A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

From the Wings to Center Stage


Europe urgently needs to become a credible actor in international affairs – but to play its role, it has to do a better job framing its stage, its story, and its audience.


Illustration: Dominik Herrmann

The challenges knocking on Europe’s door today take many forms. The danger of renewed Russian imperialism lurks to the east, while boats loaded with refugees drift ever closer to our southern shores. Farther afield, China is patiently amassing global power, while violent extremists attack our way of life from within our cities. Has Europe grasped the severity of these threats?

Take the war in eastern Ukraine. The tenuous Minsk ceasefire poses the greatest test of will in European geopolitics since the end of the Cold War, bringing into play questions of war and peace, strategy and power. But Europe no longer thinks in these terms – our strategic language has become rusty. It is as if history, with its drama and conflicts, has become a foreign country.

There are, fortunately, signs that this is changing. Recent statements and actions show that Europe’s leaders are beginning to see the world as it is, not how they want it to be. A prime example is Angela Merkel’s work in Minsk. A few days before the February ceasefire was negotiated, the Chancellor explained her opposition to delivering arms to Kiev to a critical audience at the Munich Security Conference, saying: “The problem is that I cannot imagine any situation in which improved equipment for the Ukrainian army leads to President Putin being so impressed that he believes he will lose militarily. I have to put it that bluntly. Military support would lead to more victims, not to a Russian defeat.” In other words: we cannot always beat the bad guys (much as Americans might disagree), but we can, and must, try to contain them. Remember, politics is the art of the possible.

The April 2015 summit on the catastrophes in the Mediterranean was another good sign. In the wake of yet more drowned refugees, European leaders finally decided to do what Pope Francis has been requesting: establish a stronger rescue presence at sea. At the same time, they declared war on the human traffickers, with EU Council President Donald Tusk reminding the world that “Europe did not cause this tragedy.” The tone matters here: it was not the usual self-flagellation and moral superiority, but a readiness to apply resources – both financial and military – to address a crisis. It was a political response to moral distress.

All the world’s a stage, Shakespeare wrote. For decades, the European Union has struggled to get its act together as a foreign policy actor. In Brussels, Paris, London, and Berlin, think-tankers, academics and diplomats focus on subtleties, but perhaps one must first ask what being an actor means – and whether or not it is a role for which Europe is equipped, not just materially or institutionally, but in terms of philosophy and self-image.

In the great theater of politics there are four elements to consider: the Play, the Theater, the Actor, and the Audience. Let’s take a look at all four.

The Play

Many in America, Brazil, and China look on Europe with a certain disdain. They see 500 million relatively privileged people unwilling to pay for their security and living in debt-financed welfare-states as the pensionados of world history. A cheap cliché, but it sticks. Why?

By the time the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, European states had spent four decades under either American protection or Soviet occupation. Suddenly they were on their own again, ready for their big debut. A moment of joy to be sure – but of uncertainty as well. Had the ghosts of the past been laid to rest? Could we handle this new freedom?

Before we could even get to such questions, though, the “End of History” was declared. Capitalist democracies had won, and the rest of humanity would follow their path. How ironic! Precisely when Europe was waking up geopolitically, somebody declared “the show is over, you can go back to the dressing rooms!”

We wanted to believe it. After all, the “End of History” narrative fit all too well with the integration model that France, Germany, and the other European states had chosen since 1950 as they built what they hoped would be an “Eternal Peace” (at least among themselves). But history was not over, and as good as the Brussels institutions are at defusing internal conflicts, bracketing power, and depoliticizing issues, they did little to prepare member states for the world outside Europe, where nations play by other rules and answer to older passions.

The context in which these institutions operate, however, is rapidly changing. “Politics has returned to Europe, history is back,” European Council President Tusk said upon taking office late in 2014. Merkel, Hollande, and Cameron seem to agree.

The Theater

Europe’s foreign policy was designed with this illusory “End of History” in mind; it was meant to help other countries become just like us, using aid, trade, and norms. The corresponding conception of space is revealing: once the Union had opened up to eight former communist countries, Brussels started looking farther afield, with Commission President Romano Prodi speaking in 2003 of a “ring of friends” stretching from Morocco in the southwest via Egypt to the Caucasus and Ukraine in the east. This was geopolitics of the drafting compass: take a world map, put one leg in Brussels, and make a nice, wide circle, ignoring the variations among the countries it contained. This gave birth to the EU neighborhood policy. When Prodi shared his vision at the White House, George W. Bush said: “Sounds like the Roman Empire to me, Romano!”

Back then, even as decision makers in Brussels referred to a “ring of friends,” they were careful to avoid being seen as drawing a new Iron Curtain. They were in fact uneasy drawing any line on a map for fear of creating new divisions. But how could this reticence be squared with Europe’s ambition, as set out in the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, to act on the world stage? Did this not imply revisiting relations with other players and mapping out spheres of influence?

The neighborhood policy has since collapsed under the combined strains of the Arab revolts (2011) and the Ukraine war (2014). Some even blame the EU for the current conflict with Russia. This is disingenuous: it is clear who the aggressor there is. But the European Union has suffered from its apolitical stand. It was careless to oblige Ukraine in November 2013 to choose between the EU association agreement and the customs Union with Russia – on the basis of WTO trade-rules. In late May 2015 the EU leaders met with their eastern counterparts once again, in Riga. Did they learn anything in the interim?

Perhaps. A recent EU paper issued by High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini and the Commission admits, with an unusual degree of candor, that the neighborhood policy “has not always been able to offer adequate responses to recent developments.” For diplomats, this is tough talk. Four shifts point to an increase in political realism. First, the paper touches on “differentiation” and “flexibility”. In other words: stop putting countries from Egypt to Armenia in one basket, and learn to react to changing circumstances. Second, look at the “neighbors of the neighbors,” meaning do not design a Ukraine policy as if Russia did not exist, nor an Egypt policy that fails to consider Saudi Arabia and Iran. Third, it highlights “stability” and “security” as goals alongside democracy and human rights. This is no doubt a lesson from Libya, where the West chased away a dictator only to get anarchy and a refugee crisis in his place. Fourth, the word “interests” appears much more frequently. “European interests” was long a taboo term. EU politics was, after all, about overcoming national interests; surely we did not want to repeat the same mistakes on a supranational level. That taboo had a purpose when the Union was created. Today, focusing on Europe’s shared interests is a sign of maturity.

A weak spot in the Union’s self-image remains, though: we are still unable to agree on a border. We lack the force to say that one day the European Union will end here – that these countries should be in, but these countries should not. Instead we cultivate ambiguity. Diplomatic hypocrisy can be an asset: it keeps options open without offending anybody. But this flexibility comes at a cost, a cost that has recently increased. Externally, territorial clarification could help defuse tensions with Moscow. Domestically, it could boost the European public’s weak sense of belonging together – after all, how can you feel at home when the front door does not lock?

The Player

For a long time, our European actor felt little need to act at all, instead setting an example by simply being there. Those days are over. Europe now knows it must deal with actual events, occupy its space, and win over its audience. But how do you act when you are a Union?

Again, this is a matter of self-image. Take the European desire to “speak with one voice.” This definitely requires a strong center. But it does not imply that Brussels should speak while Paris, London, and Berlin shut up. The Union is not a federal state; it will remain a club of states. Weakening these states would be the quickest route to Europe’s global irrelevance. So the Union’s task instead is to harness its members’ voices and get them to sing in the same key. (It must be added that, contrary to what both federalists and eurosceptics are determined to repeat as often as possible, one dissonant note does not signal the end of a choir!)

Foreign policy means and manpower are mainly in the hands of member states, whether that means diplomats, armies, intelligence services, or budgets. Add the EU diplomats and budget on top of that and on paper we have the world’s second largest army, best-staffed diplomatic corps, and largest development aid budget. This is why the biggest handicap is not a lack of means in Brussels, but rather member states’ hesitation to conceive and use their own means as part of a greater whole. This requires no treaty change; it is a matter of mind-set. Rather than daydreaming about a European army, it is more useful to get existing armies marching in the same direction. The bigger member states must learn to share power rather than using the EU as a toolbox for their own actions, while the smaller states must back up their desire to participate in global debates with a readiness to shoulder costs and risks.

Energy, migration, defense spending – domestic and foreign affairs are harder to separate than ever. It is one reason why the EU’s 28 presidents and prime ministers are becoming more active, meeting frequently in the European Council with the Commission President and the High Representative present. Their summits provide the European Union with a kind of collective chief executive, but one characterized more by a round table than an Oval Office. On the plus side, in the European Council the power to allocate means (both national and EU) meets the capacity to set the Union’s direction; on the downside, the body is crisis-driven, lacking time, continuity, and coherence. It needs a stronger link to joint intelligence, which the EU diplomatic service should be able to provide.

The Public

A player’s global power rests not only on economic clout, military strength, and diplomatic prestige – but also on the support of the public which is just as important. The days of closed-door cabinet diplomacy are over; foreign affairs now occupy headlines. In democracies, the public has the power to boo a performance, complicating the job of leaders. But the reverse is also true: the public’s support can be an incomparable source of power. Think of the presidents of Russia, America, and China, who (sometimes ruthlessly) communicate the feeling that a whole nation is standing behind them.

This is the most difficult part of the job for European leaders. They must confront their own electorates on vital international issues. These messages will not win any votes, but how can politicians who fear their own voters hope to scare Putin? The worst mistake an actor can make is underestimating the public.

Whether Portuguese, Finnish, Irish, French, Romanian, or British, Europeans know well that there is always a second act. They will reward actors who prepare for it and deal with the world – the world as it is.

Read the complete article in the Berlin Policy Journal App – July/August 2015 issue.