Europe at the End of 2020: A New Start or More of the Same?

Europe at the End of 2020: A New Start or More of the Same?
© picture alliance / empics | Aaron Chown

This Thursday and Friday, EU leaders will meet once again in Brussels for a European Council summit. The agenda is packed: COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, security, external relations and, on Friday afternoon, a EURO summit focusing on the capital market and banking union. The major and minor questions of the European Union’s fate are assembled on this agenda under a magnifying glass. Always present are those that are not at the table but have an influence on the menu: Russia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, China and the USA. So there is more to it than just the day-to-day business.And once again the question to the EU is: Hang in there or restart?

The answer is simple and very European: Hang in there and restart. Hanning in there where there is no other way, restarting where it is possible and promising. How else could it be in a Union that looks back on a decades-old common history of decision-making and institutions, a centuries-old history of (sometimes) bad neighbourliness and often cruel internal and external conflicts. History, they say, runs in zigzags. Liberals would add: The main trend is towards progress in freedom, prosperity and security. What is the state of affairs in December 2020? Let us look at the Council agenda:

Pandemic Generates Convergence

The leaders intend to get an “overview of the situation and discuss overall coordination efforts, including work on vaccines and testing and the gradual lifting of restrictions”, according to the Council document. After the initial national egotisms, the Union has indeed made its mark here. A vaccine has been developed through international cooperation between companies, and it is now expected to bring Europe (and the world) back to everyday life in accordance with coordinated vaccination strategies. What remains difficult is that Brussels has few direct opportunities to intervene in health policy. On the other hand, the pressure on Member States to cooperate remains high. The virus does not stop at national borders. And the debate on more cooperation and communitarisation in the health dossier has long since begun. The verdict: the trend is clearly positive.

Climate Change Agenda Benefits from the Return of the US

“EU leaders will seek to agree on a new EU emissions reduction target for 2030. This will allow the EU to present its updated nationally determined contribution to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change before the end of 2020”. According to the Council document. At the heart of the debate: the tightening of the EU’s reduction target from 40% to 55% by 2030, an issue where some Member States feel overburdened.Poland, for example, is struggling to get out of its coal industry, while Germany is struggling to implement the energy transformation. The global discourse ranges between Fridays for Future and the construction of new nuclear power plants. And without the world beyond the EU, not much will be achieved in CO2 reduction. However, the announcement by US President-elect Biden that he wants to return to the Paris Accord and take on a leadership role there has rekindled the debate. And China has also made ambitious announcements. Let us take their word for it. The verdict: trend moderately positive with a hopeful outlook.

Security Remains Fragile

“The European Council will address security issues and in particular the fight against terrorism and violent extremism, including the digital space”. Security remains one of the European political tasks with a strong national echo and struggles for sovereignty par excellence. On the other hand, there is hardly any other policy area in which the will and support of the population for cooperation is as strong as in this field. At the same time, the liberal heads of state and government in particular will have to ensure that any measures taken remain in a strict constitutional balance with the European requirements of democracy, justice and freedom of expression. Moreover, the citizens of Europe must also take responsibility themselves in their everyday efforts against populism and fake news. The verdict: the trend remains clearly positive in a historical perspective, but the standards and areas of freedom are coming under pressure in some places, even in Europe. Vigilance remains the order of the day.

Europe’s Defence and Foreign Policy Challenged Like Never Before

“In line with its October 2020 conclusions, the European Council will revisit the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and relations with Turkey. The Heads of State and Government will also discuss the EU’s relations with its southern neighbourhood”. The dry diplomatic language of the Council document cites two examples of a difficult and fundamental challenge for the EU. How do we deal with our immediate neighbours? The EU today is surrounded by aggressive actors in three risk zones. Russia, Turkey and individual North African actors are destabilising the European Union’s eastern, south-eastern and southern neighbourhood. EU measures to strengthen internal and external security, police and military cooperation will be implemented and more will have to follow. With the USA under Biden, a “partner in values and action” is indeed returning. But it is precisely the elected President of the USA who will make it clearer than ever to EU Europeans that they themselves are responsible for the security and positive development of their neighbourhood: politically, materially and, in case of doubt, militarily.

But even on the western flank of the EU not everything is in order. “Depending on the state of play, the European Council may address other specific foreign policy issues”. This stockpile of the Council document fits, for example, the still unfinished Brexit negotiations. It is not intended to be a Boris Summit, but time is pressing and relations with our immediate Western neighbour remain very important in all facets. So there is definitely potential for disruption to a planned European Council. The verdict is that the trend here is perhaps the one with the greatest uncertainties and the greatest potential for a negative outcome. At present and in the future, a great deal of political and material capital will have to be invested by all Member States if we are to remain on course for progress.

Internal Market Must Remain a Prosperity Engine

“On 11 December there will be an inclusive euro summit, focusing on the banking union and the capital market union”. For the EU, the creation of a Banking and Capital Market Union is an important issue for the stability of the economy and its future growth potential, especially for new ideas that are realised through start-ups. The single market for goods, services, labour and capital remains at the heart of the EU. It has a direct and positive impact on its citizens and, as an engine of prosperity, ensures balance and cohesion. But past crises, whether financial, refugee or COVID, have also shown how vulnerable it is and how strongly differences between Member States are perceived and exploited by populists. On the other hand, the EU’s economic and financial policy response to the current COVID crisis has demonstrated its ability to act quickly. The multiannual financial framework (MFF) and the “Next Generation EU” package are strong signals of Europe’s will to emerge from the crisis in a constructive manner. The fact that Hungary and Poland are deliberately jeopardising a swift agreement is a sign of an internal political crisis in the EU and not an indication of differences in the Union’s economic policy course. The necessary decisions to channel the funds from the two programmes could be taken without Hungary and Poland. The verdict: the trend is pointing upwards in the short term in economic terms as the way out of the COVID crisis. In the long term, however, the EU must adopt clear common positions and actions vis-à-vis competitors in the global market, in particular China and the US, if Europe is to remain a continent of prosperity and opportunity for its citizens.

Europe on the Path to Strategic Autonomy?

All day-to-day business, as we have just seen from the agenda items of this week’s European Council, has a strategic dimension and needs a strategic debate. And there is such a debate in the EU. We are talking about the debates on the so-called strategic autonomy of Europe. Liberals, however, prefer to talk about Open Strategic Autonomy. It is defined as follows: strategic autonomy is whoever has the choice and the capacity to decide and act autonomously when it comes to the important issues of their present and future. In brief: Strategic autonomy is whoever can take their fate into their own hands.

What exactly does this mean and, more importantly, what does it mean for the EU’s policies and use of resources in day-to-day business? It affects many major policy areas, such as security and defence, technology policy, trade policy, competition policy, climate and environmental policy, rule of law and human rights policy and many more, both large and small. It is always about questions like: What can/should the EU do/should/produce/enterprise on its own? With whom should the EU form alliances or coalitions? Who should the EU sanction, offer help to and support? What means can/should be used, political, economic, and militarily?

Europe in a New Phase of Forced Emancipation

This discussion, however, is not limited to purely political and material dimensions; it is also influenced by historical experience and cultural views which can vary greatly from one Member State of the Union to another, as the recent dispute between French President Macron and German Defence Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer over strategic autonomy in defence policy has shown. For Liberals, it will be important that the desirable strengthening of Europe’s capacity to act does not open the door to protectionism and nationalism. Rather, Europe must remain open to ideas, alliances and close exchanges from and with the rest of the world. Hence the liberal plea for open strategic autonomy.

The debate on strategic autonomy will determine the EU year 2021, as it will for many years to come, more than ever: Europe is entering a new phase of forced emancipation. Because we live in a multipolar world, where old certainties will not return even with President Biden, and new challenges, called China or climate change, will test the EU differently than ever before.

Thomas Ilka is Regional Director, FNF Europe