Bárbara Matias assesses the current political stance of the EU following the State of The European Union address by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and finds that it is both complicated and somewhat docile.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her first SOTEU speech on 16 September 2020, less than a year into her four-year presidency term. Addressing the nations in three languages – English, French and German – von der Leyen laid out the EU’s biggest challenges and opportunities in key policy areas, particularly in the field of climate action, digitalization and foreign affairs.

In the latter field of external action, the European Commission (EC) President affirmed the European Union must have an assertive voice – ”Without any doubt, there is a clear need for Europe to take clear positions and quick actions on global affairs”. That is the case for the ongoing protests in Belarus against Lukashenko’s authoritarian rule, for Russia’s antagonist behaviour in world politics, most recently with the Navalny poisoning case running headlines, and for Hong Kong’s mounting struggle for fundamental rights.

A visual foreign policy

Pursuant to blatant threats to the established rules-based international order, the EU faces the growing challenge of affirming its Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Defence and Security policy in ”a fragile world” . Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, has had his hands full since taking office in November 2019. Notoriously, the faltering transatlantic relations between the Old Continent and the United States under the current leadership on the other side of the Atlantic, the stagnant political dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as a myriad of other regional conflicts with global implications.

The EU as a global player is a loud and proud globalist that ranges from chasing the fulfilment of human rights and the consolidation of democracy in third countries, and similarly prioritizing the forging of trade agreements with regional powers, be it Mercosur in 2019 or Japan in 2018. In parallel, the world is tilting – traditional allies are less dependable and emerging powers could be potential antagonists. The EU’s foreign policy may shine a lonely multilateral light.

Von der Leyen indeed laid the seeds for a challenging year ahead, one of COVID-19 recovery of the health and economic sectors, and of growing far-right threats in local or national governments in the EU27. The realization that significant threats lay not only externally from the EU but also internally, is important. The case of Brexit is obvious yet multilayered in its harmful impact to a united EU. Viktor Orbán’s authoritarian rule in Hungary since 2010 lingers and moreover seeks to influence neighbouring Visegrad countries against Brussels. Poland’s corroded rule of law and tirade against LGBT minorities has triggered Article 7 (of the Treaty of the European Union) disciplinary proceedings and sparked sanctions talks by MEPs. There is a lot of internal kitchen clean up to undertake. The situation gets trickier when looking at EU external action and the state of international affairs.

In line with the SOTEU 2020 by Ursula von der Leyen, HRVP Borrell has reinforced the need to build a Global Europe – ”to make the Union a truly global player in a world marked by the strategic rivalry between the US and China, the questioning of multilateralism, and the unavoidable health and environmental crises” . There can no longer be such a great dependence on traditional Allies. Amid this unpredictable and multipolar scenario international affairs are playing into, there is instead a need for a strong, stable and sound superpower. One that reassures citizens and strives to not long keep on the right side of history, but also pushes neighbours and reasons with antagonists to do so as well.

To the west

On relations with the United States as one of the EU’s long-established strategic ally, the Trump presidency has strained the transatlantic bond. Going on four years and potentially risking another four should the election on 3 November 2020 incline to Republican red once more, President Trump’s ‘America First’ foreign policy has isolated allies and distanced opportunities for cooperation on external action issues. An example to consider is that, on the one hand, President Obama stated the EU to be ”one of the world’s great political and economic achievements” and collaborated with Germany in combatting ISIL. On the other hand, President Trump openly states the EU ”was formed to take advantage of the United States” , and recently announced the withdrawal of 12,000 American troops stationed in Germany in protest again European nations not meeting the 2% GDP NATO target spending on defence.

In the EU’s immediate neighbourhood, anti-government protests in Belarus have been the latest hot topic. President Lukashenko’s illegitimate claim to power after the 9 August 2020 election, hunt of political opposition and police violence and state repression against peaceful protesters is a chief concern of the EU. The EU has condemned the action, asked for democratic transition to power and not recognized Lukashenko a president-elect. Besides official statements and discussions, what remains is the application of hard sanctions on the country and the government. Many have criticized the EU’s inaction on swiftly applying sanctions to Belarus, something Borrell himself owned up to by conceding that ”We are not always clear enough, or fast enough, or acting with enough impact and consistency. On this particular issue, Cyprus’ ongoing dispute with Turkey on maritime rights in the eastern Mediterranean has led to the EU Member States threatening to block Belarus sanctions until the EU condemns and sanctions Turkey’s drilling operations in the sea.

For a Global Europe to indeed come into fruition as envisaged by leadership and desired by citizens, it must be a united Europe. One that speaks in a single voice and develops a level playing field in global politics, security and defence. The stakes are higher in 2020 than twenty years ago. EU membership has doubled, important global players have tripled, and power is shifting from West to East. The latter further implies another set of concerns on the transparency of Chinese foreign action – be it on the 5G network, human rights abuses or its questionable loans to developing countries towards building large infrastructures.

The Jerusalem issue

Among the regional conflicts the EU could play a contributing role to peace-building and political dialogue is the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict.
The conflict worsened in recent times as Israeli authorities approved the construction of thousands of more housing units in the West Bank in early 2020, a move denounced by HRVP Borrell as harmful for regional stability and to constructive Israeli-EU relations. The EU is clear in its support of a dialogue towards a two-State State solution, ”the only realistic and viable way to fulfil the legitimate aspirations of both peoples” , and condemnation of illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

The Israel-Palestine conflict was recently re-enflamed due to the President Trump’s closeness to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. In December 2017, Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and announced the US Embassy would relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, one of the historically most contested territories. The move was concluded in May 2018. What followed suite is an expression of American international soft power, as Guatemala also relocated its embassy to Jerusalem and Honduras has since likewise recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and plans to open its embassy in the holy city.

More relevantly for EU interests, in mid-September 2020 both Serbia and Kosovo announced plans to establish bilateral diplomatic relations with Israel in Jerusalem as well. Known for its close relations to the US, Kosovo risks a major faux-pas with this diplomatic move, seemingly fuelled by the country’s chase of international recognition of influential sovereign states. President Hashin Thaci tweeted that: ”I welcome the announcement of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu about the genuine intention to recognize Kosovo and establish diplomatic relations. Kosovo will keep its promise to place its diplomatic mission in Jerusalem” . Serbia made the relocation pledge during a White House summit between President Trump and Kosovar Prime Minister Hoti. The EU already came out to condemn the decision by Kosovo and Serbia and flagged it as non-compliant with EU external action in the Middle East. Not only that, the EU warned that such a divergent move may hinder aspirations for EU integration. The EU does not recognize Israel’s claims over East Jerusalem and supports an international mandate in the region. Similarly, no EU Member State has embassies in Jerusalem but all in Tel Aviv.

The rules of the game are certainly getting trickier, as predictable players turn unpredictable and others follow suite. The EU positions itself with a fundamental ”good cop” role in all corners of the world, be it through political, economic or financial support to development and human rights. However, when the support surpasses symbolic injection of money or state visits into real conflicts in its immediate neighbourhood, the EU must be able to take on a ”bad cop” role as well. It must be ready to be strong and united with concrete actions matching its assertive condemning statements.
With such conflicts laid out above to the East and to the South of EU Member States, it is up to the senior leaders to push through sanctions or hard solutions.

Nine months into the new Commission cabinet and HRVP Borrell’s mandate, the foreseeable trend is not for the world to became rosier or international players more complacent. Quite the opposite. It is therefore up to the EU to change itself – to reject nationalisms and rather see the added value of the common bloc and be stronger together. To yield positive power as EU27 instead of negative blocking power as EU1. To strengthen the EU via united Member States and, therein, strengthening themselves.

The EU Common Foreign and Security Policy and Common Defence and Security policy must be heard. That is an actual Global Europe and that is the strategy to still be powerful when isolated in your support of multilateralism and international solidarity.

Bárbara Matias
Bárbara Matias works for the European Commission as Desk Officer. Currently in the DG INTPA's Southeast Asia unit leading the Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Laos files, she previously led the Armenia joint programming file in DG NEAR. Before that, Bárbara worked as Programme Officer in NATO's Operations Division, on Iraq capacity-building and on Covid-19 aid coordination with the EU. She previously worked in Kosovo as Research Fellow at the Group for Legal and Political Studies focused on the EU enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans. Bárbara has written for online political platforms and peer-review journals since 2015. She holds a Master in Human Rights Studies from Columbia University, New York where she was a Fulbright Graduate Scholar and undergraduate lecturer, and speaks 6 languages.

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