By Dr. Martha Theodorou
In order to address the global challenges, and following its commitment to a rules-based multilateral international order, which are the multinational and regional groupings that the European Union seeks to cooperate with at the international level?
The European Union (EU) was established to abolish power politics. It built peace and the rule of law by separating hard power from economics, rule-making and soft power. We are convinced that multilateralism, openness and reciprocity should rule the global order and interaction between states. We recently presented a Joint Communication on strengthening the EU’s contribution to rules-based multilateralism, in which we analyse current challenges to established multilateral rules and organisations, and why growing global challenges call for more multilateral governance and rules-based international cooperation.
While we are a standard-bearer of this project, we obviously cannot do this alone. We need global alliances, partnerships and regional co-operation. We seek such partnerships not only to advance our own priorities, but as a common effort to find sustainable solutions to global challenges based on the rule of law rather than the rule of the strongest.
Our most important partner in this area is obviously the United Nations family, but I would argue that the EU is the most engaged also in the WTO and in many other multilateral fora. We will also continue to engage in the promotion of regional cooperation through relevant multilateral regional organisations, such as the African Union, but also for instance with the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and CELAC) – and many others. In the area of security and defence, we will obviously continue to strengthen our ties with NATO.
You mentioned that it’s difficult for a ‘Political Union’ to act as a ‘Global Player’ without being ‘Autonomous’. Why exactly does the European Strategic Autonomy matter?
The concept of “strategic autonomy” and of achieving “European strategic autonomy” has been widely discussed in the past year. But what does that mean in practice? For a start, autonomy should not imply total independence or isolation from the rest of the world. Rather, it refers to an ability to think for oneself and to act according to one’s own values and interests. The European Union needs to achieve this kind of autonomy, while at the same time strengthening our alliances and preserving our commitments to multilateralism and openness.
The EU is facing serious strategic challenges in today’s antagonistic international environment, where geopolitical rivalries and great-power competition are on the rise. That is why, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel once put it, “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.” We must stand on our own feet.
For a long time, the debate about strategic autonomy focused mainly on security and defence. Some saw the discussion as an attempt to create alternatives to defence cooperation within the North Atlantic Alliance; and some even took it to mean that America’s commitment to Europe was being called into question, and that a greater decoupling might be on the way.
There is no question that NATO plays an indispensable role in European security. Any consolidation of Europe’s security capacity should be pursued within the Alliance. Still, as successive US leaders have emphasized, Europe needs to increase its own contribution to defence. . Europe’s security challenges go beyond NATO’s traditional remit. From the Sahel and Libya to the eastern Mediterranean, there is no shortage of crises that demand a strong European response. The task for the EU is to define a common position from which it can act in the interest of maintaining regional stability.
More generally, it is crucial for the strategic autonomy discussion to expand beyond the issues of defence and security. As the COVID-19 crisis has shown, issues such as public health and economic interdependence are no less important for stability and security. Viewed in isolation, facemasks and medicines are not strategic products. But the strategic calculus changes when the production of such items is concentrated in just a few countries. The same applies to the sourcing of rare metals, social-media and other digital platforms, and technologies such as 5G.
Overall, the EU’s overarching objective must be to strengthen its role and influence in the world, so that it is the partner of choice for every other country and world power. The concept of strategic autonomy is essential to this ambition. Strategic complacency is not an option.
The European Commission approved a new strategy for the European economic and financial system, which will enable Europe to play a leading role in global economic governance. How does the ‘economic sovereignty’ strengthen the international role of the Euro and increase the EU resilience to extraterritorial unilateral sanctions?
The new strategy aims at strengthening the international role of the euro, developing further the EU’s financial infrastructure, increasing our resilience to the extraterritorial application of unilateral foreign sanctions, and promoting the uniform enforcement of EU sanctions. Why? Because this is needed to prepare the EU for a new set of challenges. The fields of finance and economics are increasingly used as tools in international competition, and we need to enhance the EU’s strategic autonomy in these areas. The monetary and financial field has become an important area for action.
An excessive dependence on the dollar is one of our weaknesses. Such a dependence entails economic risks and additional costs for European players, associated with the euro/dollar exchange rate, difficulties for private or public actors to raise money on European financial markets due to a lack of interested investors and important political risks related to potential unilateral decisions by foreign actors.
Therefore, the EU should foster a greater use of the euro in international transactions. With the euro, we have a powerful tool at our disposal to enhance our economic sovereignty, if we are able to use it wisely and effectively. Currently the euro is the second most used currency internationally and we should further strengthen its global role.
Other areas of action are the new "screening" mechanism, which assesses the impact of Foreign Direct Investment in the EU on security and public order. When a foreign company seeks to take control of an EU company, consideration will be given to the fact that this could make the European company subject to extraterritorial sanctions.
The Commission also intends to organise outreach activities with public and private market participants, especially outside the EU, to promote investment in euro-denominated bonds and the use of the euro in general. To this end, the European External Action Service and the EU Delegations will have an important role to play.
The coronavirus pandemic has been accompanied by a massive wave of false or misleading information. How does the European Union tackle the spread and impact of disinformation in Europe, and ensure the protection of the European values and democratic systems?
Indeed, we have seen particularly during the COVID-19 “infodemic” how widespread and damaging disinformation can be for our security, our democracy and our societies. Addressing disinformation is an urgent necessity and we see more and more foreign actors, state and non-state, engaging in disinformation campaigns, deliberately spreading false or misleading information.
This is not a new challenge: disinformation has been with us for a long time. However, with the possibilities offered by the Internet, it now spreads faster than ever, reaching citizens in their homes every day. Some state actors, like Russia and China, are actively involved in these activities, trying to undermine and delegitimise our democratic systems and the values of freedom, pluralism and checks and balances they are built upon.
The EU has been working on tackling disinformation for many years now and the European External Actions Service has been a pioneer continuously expanded its focus and toolbox. Today, EEAS taskforces focus on three different regions: the East, Southern Neighbourhood and the Western Balkans and regularly publish special reports on COVID-19 disinformation, which show how much these activities can cause considerable damage during a global health crisis.
We cooperate across different EU Institutions and member states to develop the EU’s Rapid Alert System (RAS) against disinformation. A network of officials in the EU institutions and the EU member states that are dealing with disinformation-related issues to enable common situational awareness and threat assessment, and to strengthen coordination with researchers, civil society organisations and our international partners.
This is also the logic of the Commission’s recently presented European Democracy Action Plan, focussing on election integrity, media pluralism and tackling disinformation. The Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA) also make use of the EU’s global normative and regulatory power as the world’s largest trade bloc, so that Europe can deal with interference in our democratic life and elections.
In addition, we cooperate closely with our international partners like the G7 and NATO, to track global trends and prepare for them. Fact-checkers, journalists, NGOs and think tanks are also contributing immensely to curbing the spread of disinformation. In all of this, we must use a “whole-of-society” response, including civil society, media, academia and private sector (most importantly online platforms and advertisers) to protect our democracies from foreign interference.
On 1 January 2021, Brexit took full effect, with the United Kingdom becoming a ‘third country’. After Brexit, do the European Union and the United Kingdom cooperate closely on foreign policy?
Overall, with Brexit nothing gets easier and a lot gets more complicated for all sides. But the decision has been taken, and now we will move forward.
In the deal reached before Christmas - the so-called Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) - the UK side unfortunately decided to forego a structured, legally binding framework of cooperation on foreign and security policy, as the EU had proposed. Still, we don’t start from zero as the TCA contains provisions on human rights, climate change, disarmament and non-proliferation, counter-terrorism and cybersecurity. These elements give us a basis to start dialogues and cooperate with the UK in those areas.
In areas such as sanctions, crisis management operations and capabilities, positions in multilateral fora, aid spending or consular protection and more, both sides should be able to work together, as mutual interests are at play. There was good ad-hoc cooperation during the transition phase on the pandemic and its fallout. So, where there is a need, I am convinced the path to cooperation will be found.
In the coming weeks and months, we will work on developing a constructive EU-UK partnership on foreign and security policy, mindful of preserving EU interests and unity.
I remain convinced that on the big issues, we ought to operate in lockstep: protecting European and global security, defending open societies and tackling the climate crisis. As EU, we are ready to do our part and we count on good old British pragmatism to allow this global partnership to grow.
The EU is a global leader in the protection of the environment and the fight against climate change. Recently the United States re-joined the Paris Agreement and President Xi Jinping pledged that China would become carbon neutral by 2060. Which are the priorities of the EU Climate Diplomacy?
The EU has been a global leader in fighting climate change for decades. With the European Green Deal, the EU has increased its 2030 emissions-reduction target to at least 55% and committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050.
To be truly effective, however, internal efforts must be complemented by a proactive climate diplomacy. In a world where the EU accounts for less than 8% of global emissions, our climate efforts cannot be limited to our continent and we must convince our global partners to embrace our ambition.
To that end, Europe needs to put its economic and diplomatic weight behind the climate cause, becoming a global power in climate diplomacy and deploying all of the instruments at our disposal. In January, EU foreign ministers discussed how to develop our climate and energy diplomacy to promote the European Green Deal’s external dimensions and renewed the EU’s commitment to place climate action at the centre of external policy.
Accelerating climate action and managing the energy transition must be at the core of EU foreign policy and in our work with partners around the world. All current EU efforts to address the social and economic damage caused by COVID-19 in partner countries, should be designed and implemented with the broader climate and environmental agenda in mind.
With the European Investment Bank, the EU has also the largest multilateral lender at its disposal to achieve our 2030 climate and sustainable development goals, which according to the UN requires closing an annual investment gap of approximately €2.5 trillion.
We intend to make 2021 a defining year in which Europe puts its full diplomatic and financial weight behind the global fight against climate change. Above all, in view of the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) in November, which will be a crucial milestone for raising global ambitions.
The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States opens a new chapter on EU-US relations. You have put forward a proposal for a new EU-US Agenda regarding global change. Which are its overarching principles?
The inauguration of President Biden opens a welcomed new chapter in EU-US relations, and together with the European Commission, I put forward the comprehensive “EU-US agenda for global change”, which spans four broad areas: green leadership, the COVID-19 response and global health, trade and technology, and global action and security.
The EU proposes to establish a comprehensive transatlantic ‘green agenda’, to mobilise more ambitious global climate action, starting with a joint commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. For this, we need in particular to work on measures to build a green technology alliance; phase out fossil fuels; avoid carbon leakage; develop a global regulatory framework for sustainable finance; help poorer countries to adapt to climate change and pursue a joint leadership in the fight against deforestation. We have much to do together, and we have no time to waste. The decision of President Biden to re-join the Paris climate agreement is fundamental in this regard.
Regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, the world needs American and European leadership in this battle and I am very happy that President Biden has already signed an executive order reversing the decision to leave the World Health Organization (WHO) and that the US has announced yesterday to sign up to the WHO’s international vaccine-sharing Covax programme. We look forward to work with the new administration on fighting the pandemic and shaping the recovery.
Looking at the third area, it is crucial to keep in mind that technology issues are now part of foreign policy and the rapid technological change in front of us gives us a window of opportunity to develop a joint EU-US strategic ‘high tech agenda’. We want to cooperate on devising clear rules and their enforcement on the responsibility of online platforms and “big tech”, work together on fair taxation and market distortions, and develop a common normative approach to the future development of key technologies.
Finally, many US administrations have rightly insisted that Europe needs to increase its defence efforts to take better care of its own security and act as a security provider. Reinforcing defence capabilities of EU member states strengthens NATO and contribute to transatlantic burden sharing. A more assertive, more capable and resilient Europe is the best partner for the US. Enhancing Europe’s security role will allow for a better cooperation with the US when it comes to the security risks of today and those of the future.
It is clear that we have much to gain from close cooperation with the US to address pressing security challenges, from cyber security to hybrid threats, protecting our critical infrastructure and the security implications of climate change.
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean have been one of the greatest EU challenges in 2020. How do you transform dynamics of mistrust, rivalry or confrontation, into relationships based on common interests and on cooperation?
Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and relations with Turkey have been one of the greatest challenges in 2020.
Our challenge, and mutual interest - and my responsibility as High Representative and Vice-President of the European Commission - is to turn dynamics of mistrust, rivalry or confrontation, into relationships based on common interests and on cooperation. We have a chance still to redirect our relations. The EU extends an open hand to Turkey hoping it will seize it, and the agenda presented by EU leaders is clear. I am ready, working together with the Commission and member states, to work on proposals for a positive agenda with Turkey and explore ways of bringing our relations forward. But for this to happen, actions that may be considered aggressive or contrary to EU interests have to stop.
We need to ensure that the dialogue with Greece is continuous and support the relaunch of the Cyprus settlement talks - on the understanding that they too must reach a satisfactory conclusion and cannot go on endlessly. And we must have a strong and frank dialogue on the regional conflicts and develop a greater common understanding of how to address them in a manner that will respect mutual interests.
While I welcome recent statements by Turkey proclaiming the strategic interest of Turkey in joining the EU, it is important that those statements are followed by actions that confirm such intentions. At the same time, relations cannot be a one-way street. The EU also has to show Turkey that it is ready to engage on a positive track if Turkey meets its side of the bargain.
Greece has celebrated 40 years since it joined the European Family. In your opinion, on which fields the Greek participation and involvement would support more efficiently your work?
Let me first whole-heartedly congratulate the Greek people for such an important anniversary - συγχαρητήρια! On similar occasions, it is common to praise the importance of the Greek heritage for the EU - and undoubtedly, we must always keep such heritage close at heart. Nevertheless, your accession to the EU was also crucial for a much more pressing reason - it provedthat the Union was open to all Europeans.
Greece’s role at the forefront of our common European project has not lost any relevance today. Greece, due to its geographic location and knowledge of the region can play in helping our Western Balkan partners ‘walk the talk’ towards accession. There is much to gain for Greece in playing that role, and I am very thankful to its current and past efforts in this sense.
We are conscious, as mentioned before, that the current situation in the Aegean Sea and in the Eastern Mediterranean is worrisome for Greece - and therefore for Europe. Let me reiterate a fundamental message: your borders are Europe’s borders and decreasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are in the strategic interest of the EU. There should be no doubt about our resolve to defend our common interests. But we must be equally committed to reach out to our neighbours and look for ways to de-escalate the dynamic with Turkey, and build a relationship anchored in trust and a common agenda.
I would like to express my gratitude again to the Greek navy and to Greece as a whole for your important contribution to our CSDP missions and Operations, in particular Operation Irini. The arms embargo is the most important thing we can do to stop the bloodshed in Libya. It is also a strong reminder of the benefits of a stronger European Defence policy in enhancing Europe’s role as a security provider in our immediate neighbourhood.
The European External Action Service (EEAS) - the European Union's diplomatic service - celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year. Looking back, what are the key lessons learned?
To celebrate the EEAS’s anniversary, we organised last December an event to discuss with two of my predecessors, Federica Mogherini and Javier Solana, what has been achieved and where we go from here.
Reviewing the past tumultuous years, and asked what our choice for the most memorable moment or decision was, Javier Solana said, for him, it was the development of crisis management capabilities to enable the EU to be a security actor on the ground. Federica Mogherini highlighted the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal and the launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Javier Solana reminded us also that we constantly need to learn lessons, and I want to underline that in the EU we have learned many. For instance, our response to the economic consequences of the pandemic has been far more rapid and effective than the one we gave to the 2008/09 financial crisis.
Furthermore, we all agreed that since its establishment, the EEAS played ever more a unique role in being the interface between Europe and the wider world. A world which is increasingly dominated by a complexity of problems that call for integrated approaches in European foreign and security policy and the need for scale, which only the EU can provide. Similarly, a key lesson learnt that should shape our way ahead is the importance that narratives play in today’s world and the relevance for the EU to be proactive in this field, setting out what we do and why. If we do not do it ourselves, others will instead.