“This is the starting point for the European awareness of our own role in the world.” – Federica Mogherini

by Frederik Kussé

The first role for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in the EU was created by the Treaty of Amsterdam, which came into effect in 1999, and was expanded with the Treaty of Lisbon a decade later. After almost 20 years of joint foreign affairs at a European level, what has been the result and what are the next steps? How can the European Union profile itself as an actor on the world stage?

The annual European Business Summit brings together European lawmakers, business leaders, think tanks and young adults to debate on Europe’s most challenging issues. As a delegate of Young European Leadership, I had the privilege to participate in the high-level discussion between Federica Mogherini, Vice President of the EU Commission and High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium and Minister of Foreign Affairs, as they shared their views on this important topic on the 24th of May 2018 in the Egmont Palace in Brussels.

In varietate concordia?

Mr. Reynders reminded the audience that it is not enough to preach our European values, we need to live by them ourselves as well. With rising populism and attacks on the rule of law in multiple EU member states, the world is looking at a divided Europe. To tackle these internal divisions Mr. Reynders proposed a rule of law peer review mechanism as currently already exists for the EU budget. He believes it will allow a “real open discussion at the political level on the situation in the different member states” and that it is a “non-discriminatory process”. It is true that the EU has procedures in place to thoroughly assess the compliance of candidate countries with the fundamental values of the EU, but that there is no robust system to do the same thing for member states. At present, the only real mechanisms are the Commission’s Rule of Law Framework, the Council’s Rule of Law Dialogue, the infringement procedures under Articles 258-260 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU (TFEU) and the ‘big stick’: Article 7 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU) when an infringement of Article 2 (the fundamental values of the EU) has been observed. The critical reader should nevertheless note that the instalment of a voluntary peer review mechanism could hide the ambition to evolve to a more permanent review mechanism. Such a mechanism would in practice require a revision of the EU treaties, of which the chances of success are at present – under the unanimity rule – questionable at best.

What about Jerusalem then? There were rumours that some member states were present during the inauguration of the American embassy in Jerusalem. Ms. Mogherini denied that representatives of EU member states were present during the opening ceremony. She reiterated that the EU position on Jerusalem is consolidated and confirmed by all member states, as is the case with all foreign policy issues. She stated that a lack of unity is not the problem of the European foreign policy, but that “Europeans do not always realise that the only way to achieve national priorities in many foreign policy fields”, including migration, “is through the European Union”.

Pacta sunt servanda

“A made deal needs to be honoured, otherwise we lose our credibility”, Mogherini said, “we need to make sure that we can protect the deal and our economic interests.” But can we protect the Iran deal and why should we? First of all, Mogherini affirmed that the deal is working, referring to the certifications made by the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency. Secondly, she reminded everyone that the Iran deal is not a bi- or multilateral agreement, but a UN Security Council resolution. “Technically, the President of the United States has announced the decision to stop implementing a UN Security Council resolution.” Thirdly, she stressed the importance of the Iran deal as a stepping stone for future negotiations with Iran on other issues, such as Syria or Yemen. Mr. Reynders also expressed his pessimism about the chances of a nuclear non-proliferation agreement with North-Korea if it turns out to be impossible to implement the agreement with Iran. He added that: “in the Middle East, it will be impossible to organise a new dialogue without the US, but with the US alone it will also be impossible.” Therefore, he believed that the European Union should take part with “its own view and its own voice”.

Shada Islam, Director of Europe and Geopolitics at Friends of Europe and leader of the debate, asked how we can protect our economic interests with the United States threatening to impose sanctions on European businesses who are dealing with Iran. During the conversation, Ms. Mogherini said that it is vital that “we protect the economic investments we encouraged when we signed the deal, because that is our part of the implementation” and going even further stating that there is “an economic interest for Europe to be there”. Which instruments do we have then? Both interviewees responded by talking about the possible measures for SME’s (small and medium-sized enterprises) and that they were studying the potential role for the banking sector, in particular the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB). Ms. Mogherini also spoke about the importance of a legislative shield for companies doing business with Iran, mentioning the ‘blocking statute’ that was introduced to prevent European businesses in Cuba from complying with US sanctions. A member of the audience later addressed the elephant in the room with his question about the fate of multinationals doing business in the region as well as in the US. This is especially critical considering the European banking system is very exposed to the American one and most investment channels use the US dollar. Both interviewees admitted that this was a difficult and complicated problem, with Mr. Reynders proposing to organise channels that use the euro instead. One can argue however that their answer with ‘studies’ and ‘possible solutions’ demonstrates the lack of effective measures to currently be taken by the EU, which is anything but reassuring for Europe’s biggest companies.

At the time of writing the United States has already imposed tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium. After a G7 meeting that only deepened the divide between the US and its allies, tariffs on automobiles seem to be back on the US President’s desk. With a trade war looming over Europe and the weakened position of several multilateral organisations, including the World Trade Organization (WTO), what can the EU do? Mr. Reynders responded by saying that if it is not possible to “begin a real positive agenda with the US to restart some of the negotiations in different fields”, the EU needs to react by taking countermeasures. He continued that “if we have a lack of capacity to discuss with the US, we need to go further with others”. With the recently approved Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) and the trading agreements with Japan, Singapore, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand being prepared, the EU is doing exactly that. Ms. Mogherini also told the anecdote about the complaints she received when she visited the American Congress. They were wondering why the lobsters from Maine, a US state neighbouring Canada, did not have the same access to the European market as the Canadian lobsters. She responded by saying that this is because the EU has a trade agreement with Canada and that there is an “economic benefit in having a trade agreement with the European Union”. Finally, she expressed her hopes that this realisation will also soon surface in the US.

Let me conclude this article by agreeing with a statement from Ms. Islam that the EU needs to move from reaction to proaction. As Ms. Mogherini said: “This is the starting point for the European awareness of our own role in the world.” These are challenging but interesting times and we need to show the political will to live up to our own expectations. I would therefore like to end with a quote from the famous speech Sir Winston Churchill made in Zurich in 1946: “We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living. The process is simple. All that is needed is the resolve of hundreds of millions of men and women to do right instead of wrong.”

Frederik has always believed in an international and multidisciplinary approach. Currently studying Control Engineering and Automation at the University of Ghent, he takes part in multiple projects at home and abroad to diversify his skills. As an avid European, he considers going on Erasmus to Germany as one of the best decisions I have ever made.