In the new global era, EU should boldly reinvent its diplomatic playbook

Agnieszka Weiner

Adjunct Professor, EURUS, Carleton University, Team Leader, Project Coordination Unit EU-Canada Policy Dialogues Support Facility

The European Union (EU) develops by crisis, making each difficult moment a pretext for further integration. At the same time, each step into this direction bears the seeds of yet another crisis. And so it goes. The many Cassandras, who have heralded, with gusto, the end of the EU for the last 15 years have been proved wrong also in 2020. This time around, it seems that the EU will also weather the crisis and will emerge from it stronger. However, undoubtedly, the task ahead is more daunting than ever before, both for internal reasons, but more worryingly: for the international environment the EU finds itself in.


For the first time in decades, the EU is pretty much on its own in geopolitical terms. The liberal order that allowed the EU to flourish is being dismantled in front of our eyes. In the last 30 years, the US, the guarantor of that order, has decisively over-militarised its power instead of investing in soft power. That choice has led to a limited capability of the US to shape economic realities of international trade, e.g. with China, focusing mainly on peace-keeping and failed democratisation efforts elsewhere. These past three decades bore the bitter fruit of isolationism tendencies, a choice US society makes throughout its history with certain regularity. The hectic US administration under President Trump makes the shift just more destabilising. The outcomes of the November US elections will not change the general direction: the world with multiple global actors, interdependent but fiercely competing with each other.


In this context, the EU will have to work out its economic plan for the pandemic, secure healthcare provisions, champion its Green Deal vision for the world and close the Brexit saga. All these initiatives are undermined by the unstable US, an emboldened China (active in Europe’s backyard) and a rouge Russia. The challenge is less about finding internal agreements and the strength to mull forward these ambitious plans, but more about protecting European societies from external threats such as an unstable trading environment and cyberwarfare, both caused and amplified by external actors. Europe needs allies, and these allies will not be necessarily the US. Indeed, a new take on interdependence is needed to assure the EU’s leadership and influence. Europe should focus more on building strong bridges with leading middle powers, all bullied by China and effectively abandoned by the US: Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and South Korea. All with a smaller budget for Global Europe.

The main challenge in building these bridges with middle powers is that all of these countries have first and foremost strong relationships with the UK. The UK has been traditionally the main point of contact for bilateral relations. Brexit limits Europe’s clout in these countries and finding the way beyond this weakness is important for the EU. First steps have been taken since 2016, when EU has intensified its diplomatic efforts towards other potential allies through an inter alia series of trade agreements. Still, the time for the IR playbook that the EU could traditionally rely on is gone. Innovative approaches that can achieve maximum outcomes with minimum investments should be on the table.


There are many other measures that the EU can employ to build strong relationships that go beyond diplomatic circles. One of such overlooked allies, and EU biggest assets, are people, Europeans themselves.

Europeans form one of the largest diasporas in the world. Europeans are among the most internationally mobile people. In our day and age, most of them are highly skilled middling migrants, living and working primarily in four countries outside Europe: the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Their mobility effectively creates enduring ties between EU and its partners. Their talents support the implementation of trade agreements, research or security cooperation. For the moment, the political and economic power of European migrants has been largely unused. The mobilisation of emigrants seems to be the role of the member states, who have been quite skilled in achieving their diplomatic goals thanks to these groups (e.g. France in Canada or Poland in the US). In order to push the European agenda internationally, a more coordinated effort on this front is needed.


The EU needs to build direct relationships with its mobile citizens. For the moment, most of the EU citizenship rights are left at the EU border. Outside of Europe the citizens of the member states de fact stop being citizens of the Union. A striking inequality in treatment, e.g. as regards voting rights or even citizenship inheritance is the core problem. Another challenge is the lack of access to funding supporting knowledge and awareness of the EU citizenship status among its citizens living outside of Europe. Keeping up the ephemeral relationship to the European Union, in addition to the quite concrete national ties, becomes an act of endurance, as I argue elsewhere. And yet, raising the awareness about Europe globally is mostly done by Europeans or dual citizens: a quick statistical analysis of who holds e.g. Jean Monnet Chairs in European Studies or runs FPI projects in partner countries is quite revealing. The sad part is that it happens by chance, not by design.

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