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"Geopolitical Commission" in Brussels Put to the Test in First Crises

 Nicolas Bauquet
Public Transformation expert

From May to December 2019, the transition was long in Brussels, and it is fortunate that it took place with no major international crisis coming to disrupt it. Trump, still busy negotiating his trade agreement with China, had not yet started "dealing" with Europe. Erdogan has not yet carried out his threat of opening  the migration floodgates to Europe. The biggest storm was in fact the one provoked by the French President in his interview with The Economist – with the desire, precisely, to awaken Europe before the real crises would hit and break it.

Since December 1, Charles Michel, Ursula von der Leyen and Josep Borrell have been at the forefront of a scheme claimed to bring Europe back into the era of geopolitics and to operate a shift from Europe enduring one crisis after another to Europe taking the initiative to anticipate them. Six weeks later, events in Iran and Libya are not reassuring about the EU's ability to deal with the major crises awaiting in the months and years ahead of us.

Too many cooks spoil the broth

The first concern is the difficulty that the new trio has had to clearly define clear roles for themselves, and objectives for all – starting with the ranking of priorities. The Iranian crisis is certainly an additional humiliation for European diplomacy, of which the JCPOA was probably the only major achievement of the last ten years. Iran's response to the assassination of Soleimani by further withdrawing from the nuclear deal is also a cruel metaphor for a world where Europe takes the blow for others, akin to the weak child in the playground on whom it is convenient to take revenge.

But it also shows a Europe that does not know who is doing what, or why. Between Charles Michel's reaction on Twitter a few hours after Soleimani's death and the Commission President staging her own communication on the Iranian crisis, what role is left for the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell?Ursula von der Leyen's claim to preside over a Commission that would be geopolitical in its entirety paradoxically is leading to the weakening of the person whose role it is to embody this international dimension. Borrell has first paid the price of a new political architecture giving pride of place to European parties’ leaders by sacrificing his role as Vice-President of the European Commission. What is more, Ursula von der Leyen's first trip abroad, appropriately devoted to the African continent, strangely took place in the absence of the man one might have hoped would have been the guarantor of a new EU Africa strategy.

How many Libyan scenarios?

Yet it is in Africa that Europe's destiny is being decided in the short and medium term, and the quick deterioration of the situation on the ground in Libya and in the Sahel illustrates the urgent need for a coherent Europe-wide strategy. More than Iran, Libya should be the strongest warning signal for European players, given the rapid and profound changes that took place at their expense.

Yet it is in Africa that Europe's destiny is being decided in the short and medium term, and the quick deterioration of the situation on the ground illustrates the urgent need for a coherent Europe-wide strategy.

In the space of a few weeks only, Russia and Turkey took the lead and outplayed Europe as insignificant – the latter working to prepare a conference in Berlin while the main protagonists were already on the plane to Moscow to sign a ceasefire sponsored by Putin and Erdogan. How many Libya scenarios are awaiting us? How many cases or strategic sectors where European players are pursuing their little games of interest only to suddenly realize that they are already out of the "big game"? The Libyan example irresistibly brings to mind, in another order, the space industry, where public and private players continue their Franco-German-Italian skirmishes while Europe is threatened with insignificance in the very short term, with consequences that are still hard to grasp.

The "magisterium" of anticipation

It is therefore a vital challenge for the Commission to regain control as soon as possible in order to establish internal leadership and external credibility, and to anticipate the next crises that will affect the continent in an existential way.

The migration crisis, first of all, which threatens on all sides, from the Sahel to Ukraine via Turkey and Libya. Internally, negotiations on asylum management and refugees burden-sharing remain blocked. But beyond discussions on the possible consequences of new migration crises, how can Europe prepare for these very crises? Erdogan has already started getting on Europeans’ nerves with migratory flows to Greece. Is the only possible answer to add zeros on the cheque to Ankara? It is Europe's geopolitical unpreparedness that rightly feeds the migratory anguish of some Europeans, particularly in the East.

Rather than mimicking incantatory diplomatic language, the new Commission must speak a discourse of truth to Europeans.

Next, the transatlantic trade crisis. Now that the truce between Trump and Xi has been signed, blows will start to rain down on Europe very quickly, with the violence that we are all familiar with. This too is an existential danger for the EU, at the heart of its prerogatives and essence of its real power, the ability to act as a real international player. With his characteristic instinct, Trump has already identified Europe’s weak points and will not hesitate to press on the soft spots. How long can Europe keep going while facing this "Sophie's choice" dilemma between French agriculture and German automotive industry? Will the Irish die for the French GAFA tax, or the Poles for Nordstream 2?

These last examples clearly show that the European Commission does not have the means to influence national players’ hand in the game. But it can confront them with their responsibilities and exercise a magisterium whose power cannot be underestimated: that of strategic vision and anticipation. Rather than mimicking incantatory diplomatic language, the new Commission must speak a discourse of truth to Europeans, if it wants a shot at getting them to act together. Otherwise many more Libya scenarios are awaiting us.



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