Will Ursula von der Leyen and the new leadership stand up for Europe?

As the international situation descends into a miasma of geopolitical competition, Europeans are in danger of becoming hapless playthings in a tussle for pre-eminence between China, Russia, and the United States. Will Ursula von der Leyen, Charles Michel and Josep Borrell be able to turn things around?

The latest report from the European Council on Foreign Relations

The latest report from the European Council on Foreign Relations and coauthors Mark Leonard, co-founder and director of ECFR, and Carl Bildt, co-chair of ECFR – From plaything to player: How Europe can stand up for itself in the next five years – argues that Europeans still have the power to take their destiny into their own hands – if they make major changes to how they organize themselves.

Collectively, the EU’s member states retain the biggest single market in the world; more defence spending than any power but the US; the world’s largest diplomatic corps; and the highest levels of development spending. But unless Europeans can, through the EU or other mechanisms, leverage their collective potential, these impressive facts will mean little.

This new paper offers a frank assessment of the last five years of EU foreign policymaking and sets out practical and positive ways for the new leadership to help Europe meet its potential on the world stage over the next five years.

Comments of Mark Leonard & Carl Bildt

Mark Leonard said: “The appointment of Ursula von der Leyen offers an opportunity for a new start for European foreign policy. As a former defence minister from a big member state, she has the potential to bring together Europe’s economic, regulatory, and military power. She should set out on a quest for strategic sovereignty and try to make Brussels a credible interlocutor for Washington and Beijing.”

Carl Bildt said: “In a world of rising great power competition, is the EU willing or able to be a power among them, or will it accept sinking down to just being a passive playground for the ambitions and designs of others? That’s the key issue that the leaders of the EU must face as they try to shape the work of the Union for the next five years.”

The report’s main points

The EU’s foreign policy is inadequate to the task of keeping Europe safe in today’s world of great power politics and uncertainty.

Over the last five years, trust between Brussels and member states dwindled and policy came to reflect the lowest common denominator of opinion.

The coming five years herald acute pressures on Europe, particularly as Russia, China, and the US undermine multilateral institutions and treat trade, finance data, and security guarantees as instruments of power rather than global public goods.

The new high representative should move quickly to rewire European foreign policymaking to exercise strategic sovereignty.

The high representative needs more support on this strategy: he should have deputies, appoint special representatives, and task foreign ministers with specific roles.

The new leadership team in Brussels needs to operationalise European defence, build Europe’s self-sufficiency through a strong European pillar in NATO, and consider innovations such as a European Security Council.

Europe will only build greater unity by tackling controversial issues head-on in the European Council and the Foreign Affairs Council. The high representative needs to play a much more active role in these debates.