With Trump’s US missing in action from the global stage, the European Union should be stepping into the vacuum. Germany, which has just taken over the bloc’s rotating presidency, could use the next six months to provide the leadership to boost Europe’s global impact. But is it ready to shake off its traditional reticence?
Immediate economic challenges will dominate EU leaders’ first in-person encounter since the lockdown, on 17 and 18 July. And Berlin is right to prioritise agreement on the EU’s new seven-year budget and a pandemic recovery plan, a task complicated by internal rifts and new forecasts warning of an even deeper recession than expected across the 27-nation bloc. As Angela Merkel said in a recent Guardian interview: “For Europe to survive, its economy needs to survive.”
But Europe’s recovery is conditional on the state of the global economy. And without the US at its side, the EU is struggling to revive faltering multilateral commitments to health, keep up the pressure to meet global climate targets and fight against trade protectionism.
As a bloc it must accept the US retreat and grab the mantle of global leadership because, diminished as it is, multilateralism has never been so needed. Germany is in the right place at the right time to give a powerful boost to this endeavour. Not only is Merkel’s government chairing the EU, it has a two-year stint as a (non-permanent) member of the UN security council until 31 December.
Europe already has the regulatory and market power as well as the multilateral credentials to matter worldwide. EU officials have recently organised two fundraising events for Covid-19 vaccine research and the bloc is trying to bolster both the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, key multilateral institutions bruised and battered by US-China rivalries and, in the case of the WHO, by the US decision to formally withdraw from the organisation.
Yet, in its EU presidency programme, Berlin modestly promises to assume “considerable responsibility” to help shape the global order. It has also presented a laudable but impossibly long list of “key priorities”.
This is a recipe for failure. The EU will not, for instance, be able to bring peace to the Middle East, however hard it tries. The US has torpedoed EU attempts to strike a nuclear deal with Iran and internal divisions complicate EU-Russia relations. Merkel will have to be selective in deciding just when, where and how the EU acts, both at home and abroad.
The first step is for Berlin and Brussels to wean themselves off their over-dependence on the US, a fact recognised by Merkel. The quandary isn’t Europe’s alone. As the chancellor underlined, a world that grew up in the “certain knowledge” that the US was a global power now has to adjust to a new reality.
EU discussions on the principle of “strategic autonomy” are a step in the right direction. Initially associated with security and defence, strategic autonomy is now also being sought on trade, foreign investment and a post-pandemic focus on reshoring supply chains linked to essential medical products.
Second, while the EU’s focus is unrelentingly on its volatile relationship with China, its global standing hinges also on upgrading relations with other Asian economic giants, including Japan, India and Indonesia.
Third, Europe must re-imagine its outdated relationship with Africa, learn from past mistakes and finally give up old-fashioned Eurocentric and paternalistic views of Africa as a junior partner needing Europe’s guidance. New EU efforts to build “a partnership of equals” with African states will fall flat unless backed up by investment, support for the African Continental Free Trade Area and stronger ties between European and African local and regional authorities, business leaders, civil society, female groups, young professionals and students.
Fourth, the EU’s reputation, especially as a human rights defender, is tarred by its weak responses on migration and populism. Greece, currently accused of pushing back asylum-seekers at the border with Turkey and preventing refugee boats from reaching EU waters, isn’t the only country suspected of violating migrants’ rights.
Ursula von der Leyen, the EU commission president, has said she wants a “fresh start” via a new migration pact but that has now been put off until autumn as officials seek to win over recalcitrant leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. A tendency in Europe to speak of migration and security in the same breath also needs to change, especially in view of evidence of the growing threat posed by far-right extremism, also in Germany.
In the end, the EU needs to showcase its unique leadership qualities for a changed and changing world. Covid-19 has demonstrated the weakness of strongmen and populists. Complex challenges can’t be tackled by reliance on a sole global policeman but require actions by a changing constellation of state and non-state actors working in different formats and at different times. Hard power may still matter to those engaged in real wars but it’s the EU’s quiet diplomacy and strong adherence to the rule of law that count for many others.
In an increasingly cantankerous world Germany can make sure EU governments practise at home what they preach abroad. Above the clamour of great power struggles and zero-sum games, Berlin can steer its EU partners to stop looking in the rear-view mirror and to embrace instead a more interesting, if less predictable, future.
• Shada Islam is a Brussels-based commentator on EU affairs. She runs New Horizons project, a strategy, analysis and advisory company