Every week, a selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Cornelius AdebahrAssociate in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
This question begs another: Did anyone think about EU foreign policy when they cast their vote (or not) on May 22–25? Probably not, so it’s fair to assume that the European Parliament election results contain no judgment on this issue. In terms of the poll’s immediate effects, the quarrels over the position of European Commission president and the parliamentary seats gained by populist parties come to mind. Yet neither issue is decisive in a policy area where the member states still rule supreme: for good or bad, EU foreign policy depends on the political will of 28 governments.
However, Russia’s blatant aggression in Ukraine and its forceful opposition to the European model of integration have shown that a common foreign and security policy is no longer optional. It’s a necessity. The EU as a union is so much more powerful than, and much less dependent on, Russia than its individual members are.
True, countries like France, the UK, and Denmark now face important populist challenges. But this pressure will bring governments to the point where they have to explain to their citizens that either there will be a European foreign policy worthy of the name or there won’t be any independent European nation-states for much longer.
Alexandra de Hoop SchefferSenior transatlantic fellow and director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
The results of the European elections will have important implications for national politics that are likely to lower the prospect of more coordinated European foreign policies. In France, the outcome of the vote will undermine the country’s position within the EU. While the French government will continue to advocate for more cooperation at the European level, its legitimacy to promote common foreign policies and take the lead on strategic issues is undoubtedly weakened. Similarly, the British government is likely to feel more domestic pressure to remain outside any ambitious strengthening of EU foreign policy.
However, the actual implications of the elections on the general political balance in the European Parliament should not be overestimated. A solid majority will be built around a pro-European program, and the impact of Europhobic parties on the constitution of the new European Commission and the selection of the next foreign policy high representative will be marginal. One cannot stress enough the symbolic gravity of the results, but the pro-European parties will continue to frame European politics. The composition of the new parliament will not directly jeopardize European diplomacy.
Finally, Germany’s position is certainly strengthened by the results of the elections. The parties in government in Berlin have increased their legitimacy both domestically and at the European level. These elections therefore highlight even further Germany’s crucial role in the future of European foreign policy.
Daniel DombeyTurkey correspondent at the Financial Times
The causes and consequences of this year’s European Parliament vote will be long debated. But there is little doubt that, if the elections bring about a more populist, inward-looking EU, the bloc’s policy toward the rest of the world risks being hobbled.
EU foreign policy has always been a mixed bag. This year, for example, the bloc’s stance on the Ukraine crisis has sometimes seemed ham-handed and its response to Russian expansionism incoherent.
But there are areas where the EU looks like retaining a leading role, whether as the facilitator and coordinator of nuclear talks with Iran or as an agent of change in the Western Balkans, where a deal last year between Serbia and Kosovo was a real EU achievement.
A more nationalistic EU is even less likely to admit Ankara than before and, as a result, even less likely to provide a positive influence on the country. However, Ankara’s membership chances already looked vanishingly small well before the vote.
France’s and Germany’s palpable reluctance to admit Turkey into the EU sent the wrong message several years ago. What is increasingly seen today as the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey may well be, at least in part, the result.
Camille GrandDirector of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique
The results of the European Parliament elections came as a shock to many observers as Euroskeptic and Europhobic parties achieved significant success, at least in some EU countries. This expresses an unprecedented defiance vis-à-vis EU institutions, which need to restore confidence among a major share of European public opinion. The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy should not be a casualty of this political turmoil.
First of all, most European citizens continue to see the value and benefits of a more European foreign policy and a more integrated defense effort. Polls suggest that in many countries, support for these policies is stronger than support for the EU in general.
The time is not right to reduce the EU’s level of ambition in the fields of diplomacy and defense. Europe’s security environment is more unstable now than in the last two decades, and many partners across the globe hope for a more active and engaged Europe.
Finally, it might be appropriate for the EU, taking advantage of this year’s leadership changes, to reflect on its international role and spell out more explicitly what the EU stands for and what role it sees for itself on the global stage. In a nutshell, the EU should step up to the strategic challenges of the twenty-first century and start thinking in strategic terms. After all, that may well be what Europe’s citizens expect.
Sebastian KurzMinister of foreign affairs of Austria
The answer is no, the vote will not have a negative impact on EU foreign policy. The relative majority in the European Parliament remains unchanged.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
Can an EU foreign policy emerge from the next period of European governance from 2014 to 2019? The European Parliament election results and the ensuing headlines about the emergence of populist, anti-EU parties—mainly, but not exclusively, with right-wing, anti-immigrant, extremist politics—suggest not.
At the same time, there have been demands for the EU to be stronger, tougher, clearer. And, bit by bit, Europeans are learning to do foreign policy. What is remarkable is not the presence of a single united EU policy line but the absence or decline of national posturing or declamatory statements playing to the gallery of domestic prejudice. Nudged by the quietly effective European External Action Service, the EU has found more common positions on international policy than at any time in its history.
The “hard power versus soft power” debate is over. Both are needed. The knee-jerk promotion of the right to intervene of the 1990s has been nuanced. Finding a person to express this is a challenge. Anyone who goes too far beyond what London, Paris, Berlin, and other EU capitals can accept will be dead in the water. The trick is to express what EU capitals need to do in a way they can accept. Is such a candidate available to succeed Catherine Ashton as foreign policy high representative? Watch this space.
Roderick ParkesHead of the Europe Program at the Polish Institute for International Affairs
No, the European election results will resuscitate European foreign policy. That may seem counterintuitive—after all, the European Parliament is now polarized between a grand coalition of Socialists and the center-right and a bunch of radical spoilers, a situation that would seem to spell introversion and gridlock. And yet, if the parliament can’t provide the positive political change that voters have demanded, then governments will have to.
Many of the EU’s internal deals are currently sewn up by the so-called Weimar triangle. Together, France, Germany, and Poland have helped define the EU’s East-West balance (on resource disparities, budget, free movement, energy, and relations between eurozone members and nonmembers) and its North-South balance (on austerity, growth, and competitiveness).
The trio’s influence is clear in foreign policy, too: the South-East balance spawned the concept of an EU neighborhood and locked the bloc into a one-size-fits-all approach to North Africa and Eastern Europe. That balance has also led the EU to slowly abandon transatlanticism in favor of a conciliatory line toward Russia. All this is now ripe for change.
Poland, worried about the deepening relationship between leftists in Paris and Berlin, may look for allies elsewhere. So too may Germany’s Christian Democratic Chancellor Angela Merkel. And although it may seem odd to propose the commitment-phobic UK as a potential partner, Germany-Poland-Britain may just prove to be the format that finally binds London to the EU. Any such axis would shake up EU foreign policy.
Paweł ŚwiebodaPresident of demosEUROPA
The EU has a lot of homework to do after the European Parliament elections of May 22–25. It needs to reformulate its agenda and regain citizens’ trust. The EU will operate in a more difficult internal environment than before, given the outright challenge that the results have presented to governments in key member states such as France and the UK.
At the same time, the vote was certainly not one against engagement with the outside world. No proposition was put forward against more trade and investment deals—although the transparency of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was an issue in a number of states. Russian aggression in Ukraine has made pro-EU sentiment ever stronger in the countries of Central Europe.
But the EU’s foreign policy cannot be run as business as usual. Foreign policy has to deliver tangible benefits to the citizens, otherwise it will gradually be seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. This means two things—security and growth, preferably both at the same time.
The EU will also have to pursue more effective dialogue with key partners and better representation of its business interests. And there must be more communication with the public on the objectives of the EU’s foreign policy. More difficult will be the transformative agenda, for which the EU is likely to lose its appetite, absorbed with its own difficulties.
Stephen SzaboExecutive director of the Transatlantic Academy
The results of the recent European Parliament elections are not good news for those who would like the EU to act with more unity in its relations with the outside world. The gains made by nationalists in France, the UK, Greece, Hungary, and Denmark will hamper the selection of a strong European Commission and high representative for foreign policy.
While still a minority, nationalist parties are pulling the established parties toward a more nation-based outlook. Resistance to NATO, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and U.S. leadership will be more vocal. Pressures to limit immigration and to look inward will become more mainstream. Pro-Russian voices will be louder.
True, the results could have been worse. Italy and Germany were bright spots this week. The center-left and center-right still hold a majority in the European Parliament. But in two of the EU’s three most important member states when it comes to foreign policy, Britain and France, the results do not augur well for an outward-looking Europe.
Damon WilsonExecutive vice president of the Atlantic Council
The dynamics set in train by the latest European Parliament elections will likely mean that the body begins to mirror national parliaments’ handling of foreign policy.
These elections to a supranational entity have triggered domestic fights for political relevance and survival, pushing traditional foreign policy to the rear. The vote foreshadows the EU itself becoming the leading target of these national debates, underscoring the EU as “foreign.”
The European Parliament’s agenda will become more complicated as the growth of anti-EU parties will make forging majorities more difficult on the full range of issues, including foreign policy. Despite political momentum, these parties will remain a distinct minority and may therefore turn to disruptive legislative practices to ensure their voices are heard. Nationalist members of parliament may push for more muscular, disruptive oversight of the foreign policy work of the European Commission.
Finally, and most worryingly, significant anti-EU (pro-Moscow) factions within the parliament risk becoming a leading instrument of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy to keep the EU divided and its institutions weak. That would make the EU ineffective in checking Russia’s influence, whether by undermining support for sanctions over Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine or by preventing decisive action to end Russian energy giant Gazprom’s monopolistic behavior.