The Progressive Post

The EU’s multilateral ambitions: the why and the how

Head of Programme on European Union and Institutional Relations Manager at the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI)
22/02/2021

On 17 February, the High Representative Josep Borrell and the European Commission released a Joint Communication on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism: on first sight a document in the continuity of previous ones, but also one that reveals important changes in how the EU sees itself on the international stage.

One might question the necessity of a new document to reiterate the EU’s commitment to multilateralism, since this has been enshrined as the guiding principle of its foreign and security policy in all major strategic documents of the last two decades. Yet, there are two good reasons why the Union should renew and qualify its multilateral approach to international affairs. The first, and more pressing one, is the need for coordinated action at global level to face the Covid-19 challenge and its consequences, be it sanitary, economic and social threats to the resilience of our societies. The second is the opportunity to re-join forces at the transatlantic level after the disruptive unilateral moment imposed by the Trump administration, and the return of the US to multilateral fora – from WHO to the Paris Agreement – initiated by President Biden.

Indeed, it is interesting to note that once again the EU’s assertiveness in promoting multilateralism comes as a reaction to a phase of its denial by its transatlantic ally. This had already been the case in 2003, when the then High Representative Javier Solana published the European Security Strategy, and the Commission its communication on the choice of multilateralism: two pivotal strategic documents that marked Europe’s distance from the unilateral US invasion of Iraq by the Bush administration.

Almost 20 years later, the EU chooses to do the same, with a similar aspiration to revitalise both multilateralism and its own role on the world stage. And in fact, the Joint Communication explicitly underlines the compatibility of the EU’s strategic priorities and objectives with a multilateral stance, “as the principles that underlie the EU are the same of those of the United Nations”. But how do the content and the spirit of this post-Covid and post-Trump communication on multilateralism differ from previous documents?

The first twist relates to the ‘why’ the EU should continue to embrace multilateralism. While the Communication reaffirms the EU’s engagement in promoting peace and security, together with fundamental rights, universal values and international law, it stresses that “these efforts go hand-in-hand with a more interests-based approach”. In line with, and taking to the extreme, the “principled pragmatism” in international affairs proposed by the 2016 EU Global Strategy, the Communication advocates for a more assertive EU that uses multilateralism as a means to achieve concrete policy priorities. With it, the EU seems to embrace a more realistic and less normative stance in its external action, thus acknowledging the inescapable emergence of a multipolar world, the transactional nature of the global system and the prevalence of power politics. This also adheres to the belief that the EU needs to become more geopolitical, as EC President von der Leyen has pledged in her vision of the mandate of the European Commission – even though this, for the moment, is still more an aspiration than a reality.

The next turn concerns the ‘how’ the EU should pursue its multilateral agenda. Crucial attention is placed on “extending international norms, standards and cooperation” on issues ranging from rule of law to international taxation, from digital cooperation to consumer protection to environmental degradation. It is intended as a way to cope with the proliferation of powerful norm-shapers that operate outside institutionalised channels, like digital platforms and multinationals, thus requiring an “active regulatory cooperation” at global level and “more ambitious standards and rules” to tackle disinformation, digital finance and internet governance.

It is also stated that the EU should work to “reform what needs to change”. Interestingly, a well-deserved attention is devoted to the strengthening of institutions such as the WHO and the WTO, but it is not accompanied by a similar focus on the UN Security Council, for which the Communication talks about a general commitment to a comprehensive reform. It seems that, after the repeated unsuccessful attempts of the past, the EU has given up on the need to equip the global order with a functioning, legitimising peace and security body. And yet, there are a number of reform proposals that could be promoted by the EU which do not require a hard-won amendment of the UN Charter and could become flagship initiatives to enhance its role within the UN, as suggested by a recent FEPS report drafted by the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI).

Finally, the Communication diverges on the past approach on the ‘what’ in two main respects. It insists much more than previous documents on the need to focus on the internal “coherence, unity and solidarity” of the EU as a condition for a more effective external action, thus recognising the unprecedented challenges impacting the European project and the increased urgency of an enhanced coordination among institutions and member states. Furthermore, it proposes a sort of ‘modular multilateralism’, centred on a stronger cooperation with like-minded partners – first and foremost the US – to defend universal principles and rules, and complemented by issue-based partnerships with interested actors on transnational issues such as climate change, education, and technology.

Overall, the Joint Communication presents in an honest way the gaps and opportunities in a world in transition, “more unpredictable and unequal”, and dominated by the competition of “visions and agendas”. It offers a candid assessment of the EU’s fragility and puts forward some solid proposals to implement its commitment to multilateralism but does not go deep enough into the analysis of its potentialities, in particular on the reform of the UN. The current circumstances impose a healthy dose of realism but navigating the future will require an additional injection of dynamism and ambition.

Find all related publications
Publications
28/02/2024

Progressive ideas to make international trade successful for all

24/01/2024

Progressive Yearbook 2024

Looking back to look ahead
13/12/2023

(Re)Building the future

Progressive Ukraine series
06/12/2023

Stronger resilience through cooperation in the Sahel

'12 years of crises in the Sahel' series
Find all related events
Events
Upcoming
04 - 06/03/2024
Abuja, Nigeria

The Africa we want and the United Nations we need

Africa Summit of the Future Dialogue
Past
27/02/2024
Online

Preparing Ukraine’s economy for a war of attrition

Beyond the battlefield
24/01/2024
FEPS HQ

Progressive Yearbook launch

Find all related news
News
23/02/2024

FEPS mission to Brazil

15/12/2023

FEPS President mission to China

Maria Joao Rodrigues participates in the ‘2023 Understanding China Conference’
22/11/2023

Ann Linde is FEPS’ new Foreign Affairs Special Advisor

14/09/2023

FEPS President at the SDG Summit and United Nations General Assembly in New York

Find all related in the media
In the media

What are Hungary’s conditions for lifting its Ukraine Facility veto?

by Euractiv 12/01/2024
In this episode, Evi Kiorri asks Andriy Korniychuk, policy analyst and expert on Ukraine matters at the Foundation for European Progressive Studies: what are Viktor Orbán's conditions, and why is Hungary considering changing its position?

Une réforme de l’UE qui intéressera forcément les Suisses

by Le Temps 24/11/2023
'EU reform bound to be of interest to the Swiss', an opinion piece in Le Temps on EU Treaties changes by Maria João Rodrigues, FEPS President, Guillaume Klossa, Director of think tank EuropaNova and Daniela Schwarzer, Executive board member Bertelsmann Stiftung

« Le moment est venu de lancer un débat sur la réforme de l’Union européenne »

by Le Monde 22/11/2023
'The time has come to launch a debate on the reform of the European Union', an opinion piece in Le Monde on Eu Treaties changes by Maria João Rodrigues, FEPS President, Guillaume Klossa, Director of think tank EuropaNova and Daniela Schwarzer, Executive board member Bertelsmann Stiftung

A Europa em tempo de guerras

by Público 06/11/2023
'Europe in times of wars'. With two wars unfolding in the European neighbourhood, FEPS President, Maria João Rodrigues, reflects in Público on the EU's capacity to play its role as a major international actor and exert its own strategic autonomy