How Can the EU Learn the Language of Power?

The new EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, has an eye-catching declaration of intent. But what does it mean in practice?

Expert comment Published 3 December 2019 Updated 4 December 2019 2 minute READ
High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy Josep Borrell answers the questions of members of the European Parliament in Brussels in October. Photo: Getty Images.

High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy and Security Policy Josep Borrell answers the questions of members of the European Parliament in Brussels in October. Photo: Getty Images.

The new European Commission has finally started its work this week. In a world increasingly defined by great power competition and deprived of the certainties of a strong transatlantic partnership, this might well be the first commission where foreign and security policy issues will be equally important to internal EU ones.

Amid an escalating Sino-American rivalry, there is a growing realization in Brussels that something has to change in the way the EU thinks and acts internationally.

Charting a more successful path forward will not be easy. Josep Borrell, the EU’s new high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, during his confirmation hearing, offered a hint as to what might be needed to get there: ‘The EU has to learn to use the language of power.”’

What might this mean in practice?

Four issues illustrate some of the key dilemmas ahead for the EU and its new executive.

Hard power

The most revealing of these concerns hard power.

For a union so addicted to the US security guarantee, and so used to the softer approaches of exercising its influence, this was always going to be a difficult discussion. The recent disagreement between Germany and France over the future of NATO gave a taste of how fraught and complex this discussion can be.

Underpinning it are three fundamental questions. If the EU has to enhance its capacity to defend its interests with military power, how (and how quickly) is it to move ahead, how much additional responsibility will that mean and to what degree will this responsibility need to be shouldered autonomously, potentially distancing itself from NATO or Washington? Moving forward with this agenda while balancing the competing interests of member states and preserving the fragile progress already achieved with initiatives such as PESCO will not be easy.

Discussion and debate among member states should not be discouraged, but the new commission has a role to play in ensuring that such discussion is constructive. Distracting talks about an EU army or a nuclear ‘Eurodeterrent’ should be shelved, with the focus as much as possible on acquiring tangible capabilities, getting the defence architecture right, ensuring operational readiness and spending defence budgets smartly.

How to use power

Great powers have traditionally been able to cooperate in certain areas while competing in others. Given their wide reach, powers like the US have generally not allowed disagreement on one issue to interfere with the ability to work together on others.

If the EU aspires to be a more assertive global player, it will need to grow comfortable with this compartmentalization. For example, if Brussels wants to stand up to Beijing regarding human rights, the South China Sea or issues of acquisition of European infrastructure, this should not mean that cooperation on areas such as peacekeeping, arms control or climate change needs to be blocked.

Footing the bill

Ursula von der Leyen, the new commission president, has announced that she wants an increase of 30% for external action in the 2021–27 Multi-annual Financial Framework (the EU budget). But with the Brexit budget gap looming, and little appetite to increase contributions or reduce the funds allocated to costly schemes, like the Common Agricultural Policy, compromises will have to be made for this to happen.

This will be one of the first key tests for the new commission. Power costs money, not just gestures, and therefore specific commitments already made under the Juncker mandate regarding the European Defence Fund or the new Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument need to be guaranteed, if not expanded.

Internal politics

None of these steps are possible if the internal workings of the EU become too dysfunctional. A stronger stance internationally would make the sometime incoherence of internal EU management more of a liability to the bloc’s credibility. For example, how can the EU advocate for the rule of law beyond its borders while some of its own member states violate the same principles?

And there remains the perpetual question of how much more power member states are willing to cede – if any – to deliver faster and more efficient decision-making. If the bloc’s reflexes – often slow, consensual and risk averse – are out of place with the role of a modern great power, how does the commission envision introducing decision-making mechanisms, like qualified majority voting, in foreign and security policy matters?

Borrell’s résumé shows his extensive experience in handling critical policy dossiers. He is also expected to travel less than his predecessor, being mindful of the even heavier institutional work ahead, not least in working with a more politically fragmented European Council and a more politicized European Parliament.

Ultimately, learning the language of power might mean that the EU finally deals with the basics of international affairs as a coherent and cohesive actor, rather than as an occasional ensemble. This endeavour clearly lacks a fixed path or destination. But the new commission seems to be mindful that the EU will have to find new ways to use power as the world changes around it. In doing so, it should keep in mind that the language of power is best articulated not with words, but with actions.