‘Geopolitical’ Europe could struggle to take shape in troublesome 2020


Among the many foreign policy challenges facing the EU in 2020, the main theme will be how to assert itself on the world stage against China, the US and Russia, while upholding multilateralism and at least a semblance of global order.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen demanded that Europe “learn the language of power” while presenting her self-dubbed “geopolitical Commission”.

The EU’s new chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, echoed her words, telling the European Parliament in his confirmation hearing he was “convinced that if we don’t act together, Europe will become irrelevant”.

According to him, Britain’s decision to leave the EU, Washington’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and Europe’s failure to help stabilise its neighbours from the Caucasus to the Sahara have further undermined the EU’s global clout.

Faced with an increasingly powerful and assertive China and an unpredictable Donald Trump-led United States, pursuing his “America First” agenda, Europe must try much harder to make its voice heard and to defend its interests, he said.

Here are eight major issues that will influence the EU’s foreign policy efforts in the year ahead.



The main questions for next year (and the five-year term) will be whether the new European Commission will deliver on its promises to Africa after the first hints that the continent might top the EU’s foreign policy agenda in the near future.

Commission President von der Leyen assured Africa the EU would be providing strong support but also seek a new relationship during her first trip outside Europe since assuming her post.

One such sign is the replacement of the development portfolio with one for international partnerships, to be headed by Finland’s former finance minister, Jutta Urpilainen. One of the tasks stressed in her mission letter is to develop a ‘comprehensive strategy for Africa’.

“I hope my presence at the African Union can send a strong political message because the African continent and the African Union matter to the European Union and to the European Commission,” von der Leyen said after meeting African Union chief Moussa Faki Mahamat in Addis Ababa.

“For us, you are more than just a neighbour.”

While the EU is Africa’s largest trading partner and biggest source of foreign investment and development aid, the EU will have to improve its offer to African leaders to face increasing Chinese influence and investment in sub-Saharan Africa.

The other challenge will be to balance economic relations with security as the two blocs have struggled in recent years to find ways to curb migration over the Mediterranean.

Both African and European officials are keen to address root causes of migration, but while the EU has been a strong supporter of the AU’s peace and security efforts, for example with its African Peace Facility, European officials have signalled they intend to pull out of regional peacekeeping forces in places such as Somalia.

Another issue will be whether the EU’s ideas for Africa might diverge from those of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has called for more military engagement on the continent.

France has the West’s largest military presence waging counter-insurgency operations in Mali and the wider Sahel region, but security has progressively worsened nevertheless, with militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State strengthening their foothold across the region.

Paris has also been increasingly criticised for failing to restore stability, while anti-French sentiment has grown. A Franco-African summit with five Sahel presidents is due to take place in early 2020, according to a French government announcement, to “clarify” their position on the French military presence in the Sahel.

Macron said after a NATO summit in London in December he wanted the leaders of Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania to “clarify and formalise their demands regarding France and the international community: Do they want our presence and do they need it? I want clear answers to these questions”.

France has also repeatedly pressed European partners to beef up support for the fight against jihadism in the Sahel, the latest effort made by Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who told the French Senate in Paris that NATO “allies must urgently increase their involvement”. “Europe’s border security is what is at stake,” Le Drian added.

The EU seems keen to cooperate. In a recent statement, the bloc’s diplomacy chief Borrell said that “a stronger, collective and duration-long response for wiping out the deep causes of terrorism and instability is necessary.”



Meanwhile, Turkey’s recent military endeavours will remain a headache for NATO and EU diplomats alike, with Ankara being increasingly isolated in the eastern Mediterranean, where it is at odds with Greece over its plans to exploit resources off Cyprus, which Athens has said violates international law.

Since 2016, Turkey has launched three military operations in northern Syria, mainly to drive out the Kurdish militia (YPG), which it considers “terrorists” because of its links with the PKK. In an October 2019 cross-border operation, Turkey seized a strip of the Syrian territory, which Ankara said is intended as a “safe zone” to protect against attacks and repatriate some of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey.

Since the 2011 NATO-backed intervention in Libya ended 42 years of Muammar Qaddafi’s rule, the latest upheaval saw military strongman Khalifa Haftar and his forces trying to unseat the UN-backed government in Tripoli. With interventions by Russia and neighbouring countries, the conflict has turned into a proxy war.

On Thursday (2 January), Turkey’s parliament passed a bill approving a deployment of armed forces to Libya to counter Haftar, who is backed by Turkey’s regional rivals. As part of its planned military support, Turkey was said to be considering sending allied Syrian fighters to Libya.

“The EU reiterates its firm conviction that there is no military solution to the Libyan crisis,” an EU spokesperson said on Friday (3 January), adding that actions supporting those fighting in the conflict threaten to further destabilise the country and the wider region.

“The EU will maintain active engagement in support of all de-escalatory measures and steps leading to an effective ceasefire and the resumption of political negotiations,” the EU spokesperson added, urging all parties to stick to the UN arms embargo and support the Berlin process.

The escalation of tensions and conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa could heighten the risk of a new migration crisis.

Well aware of this fact, von der Leyen has announced a draft for a new EU asylum pact for the coming spring, which aims to overcome the current resistance to a common migration policy across the bloc. It is, however, unlikely that Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, who continue to oppose a system for the EU-wide distribution of refugees, will easily cede ground on the issue



In a note to the EU’s chief diplomat, shortly after he took office, Luxembourg’s veteran Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called for a discussion that could support efforts to find a “two-state” solution to the Middle East conflict.

Asselborn had written to Borrell to urge a debate on recognising Palestinian statehood, which could be discussed during one of the upcoming EU foreign minister’s meetings this year as he said he believes”it is time to start a debate within the European Union on the opportunity of a recognition of the State of Palestine by all its Member States.”

Although there is sympathy for this position in Europe, the EU has so far not taken a united position on Palestinian statehood, regarding it rather as an issue for member states.



After several serious setbacks in the past year, the nuclear deal with Iran, once hailed as a breakthrough in EU diplomacy, is on its last legs. Experts told EURACTIV they see little chance of its survival for 2020, despite European efforts to uphold the agreement, such as the special trading mechanism called INSTEX for mitigating US sanctions targeting primarily the Islamic Republic’s oil exports.

Europeans had repeatedly stated their commitment to abide by the agreement. But after a series of targeted violations of the terms of the nuclear agreement, Iran has been raising tensions for months. This has caused even Germany, France and the UK, known as the E3, to issue a warning that Teheran risk a so-called arbitration procedure, which could lead to the reintroduction of international sanctions against Tehran.

Upcoming elections in both Iran (February) and the US (November) are likely to further reduce willingness to compromise, they suggested, especially after the killing of Al-Quds chief Qassem Soleimani in Iran, recent US airstrikes against a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq and the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad.


Western Balkans

However, after French President Macron’s recent ‘non’ to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, the EU’s biggest task is to be found in its own backyard.

Diplomatic efforts to revive it will intensify in the next few months leading up to the EU-Western Balkans summit in May under the helm of Croatia’s presidency of the EU Council.

The Balkan states are struggling to meet EU standards on the rule of law and tackle corruption. Faced with growing reluctance among some member states such as France to take in new members, they have also been courted by other players, such as Russia, China and Turkey.

Although Borrell said his priority would be the six Balkan states – Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and North Macedonia – which aspire to join the bloc, he has yet to prove his stance towards the regions, as he comes from Spain, one of the six EU members that have not recognised Kosovo.

Before becoming the EU’s chief diplomat, Borrell has indicated that Spain will accept a final settlement between Kosovo and Serbia even if this “included some form of territorial exchange”, while on other occasions he opposed land swaps.

Borrell announced his first foreign trip would be to Kosovo.

“We cannot be a global actor if we cannot resolve our problems at home,” Borrell said in response to a question over his positioning on the issue.

Macron, despite his enlargement reluctance, has pledged to help relaunch talks between the sides by hosting a high-level summit in Paris.


Eastern Partnership

“You should put forward a new set of long-term policy objectives for the Eastern Partnership by mid-2020,” the incoming Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote in her mission letter to the new neighbourhood and enlargement policy chief, Hungary’s Olivér Várhelyi.

Only recently, the European People’s Party (EPP) has presented a proposal to enable faster and deeper sector-by-sector integration with the EU for the three countries within the Eastern Partnership (EaP) –  Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova – that are looking for a more ambitious integration with the bloc.

The 10th anniversary Eastern Partnership summit in Brussels last year had the initial idea “to develop the Eastern Partnership agenda beyond 2020″, while the celebratory statement did not feature a concrete offer of EU membership and acknowledgement of the EaP country’s “European aspirations”, especially displeasing hopefuls Ukraine and Georgia.

In a conversation with EURACTIV, Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz called for an upgraded Eastern Partnership.

Besides closer ties with the EU and a free-trade zone among the six members, this could include new instruments such as a permanent secretariat of Eastern Partnership countries in Brussels for direct contact with the EU institutions and a rotating presidency of Eastern Partnership countries to deal directly with the six-month rotating EU presidencies.

A potential chance to discuss this and other offers will be the next Eastern Partnership summit, meant to take place somewhere in the first half of 2020.



With the new leadership in place, the EU’s new geopolitical ambitions will also be tested in this year’s encounters with China.

Two formal EU-China summits are on the agenda in 2020. Both sides plan to build on their “strategic partnership” but major differences loom over human rights, trade and security, with the potential major collision point being Europe’s 5G dilemma.

An important statement amid continuing pressure from the US administration on policymakers and regulators in Europe, who are yet to form a unified position the involvement of telecommunications giant Huawei.

The first meeting, with Europe represented by Council President Charles Michel and Commission chief von der Leyen in the German city of Leipzig and the second between European leaders and the Chinese leadership during Germany’s stint holding the EU’s rotating presidency.


The US Factor

With the November election in the United States, analysts are already pondering what could be at stake for Europe as Washington plays a critical role in European security.

It remains to be seen how the EU’s relationship with Trump will develop in the shadow of the election campaign (and thereafter?). So far, Europe has played a rather minor role in the foreign policy segments of the US election debates.

The Commission’s interests are clear when it comes to preventing US punitive tariffs for cars from Europe, but matters become more tricky regarding the dispute over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which the US would like to see shelved because of geopolitical and its own export interests.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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