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Sat. July 13, 2024
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

The EU: Addressing Current Issues and Challenges Ahead


Interview with Stefan Lehne (Carnegie Europe)

The EU is currently strained by many issues including security crises in Ukraine and elsewhere around the world, climate change, migration, and a decreasing share of world GDP. Can the EU cope with this never-ending series of challenges?

It is true that since the beginning of the Eurozone crisis in 2009, the EU has gone through a series of crises, ranging from the mass-influx of refugees/migrants, to Brexit, the pandemic, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with its impact on energy and inflation. Parallel to managing these acute problems, the EU also has to deal with urgent longer-term challenges such as the climate transition or the persistent rule of law deficits in some member states.

Managing crises is no longer the exception, it has become the new normal in the EU. And it is safe to predict that this will continue for a number of years. Geopolitical rivalries and turmoil in neighboring regions, deep economic and social inequalities, and accelerating global warming make for a tougher environment than the union has ever experienced.

During these 15 years of “pluri-crisis” the EU has turned out more resilient than many observers had expected. The European Council has proven its worth as a top-level crisis manager, the European Commission has on several issues displayed impressive leadership and executive abilities. And in acute crisis situations, the governments of the member states have been willing to overcome their divisions and pull together. In view of the record of the past 15 years, one can be reasonably hopeful that the EU will also be able to cope with future challenges.

The rise of geopolitics and the shift of economic and political power to other parts of the world have somewhat diminished the EU’s international standing. How can the EU shore up its role in the world order?

Foreign policy is clearly not the EU’s strong suit. The EU responded well to the Russian aggression against Ukraine, but showed little cohesion during the current war in the Middle East. Uniting 27 governments behind a common policy is a tough challenge at the best of times and it is even more difficult in the contested world of today. And the current transformation of the global constellation of demographic, economic, and political power is clearly not favoring the EU.

Nonetheless, the EU has a lot to offer to third countries, particularly when it comes to geo-economics. The EU remains the world’s largest trading power and is the top trading partner of 80 countries. Fuels excluded, the EU imports more from developing countries than the US, Canada, Japan, and China put together. The EU and its member states, taken together, are by far the biggest provider of official development assistance, accounting for 43% of Global ODA.

As a diverse multilevel entity held together by law and values, the EU will never be very good at geopolitics, though it should and could try to become better at it. But its comparative advantage lies in its ability to deal with complex issues through fact-based dialogue and results-oriented negotiations. Given these qualities, it therefore has a lot to bring to the table when it comes to solving great transnational global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity, global poverty, health threats, and migration.

Europe has witnessed an upswing in populist voting and leadership. This includes Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the Sweden Democrats, the National Front (France), and Giorgia Meloni in Italy. How does the EU uphold its principles of democracy and rule of law amid this trend?

The rise of far-right parties is, to a large extent, a consequence of the crises of recent years that inflicted a lot of stress on the European population. It is likely that this trend will continue this year, although recent elections in Spain and in Poland have shown that these groups can also be defeated.

Recent experience – for instance in Italy or in Finland - also indicates that when far-right parties become more powerful and join government coalitions, they often moderate their policies. Demands for leaving the EU or the Euro have mostly disappeared from the party programs of far-right parties. Nonetheless, these parties usually remain hostile to a dynamic development of European integration and therefore can make it more difficult to respond effectively to the challenges facing the EU.

The rule of law is not only a fundamental principle of the EU treaty, it is also an essential requirement for the functioning of the internal market. The EU has a number of instruments to secure the rule of law ranging from infringement procedures involving the European Court of Justice to the recent conditionality regulation that makes access to EU funding contingent on upholding basic legal standards.

While these instruments can have a positive impact, ultimately, democracy and the rule of law cannot be imposed by Brussels. Lasting improvements can only come about through democratic change and reforms in the countries concerned. Poland has recently shown the way.

On 14 December 2023, the European Council decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine. What impacts will absorbing Ukraine into the European Union have, not only on member states but non-member states and relations with Russia?

There is no more important objective for the EU’s security than ensuring the survival of Ukraine as a functioning state committed to European values. This will require a massive mobilization of economic and military assistance and close and sustained cooperation with Ukraine’s government.

The promise of future membership for Ukraine in the EU is crucial in this regard, as it implies a guarantee of the EU’s continuing long-term engagement. The reconstruction efforts will have to be closely aligned to reforms that will eventually enable Ukraine to participate in European integration. The process will take considerable time, but Ukraine has shown great resilience and considerable institutional capacity, and with enough help from the EU, should be able to move forward at an impressive pace.

The current Russian government shows no readiness whatsoever to give up its aggressive and threatening behavior. This has brought the EU leaders to the conclusion that there should be no grey areas between Russia and the borders of the EU. They have therefore also offered Moldova and Georgia the perspective of EU membership.

Russia will, of course, remain a major power in close proximity to the EU. The potential of a cooperative relationship with the EU is enormous. However, unlocking this potential will first require a fundamental change in Moscow’s attitude and behavior.

Stefan Lehne is a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the post–Lisbon Treaty development of the European Union’s foreign policy, with a specific focus on relations between the EU and member states.

Read more about the EU, Europe and Addressing Climate Change in the latest issue of International Affairs Forum.

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