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The challenges to multilateralism in 2020

In this post, Julia Himmrich discusses the future of the EU’s role in multilateral institutions. She argues that future UK-EU trade talks and climate change negotiations will pose a challenge to multilateralism, but that lessons can be learned from previous negotiations on migration.

2020 will be a critical year for the European Union’s role in multilateral negotiations. The EU is deeply committed to advancing multilateralism and global governance in its foreign policy. It seeks to represent its members in international organisations and, over the last ten years, has made significant progress in advancing member states’ mandate to do so.  But, as we have discussed at the Dahrendorf Forum, the EU is also facing global and domestic obstacles to reconcile the EU’s vision for Global Governance with political realities.

This year there will be key negotiations for the future of Europe and the role of the EU. Brexit will happen at the end of January, after which the European Union will struggle to maintain the unity of its member states during the ensuing trade negotiations. By the end of the year, the United Nations hopes that its 26th climate change conference, or COP26, will prove decisive in the fight against global emissions. From my research for a recent Dahrendorf Forum Working Paper [1] on the opposition to multilateralism of the European Radical Right, I set out some predictions on the kind of opposition to the EU may face this year.

Learning lessons from the GCM negotiations

Between 2018 and 2019, the Radical Right was in government in four member states, Austria (FPÖ until spring 2019), Hungary (Fidesz), Italy (Lega Nord until summer 2019) and Poland (PiS). Along with the support of opposition Radical Right parties in other European countries, they mobilised opposition to the UN’s Global Compact for Migration (GCM [2]). Examining their opposition to the Compact identified a dual strategy for opposing the EU’s multilateralism. They combined the use of social media to mobilise their base with the more traditional diplomatic route of targeting the EU’s role in the negotiations and undermining the credibility of the process.

The Radical Right’s opposition to the GCM was due to both the substance of the agreement and what it represents in terms of global governance. Primarily, their nativist attitude towards migration generated significant interest from their electoral base of support. Aside from the substance of the compact, however, the far right also opposed this form of multilateralism in principle. While the Radical Right does not reject multilateralism flat out, they claim that they want foreign policy to be decided by domestic policymakers. They believe that multilateral organisations undermine national sovereignty and that they are unaccountable to the electorate.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presented one of the most extreme views claiming that multilateralism is ‘unnatural’ and that there is now a new age of bilateralism [3]. This is a stark contrast to the EU’s commitment to multilateralism and global governance expressed as part of the EU’s Global Strategy. In my research, I identified that they particularly oppose the expansion into new policy areas or deepening of existing multilateral frameworks, such as new formal commitments for states, and the EU’s role as the main negotiator with the possibility of even stricter and more formal commitments for EU members.

From the experience of the GCM negotiations, we can expect that the Radical Right will mobilise against the climate change negotiations and use the post-Brexit negotiations to further undermine EU multilateralism.

Challenges to COP26: lessons from the GCM playbook 

Negotiations on climate change are at a crucial point where states are increasingly being asked to commit to more ambitious and formal goals. This has strained the EU’s ability to achieve unanimity. In December 2019, the EU failed to get to a unanimous decision on the commitment to climate neutrality by 2050 [4] due to Poland’s refusal to join. Despite hosting 2018’s COP24 talks, Poland already began to challenge carbon neutrality goals earlier last year.

As has been the case with migration, climate change has been increasingly politicised and many political factions, including the Radical Right, are challenging the scientific evidence with misinformation. Much of this is happening online and in non-mainstream media outlets. In the case of the GCM, the Radical Right succeeded [5] because the mainstream media was not paying attention to the negotiations. To combat the barrage of climate change disinformation, which is already underway, false and misleading evidence must be counteracted with information and education campaigns bringing the scientific argument closer to the general public. While there is much support for campaigns such as ‘Fridays for Future’ and ‘Extinction Rebellion’, these movements represent a limited number of political views and have led to strong responses from climate sceptics.

Similarly to the GCM negotiations, the EU’s role in the climate change debate is already being contested by the Radical Right through formal channels, with Poland opposing the climate neutrality goal. Going into the UN negotiations, the EU needs to take this weakening of its position seriously and focus on building bridges with like-minded states in other regions, particularly supporting countries affected by climate change. From the GCM it has become evident that when the EU tries to appease the Radical Right for a common EU position, it becomes much harder to collaborate with other partners at the UN because it alienates other countries and regions

Finally, the multilateral process as a whole was targeted by the Radical Right in the case of the GCM and they may do this again on climate change. They even targeted specific European diplomats personally on social media and in fringe news outlets. They described the multilateral process as a secretive and elitist process. Therefore, the EU needs to bring the process to stakeholders in the member states and get their endorsement. National parliaments should be kept informed and publicly discuss the negotiations and the goals that need to be achieved. At the same time, there needs to be genuine engagement with critics on the issue of representation in multilateralism and greater promotion of transparency in such negotiations.

The risk of spill-over from the Brexit negotiations

In 2020, we are going to move into the next stage of negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. The UK is also likely to reach out to third countries for bilateral trade agreements. So far, EU members have stayed united in their negotiations with the UK on the withdrawal agreement. But this second stage of the process may raise more interest from the Radical Right. They are likely to point to the new British bilateral approach as an alternative to the traditional EU multilateral approach. The UK will not have much interest in meddling with EU internal political divisions, as this would diminish their chances of getting the post-Brexit agreement they are looking for. Nonetheless, the process will likely be politicised domestically in member states and it is likely that the Radical Right will seek to use it to undermine the role of the EU on an international stage.

The Radical Right has lost some influence but is currently in government in Poland and Hungary. Its decline in some countries may mean that it will be less effective than it has been during the GCM negotiations. Nonetheless, its strategy of targeting both the public discourse as well as the formal diplomatic process on multilateral negotiations can be effective also form the opposition and could also receive political support from political factions outside the Radical Right such as other populist movements or more extreme right wing parties.  Europe’s commitment to multilateralism is therefore likely to come under pressure this year. Political and diplomatic steps need to be take to strengthen the EU’s position and counteract a political discourse misrepresenting the multilateral process.

Julia Himmrich is a Dahrendorf Post-Doctoral Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.