A systematic and forward-looking analysis of the key forces that will shape the European Union’s external relations will provide a solid footing for charting a course of policy actions for the EU’s role in the world.
Shaping future is better than being shaped by it
Who would have thought a decade ago that not only the European Union but also its neighbourhood both in the East and in the South would have been turned upside down due to a series of crises? Back in 2006 the EU had gone through a successful ‘big bang’ enlargement absorbing ten Central and Eastern European countries and was about to take two more states on board. The economy was doing well, ideas for establishing a ‘ring of friends’ in the immediate neighbourhood were flowering and Russia was seen as a close partner. Yet things have gone differently than might have expected. The financial crisis, the Arab Spring and its consequences, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, the development of ISIS, the war in Syria and the growing number of refugees and migrants from North Africa and the Middle East are challenges the European Union has been facing in recent years.
Although predictions of the end of the European project seem to be premature, it has become obvious that the EU is in a serious crisis, both as an idea and as an organisation and international actor. Therefore simply reacting to crises is no longer an option. The EU desperately needs to think and act strategically if it wants to survive and to have any influence on the global stage.
Above all, it needs to define its future-oriented interests and how these interests can be reconciled with values that the EU attempts to project and protect. Against this backdrop, the Dahrendorf Forum – Debating Europe initiated a foresight project which aimed to set out different scenarios for the future relationship between the European Union and the five countries/regions of the Dahrendorf Forum: Ukraine and Russia, Turkey, MENA, United States and China.
The alternative futures engage in defining the most likely trajectories, downside risks, new trends and ‘unknown unknowns’. By reflecting the forward-looking challenges, the Dahrendorf Foresight Project  tries to assess the EU’s role in the world in 2025. As a result of the project 18 scenarios for relations between the European Union and its strategic partners and neighbours have been developed and published as a Dahrendorf Analysis .
Added value of scenario generation
There are two main reasons that make foresight methodology an interesting tool for both academics and policymakers. First of all, decision-making in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world can quickly become a costly and risky endeavour – especially in the realm of foreign and security affairs. Foresight analysis is one of the most powerful analytic methods available – lowering the risks, widening decision makers’ perspectives and providing them with policy options.
This methodology helps experts and political advisors to undertake estimative analysis, which involves thinking systematically about the various ways the future is likely to unfold and what is most likely to determine the eventual outcome. What is important to underline is that the objective of foresight analysis is not to predict the future but to generate a solid set of scenarios that can include the range of plausible alternative futures. Foresight analysis is most useful when a situation is complex and the outcomes too uncertain to trust a single prediction. It has proven highly effective in helping analysts and decision makers contemplate multiple futures, challenge their assumptions and anticipate surprise developments by identifying ‘unknown unknowns’ – i.e. factors, forces or players that one did not realise were important or influential before commencing the exercise.
Due to the overwhelming and unexpected challenges which have shaken the EU to the ground, the necessity of strategic thinking seems to be widely accepted as the ongoing formulation process of the new EU Global Strategy shows. However, global trends analysis and solid and comprehensive foresight thinking should become an integral part of strategic planning. Thus, it is time to intensify the reaching out for the various methods of foresight thinking within both the European External Action Service and the European Commission
Three takeaways for the European Union
- Thinking differently about coherence in EU foreign policy
Coherence does not have to mean that all 28 member states undertake action. It is time to make use of existing instruments which allow the establishment of more pragmatic coalitions of member states that are willing to act together. Enhanced cooperation in common foreign and security policy and variable coalitions of EU countries which, due to their (geo) political or economic interests, are willing to take a lead in particular policy areas or relations towards a particular country or region are not only inevitable but also highly desirable. It would also make the best use of the unique expertise and experience of each member state in different areas of external action.
The High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy would undoubtedly benefit from member states’ boosted engagement in the EU’s external affairs. A new concept of labour division among numerous EU foreign policy stakeholders is certainly urgently needed and would provide the union with more effective external policies. A broad-based debate and consensus around shared strategic interests, which is one of the aims of the EU global strategy formulation, should facilitate the formulation of this new concept of labour division.
- Towards a restructured European Union
As the scenarios show, neither is further enlargement of the European Union on the table for the foreseeable future nor has the European Neighbourhood Policy been effective in creating a ‘ring of friends’ beyond the EU borders. Yet there are several countries already in the accession process and others waiting and hoping to start negotiations or to sign Association Agreements.
At the same time differentiated integration both within (e.g. Schengen area and the Eurozone) and outside the EU (e.g. European Economic Area with Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) is the status quo. Turning the current situation into an advantage by creating issue-related partnerships with neighbours like Ukraine, Turkey or the Western Balkan countries would help to overcome the deadlock of both enlargement and the ailing neighbourhood policy. Non-EU countries could engage in subsets dealing with energy, trade, migration etc. and thereby strengthen their relationship with the EU. This could be a way for the EU to regain its transformative power, which is currently a thing of the past.
- Early-warning mechanism against right-wing populists
The popularity of right-wing populists is unquestionably growing across the European Union and might be seen as one of the key dangers for the European integration within the next decade. Not only Eastern European countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland but also France, Holland, Austria and – as the local election results have shown – also Germany have to deal with growing support for right-wing EU-sceptical parties. The EU leadership needs to develop a political ‘early warning mechanism’ to address these movements and a strategy to counter the trend towards more nativist, populist, authoritarian sentiments before it becomes irreversible. Otherwise, with several countries turning towards isolationism and the self-protection of their national interests, the European Union’s foreign policy will probably be abandoned, with member states will not be interested in the EU playing any role on the global stage. A case in point is offered by the recent referendum in Holland, where the majority of citizens rejected the EU Association Agreement with Ukraine.
Therefore, support for extreme right-wing parties is one of the essential internal challenges for the EU’s foreign policy. It should be tackled on the EU level through both very firm action against the right-wing parties’ attempts to break democratic rules and through widespread awareness-raising campaigns for the common strategic interests of the member states. The benefits of European integration need to be made a tangible reality for citizens.
Monika Sus is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance and is responsible for the umbrella project within the Dahrendorf Forum.