherent alternative vision of globalization.


1 Josep Borrell, “Why European Strategic Autonomy Matters,” European Union External Action Service, March 12, 2020,

2 “Global Europe: Competing in the World,” European Commission, October 4, 2006,

3 “Negotiations and Agreements,” European Commission,

4 Stephen Woolcock, European Union Economic Diplomacy: The Role of the EU in External Economic Relations (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

5 For more details, see Richard Youngs, The European Union and Global Politics (London: Macmillan, 2021), chap. 6.

6 “Trade for All: Towards a More Responsible Trade and Investment Policy,” European Commission, 2015,

7 “Global Gateway,” European Commission, accessed December 21, 2021,

8 Anu Bradford, The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 23.

9 Alasdair R. Young, “The European Union as a Global Regulator? Context and Comparison,” Journal of European Public Policy 22, no. 9 (2015): 1233–52,; and others in this special edition.

10 Johan Bjerkem and Marta Pilati, “A Renewed Start for Europe? 4 Takeaways From the EU’s New Industrial Strategy,” European Policy Centre, March 12, 2020,

11 “First Annual Report on the Screening of Foreign Direct Investments Into the Union,” European Commission, November 23, 2021,

12 János Ammann, “EU’s International Procurement Law One Step Closer to Completion,” Euractiv, December 15, 2021,

13 John Lichfield, “The Next Epidemic: Resurgent Populism,” Politico, April 6, 2020,

14 Sarah Wheaton, “Politico Brussels Playbook: VDL’s Marathon—Bad Friday Proposal—Vax for Eurocrats?,” Politico, February 2, 2021, quoting WTO Deputy Director Alan Wolff,

15 Josep Borrell, “The Post-coronavirus World Is Already Here,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 30, 2020,

16 “Trade Policy Review: An Open, Sustainable and Assertive Trade Policy,” European Commission, 2021,

17 “Strengthening the EU’s Contribution to Rules-Based Multilateralism,” European Commission and High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, February 17, 2021,

18 “Instrument to Deter and Counteract Coercive Actions by Third Countries,” European Parliament,

19 “Speech by Commissioner Phil Hogan at Launch of Public Consultation for EU Trade Policy Review—Hosted by EUI Florence,” European Commission, June 16, 2020,

20 “European Parliament Plenary: Opening Statement by EVP Dombrovskis on the EU Trade Policy Review,” European Commission, November 24, 2020,

21 “Shaping Europe’s Digital Future,” European Commission, February 19, 2020,

22 Mission letter to Margrethe Vestager, European Commission, December 1, 2019,

23 “Google Hit With €4.3bn Android Fine From EU,” BBC, July 18, 2018,

24 Juliana De Groot, “What Is the General Data Protection Regulation? Understanding & Complying With GDPR Requirements in 2019,” Digital Guardian, September 30, 2020,

25 Jonathan Keane, “From California to Brazil: Europe’s Privacy Laws Have Created a Recipe for the World,” CNBC, April 8, 2021,

26 Javier Espinoza, “EU to Tell Big Tech to Police Internet or Face Large Fines,” Financial Times, December 10, 2020,

27 “Contestable and Fair Markets in the Digital Sector (Digital Markets Act),” European Commission, December 15, 2020,

28 “Harmonised Rules on Artificial Intelligence (Artificial Intelligence Act),” European Commission, April 21, 2021,

29 “Digital Future,” European Commission.

30 “White Paper on Artificial Intelligence—A European Approach to Excellence and Trust,” European Commission, February 19, 2020,

31 “First Six Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain Technology Funds Backed by InnovFin Raise a Total of EUR 700m,” European Commission, October 28, 2020,

32 Laura Kayali, “Politico Brussels Playbook: Dragging in Draghi—VDL Takes Responsibility—Navalny Sentenced,” Politico, February 3, 2021,

33 Meredith Broadband, “Implications of the Digital Markets Act for Transatlantic Cooperation,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 15, 2021,

34 For a detailed account of this trend and debates surrounding it, see Youngs, The European Union and Global Politics, chap. 4.

35 “EU Common Position on the UN Draft Resolution A/69/L.84 on ‘Basic Principles on Sovereign Debt Restructuring Processes,’” Council of the European Union, September 7, 2015,

36 “Multilateral Cooperation for Global Recovery,” Élysée, February 3, 2021,

37 Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones, “Exclusive: Italy G20 Presidency to Push for Debt Relief, New IMF Drawing Rights,” Reuters, January 29, 2021,

38 Andrea Shalal, “U.S. Opposes Massive Liquidity IMF Boost: Mnuchin,” Reuters, April 16, 2020,

39 Sylvia Amaro, “We Are One Millimeter Away’ From Global Tax Deal, French Finance Minister Says,” CNBC, October 6, 2021,

40 “The European Green Deal,” European Commission, December 11, 2019,

41 “International Climate Finance,” European Commission,

42 Bradford, The Brussels Effect.

43 Pascal Lamy, Genevieve Pons, and Pierre Leturcq, “Greening EU Trade 4: How to Green Trade Agreements?,” Institut Jacques Delors, November 10, 2020,

44 Hanna Deringer, Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, and Danny Murty, “Europe and South-East Asia: Shifting From Diplomacy to Unilateralism,” European Centre for International Political Economy, ECIPE Policy Brief, No. 1/2019.

45 Jennifer Rankin, “EU Aims to Curb Deforestation With Beef and Coffee Import Ban,” Guardian, November 17, 2021,

46 Peter Chase and Rose Pinkert, “The EU’s Triangular Dilemma on Climate and Trade,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, September 3, 2021,

47 “Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council Establishing a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism,” European Commission, July 14, 2021,

48 “EU Unveils Plan to Be Carbon Neutral by 2050,” Financial Times, December 12, 2019,

49 “Critical Raw Materials for Strategic Technologies and Sectors in the EU: A Foresight Study,” European Commission, 2020,

50 Jane Flanagan, “Europe Is Stealing Jungle From Us, Claim Pygmies,” Times, August 21, 2019,

51 Gonzalo Escribano, “The Geopolitics of Renewable and Electricity Cooperation Between Morocco and Spain,” Mediterranean Politics 24, no. 5 (2019): 674–681,

52 Mathilde Dupré, “European Trade Policy and the Green Deal,” Green European Journal, March 17, 2020,

53 “Council Conclusions on Climate and Energy Diplomacy—Delivering on the External Dimension of the European Green Deal,” Council of the European Union, January 25, 2021,

54 “The Future of Globalisation,” podcast, Bruegel, September 30, 2020,