What does it take for the EU to punch above its weight?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A file photo dated 13 April 2013 shows the world's largest statue of Pope John Paul II after its unveiling ceremony in the Miniature Park in Czestochowa, Poland. [Waldemar Deska/EPA/EFE]

Since the start of the financial and economic crises in 2008/2009, the EU project has lost a considerable part of its standing. A recent forum has raised ideas for reversing the decline of the EU’s ranking in the global arena. Dušan Reljić explains how.

Dušan Reljić heads the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

In almost every discussion about the EU’s external power, there is the point when someone will quote what Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin allegedly said about the pope. Namely, talking about the power of the Vatican in world politics, Stalin is quoted to have asked, sardonically: And how many divisions does the Pope have?

However, history proved Stalin awfully wrong: Pope Wojtyla certainly played an important role in bringing down the system which Stalin established in central and Eastern Europe after the end of the Second World War – in spite of the many thousand nuclear missiles which the Soviet Army had amassed in the meantime.

For the revolutionary masses of Central and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, the Western system and its ideology was credible, and the EU the preferred role model, rather than the exhausted Soviet state and its extension, the Warsaw Pact. The EU’s credibility enabled it to punch above its weight in the international arena in spite of lacking hard power.

Realising Europe´s power will always rest on the credibility of the EU model. However, since the outbreak of the financial and economic crises in 2008/2009, the EU project has lost a considerable part of its standing.

Ahead of the inauguration of the next European Commission, the continental “thinkocracy” has stepped up its production of policy recommendations, including many which relate to the EU’s capacity to act at eye level with the US and China.

Without doubt, most of the suggestions, such as the Dahrendorf Forum’s “Proposals for enhancing Europe’s global deployment of power”, can contribute to reversing the decline of the EU’s ranking in the global arena.

However, there are two issues which could in all important respects boost the EU’s impact in the international system. One is of a general nature, one a specific project. They deserve consideration and a prominent place in the forthcoming agenda-setting of the EU institutions.

The general issue is that presently, the EU, at least to its East, is again dealing with dictators, much like before and after the Second World War. On 1 October, a huge military parade took place in Beijing to celebrate 70 years since the founding of the People`s republic.

The Chinese government leaves no doubt that it has a lot of divisions and plans to form many more. There are presently many hands in Europe, inspired by nationalist populists, stretched out to the dictators in the East.

Back in 1946, as the Cold War was looming, the diplomat George Kennan sent his famed “Long Telegram” from the US embassy in Moscow. In his contemplation on how to deal with dictators, Kenan advised: “Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society . . . is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.”

This advice is certainly still true today. The EU’s internal problems persist – especially inequality, poverty and the often bleak perspectives for the young as well as the impending climate catastrophe – and many more.

Almost a fifth of all children in Germany grow up under the risk of poverty. Dealing with internal problems, especially precarious living conditions and resolutely pushing back the climate threat, is the best way to increase the EU’s external standing and its power in the international system.

The specific issue, which has become a blind spot in Brussels, is the EU’s practical abdication from integrating the so-called Western Balkans into its fold.

For decades Brussel mandarins praised the enlargement policy as the most successful aspect of the EU’s external relations.

However, President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel have left no doubt that they want to keep the six south-east European aspirants at arm’s length from EU membership for some time to come.

However, nowhere else have the EU and its member states invested so much political capital in the past three decades. The region is – literally and politically – enclosed by the EU and NATO.

Consequently, in their domestic and external trajectory, the republics in the region followed closely the guidelines coming from Brussels and the capitals of the EU member countries. The present state of affairs in the Western Balkans is as much a product of the flawed governance at home as the failing Western interventions in the region.

The population of the Western Balkans equals 3.4% of the EU’s total. These countries are deeply merged into the EU in geographic, political, economic, financial and human terms. In fact, they have more economic exchange with the EU member states than a number of EU countries.

About 75% of their trade is with the EU and most foreign investments come from the bloc. Vienna is the fourth Serbian city measured by the number of people of this ethnicity living there. A third or even more Albanians born in Albania, Kosovo or Western Macedonia live now in the EU, particularly in Italy, Germany and Greece.

The realisation of the EU’s enlargement in southeast Europe would increase its credibility and thus its soft power in the immediate geopolitical neighbourhood, especially towards Ukraine, Belarus and the Caucasian republics.

Convincing proposals for a revision of the membership negotiation framework for the Western Balkans exist. All they need to become reality is that the political class, above all in Brussels, Berlin and Paris, shows political vision, courage and a sense of solidarity with all Europeans.

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