Commission seeks to ‘step up EU leadership’ globally

EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell in Brussels, Belgium, 25 January 2021. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS / POOL]

The European Commission on Wednesday (17 February) presented a strategy on how to promote reform, effectiveness and efficiency in the global multilateral system. It comes at a time when shortfalls of the EU’s geopolitical cloud have emerged.

The Commission’s strategy proposal picks up on ideas that have been floating around for some time, and suggests “making use of all the instruments at the EU’s disposal”, including “its broad political, diplomatic and financial support to promote global peace and security, to defend human rights and international law and promoting multilateral solutions to global challenges ”.

When taking office, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged to push for a more “geopolitical Commission” and more assertive voice of Europe in foreign policy.

Since then, the EU has struggled to address numerous crisis, partly because foreign policy powers remain largely within the remit of member states.

According to the strategy, the bloc aims to “step up EU leadership” globally and “act as one” and will have to promote coordination mechanisms that are “more efficient around common priorities and make better use of collective strength, including the construction of the Team Europe approach”.

This would include coordinating with member states on candidacies for senior positions and key elections in multilateral organisations, and clarifying or upgrading the EU’s legal status in international organisations.

“Increasing the EU’s capacity to be a global actor also means ensuring consistency between the EU’s external actions and its internal policies,” the text said.

“The EU intends to push forward cooperative solutions to ‘build back better,’” the document said, listing goals such as tackling inequalities, promoting public health, the digital and green transitions, defending human rights and the rule of law.

“These efforts go hand-in-hand with a more interests-based approach,” the Commission stated.

The document also stressed the EU will work to build new alliances with third countries, “especially those with whom it shares democratic values” and will seek common ground with others on a case by case basis.

To ensure the global multilateral system is “fit for purpose”, the EU will promote “the modernization of key institutions such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization” and establish a regular EU-United Nations summit.


The push comes after the COVID-19 pandemic exposed an eroding international system.

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“The COVID-19 crisis exemplifies the need for multilateral solutions”, the Commission document stated, adding that the EU “is working closely with ACT Accelerator and COVAX to ensure that the development, production and equitable delivery of safe COVID-19 vaccines are accelerated around the world.”

The EU executive considered that reform and strengthening of the World Health Organization (WHO) and its role in coordinating global health action, as well as the implementation of the “one health” approach, are “key”.

“The EU has an opportunity to become a key strategic actor on global health by upgrading its observer status within the WHO, making even greater financial contributions to the organisation, and working in coordination with the US,” Giuseppe Scognamiglio, member of the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), recently argued.

According to him, member states such as Germany and France have already stepped in to fill the gaps of the suspended US contributions.


The Commission also announced that it will lead the development of new global standards and the creation of cooperation platforms in sectors such as taxation and the digital sphere.

The strategy also puts the focus on digitisation and arguing that “new digital technologies, including artificial intelligence, must be addressed globally”.

“EU action in multilateral forums must find a delicate balance between pursuing the need for technological sovereignty and defending the openness of the Internet and fundamental rights”, the strategy text said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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