The world is becoming more complex and less binary in a context where fast-evolving global geopolitical competition is set to become the new norm.
Great power shifts and the emergence of new, as of yet untested, technological disruptions will continue to challenge the parameters we take for granted; and sometimes feed into new threats. Long gone is the time where conflicts opposed two easily identifiable enemies fighting for relatable causes. Disinformation and unpredictability must be reckoned with.
For Europe, much like for any other credible actor on the world scene, this requires a paradigm shift. We must rethink Europe’s role against this fast evolving background.
Thinking must shift from “What do we do now?” to “Where do we want to go?”
This calls for an ambitious agenda, identifying a clear-cut level of ambition in terms of European sovereignty, a term that is widely misused and where clarification is long-awaited. While sovereignty must be thought to encompass much more than traditional security aspects, including technological, industrial and economic considerations, as well as many others, the exact level of ambition of such an initiative is bound to prove contentious.
Yet, recent initiatives – including the recovery plan of the European Commission – show that this is the way to go. A strategic compass is being developed for security and defence policy. An ambitious industrial policy is being designed. The EU’s Green Deal constitutes probably the most inspiring project out there, proposing a strong paradigm shift with implications for the world’s largest single market but also for actors who want to play within it.
Yet, this is all easier said than done in a system where competences are shared. Political constraints exist and, when combined with institutional limitations, they can quickly prove disappointing.
This might help explain the all too recurrent “EU-bashing” phenomenon by those seeking to degrade the EU to the rank of an ineffective international organisation. All too often, expectations held towards the EU are apparent to those we hold with regards to our own state.
There is chance this changes after Ursula von der Leyen’s #NextGenerationEU plan. But failure to grasp the inherent complexity of the EU as a hybrid system, somewhere between an international organisation and a federal state, ensures perpetual disappointment.
While the EU cannot be held accountable according to the same criteria we may oppose to our own state, more deserves to be expected than from a purely intergovernmental organisation.
As we brace for major political breakthroughs in the wake of Germany and France’s Presidencies, the new Commission is showing that bold leadership is no longer a thing of the past.
But Brussels is complex and no actor alone can achieve what is good for Europe. This is especially true for heavily intergovernmental CSDP, which still acts as a stranger to the EU’s ordinary legislative procedure. This is further complicated by the fact that a unanimous position is often more difficult to achieve on issues close to state sovereignty. And yet, the EU is expected not to replicate what is effectively an intergovernmental forum in the form of a politico-military defence alliance.
At the same time, most Europeans seem to be in agreement that the EU can no longer afford to go down the path of soft security, engaging with limited resources and often limited political capital in complex operations where lives are often at stake.
And so each must contribute their fair share in a political project that has never been imposed top-down as classical state construction has it, but was forged “bottom-up” through consensus and dialogue.
Europe has always been a project in evolution, not a static ex machina structure imposed upon its citizens. But that makes the EU perhaps more complicated, consensus takes time, and does not always simply emerge when confronted with new issues whose implications remain untested.
Member States, as signatories to the Treaties, have a particular responsibility as historical drivers of political integration. Citizens should not shy away from holding their own government’s share of influence and thus responsibility in the EU process to account.
But that is by no means the only way of achieving influence at EU level. The EU decision-making process leaves ample room for participative democracy and the role of civil society in Brussels is far larger than in many member states (how many NGOs have proved to be essential drivers of EU jurisprudence?).