Drawing by Jorge Martin for 2016 Dahrendorf Symposium

The Future of the EU in a World in Flux

In March the Dahrendorf team at LSE launched a competition for PhD students to submit a short essay on the themes being addressed by either the Europe, Russia & Ukraine Working Group or the Europe & North America Working Group. The aim was to encourage and promote new research in these areas from early career academics. In this blog post, one of our winners, Nikki Ikani, highlights some of the key issues discussed during the 2016 Dahrendorf Symposium.

Uncertainty about the future is casting a shadow over Europe. At the end of next year, the EU could have one member less after a ‘Brexit’. Two other members, meanwhile, could have far-right governments, as both Germany and France are going to the polls in 2017. While at this point these scenarios may seem unlikely, it is certain that the rapidly increasing pace of political dynamics within the Union will continue to impact Europe’s policy-making, especially as populist tendencies grow. All the while internal political trends are only one of Europe’s worries, with rising security threats both in Europe’s vicinity and further afield.

None of this is particularly new. The position of the EU has been in flux for almost two decades, ever since, along with the Wall, the relative stability of the bipolar world system collapsed. The declining hegemony of the US, the resurgence of conflicts – both along the EU’s eastern borders and in the Middle East – and the persistent economic crises across Europe all serve to marginalise the global position of the EU. This is exacerbated by the rise of new powers, whose conceptions of international order challenge the weight and importance of multilateral structures such as the EU.

Yet in recent years these developments, and particularly the emergence of a ‘ring of fire’ around the EU, have created a sense of urgency. It has become imperative for the Union to assess where it is heading, and how it will confront future challenges. It was within this context that the Dahrendorf Forum discussed the future of Europe at the roundtable European Union in the World 2025, introduced by Monika Sus and Franziska Pfeifer, editors of a thought-provoking new Dahrendorf Analysis entitled ‘Scenarios for EU relations with its neighbours and strategic partners’.

The roundtable, chaired by Judy Dempsey, a Senior Associate at Carnegie Europe, addressed a wide range of issues, including the fact that European foreign policy is a product of internal processes of negotiation between different member states and different institutions, all of which interact within complicated structures. In contrast, the international arena – in which the EU as a composite actor operates – is one of sovereign state actors. For a long time the EU has tried to deal with this incongruity by putting itself forward as the ‘harbinger of negotiated order’ through the promotion of what the it calls ‘effective multilateralism’ in its 2003 European Security Strategy. Operating in multilateral structures, the EU has long tried to promote the ‘post-sovereign’ diplomacy that is in its own very nature. The rise of emerging powers over the course of the past decades, however, has significantly limited the EU’s scope to pursue such a negotiated order. Conflict and democratic awakenings in the European neighborhood and the confrontation with Russia additionally dampened beliefs in Europe’s ability to act as a normative actor, and call into question its past attempts to do so.

Europe’s ability to project power has been significantly minimized by its internal woes. Europe’s freedom to choose what kind of power it wants to wield depends on its internal strength and unity, asserted panelist Daniela Schwarzer, Director of the Europe Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Its economic strength and its hard power capabilities are a crucial part of this. If Europe does not pool and share its military capabilities, and continues its course of retrenchment, the US may retreat even further, leaving many European countries in even greater insecurity. Second, the EU’s soft power hinges on its ability to actually be attractive and diffuse its norms. Internal social cohesion and progressive societies are crucial in this respect. If we are unable to display cohesion among – and increasingly within – member states, Schwarzer argued, authoritarian models of state are likely to become increasingly attractive, to the detriment of the European model.

Europe’s struggle to project its power and its normative principles is increasingly becoming a problem in the wider European neighborhood. Recently, powers such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and China have progressively been stepping up their game in countries where the EU has traditionally been a major player. Many ‘target countries’ of EU policies are aware of this: there is a distinct trend towards multi-vector foreign policies in countries like Moldova and Ukraine. As  Gnedina and Popescu wrote in 2012, states ‘play upon the division between Russia, the EU and the United States in order to extract concessions from all interested parties’.

The EU needs to come to terms with three structural trends. Firstly, there are cycles of contention, domestic unrest and (semi-)authoritarian regimes in the wider neighborhood. The old European dichotomy of stability versus democracy is becoming increasingly unworkable. Recent years have shown that without democracy and the rule of law, the political stability enjoyed through conniving with authoritarian regimes might be nothing more than playing with fire. As Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, Senior Research Fellow at Sciences Po Paris, pertinently asked in a later roundtable, does Europe still have any credibility and legitimacy in the MENA region to put forward its norms and models?

Secondly, the gradual transformation of the international order and the rise of new powers in the European neighborhood are altering the parameters within which the EU can exert influence in regions and states where it used to be one of the main actors present. The battle for influence and for the geo-economic and geopolitical orientation of countries in the post-Soviet space and in the Southern Mediterranean will have major ramifications for both the stability of the region and for the security of the EU. Increased competition in these countries has the potential to affect European security, its energy supply and migration flows.

Finally, Europe’s internal political volatility is rapidly increasing and is severely impacting its external policy-making capabilities. Populist movements are currently countered by a ‘mimicking of the political agenda of the far-right, rather than by opposing it’, to quote the opening remarks of Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, at the roundtable entitled Democracy Challenged: Populism, Illiberalism, Radicalism on day two of the Symposium. Europe currently boasts almost as many borders as it did during the Cold War. But an increasing securitization of the Union’s external borders will not offer much solace. The delayed and incomplete response to the refugee crisis showed how convoluted the formulation of EU policy responses has become, and how lines between internal and external threats are becoming blurred. Both at the national and at the European level, policy-makers should strive not to let anger and fear dominate  solutions, as these have the tendency to isolate Europe even further from the outside world.

About the author: Nikki Ikani is a PhD Candidate in the Department of European Studies & International Relations at King’s College London, focusing on EU foreign policy.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.