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This isn't how the EU up its international clout

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
October 2, 2020

EU leaders have discussed the bloc's global role and its strategic independence at a special summit in Brussels. DW's Bernd Riegert found it all rather underwhelming.

Brüssel EU Sondergipfel Merkel Orban
Image: Johanna Geron/dpa/picture-alliance

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that there was still much room for improvement with regard to the conclusions of the European Council's special summit on foreign affairs in Brussels. He's right! The Council struggled to deflect Cyprus' veto against sanctions for Belarus. And the largely symbolic sanctions are unlikely to convince Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to change course in any case.

Belarus' opposition is likely to be disappointed after already waiting far too long — nine weeks — for the EU to even act after elections which are widely thought to have been rigged. It's hard to understand why Lukashenko seems to be getting away scot-free. Britain and Canada have been less hesitant to impose sanctions on him directly.

Read more: Opinion: Words alone won't enforce EU rule of law

DW's Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Reigert

The EU also failed to send a clear message to Turkey about its controversial natural gas exploration off the coast of Cyprus, postponing the issue to a later summit in December. It resorted to the carrot-and-stick method to maintain Turkey's autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a partner. After all, it needs his support on a variety of issues, from the refugee situation, to Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, to name but a few.

Clear line regarding China necessary

The EU would also do well to finally figure out what relationship it wants to have with China. It needs access to China's markets and supplies, as well as Beijing's help in the fight against climate change, while China needs access to the EU's markets and supplies. But Brussels does not really know how to persuade China's steamrolling leadership to heed universal human rights, stop repressing ethnic minorities and dissidents, deescalate tensions in the South China Sea and respect the liberties of Hongkongers. This issue, too, was postponed to a special summit due to take place in November in Berlin with Angela Merkel as host but without Chinese President Xi Jinping in attendance. Instead of talking with him, the EU will talk about him so it can finally decide on what common line the bloc should take.

The EU's member states do not agree on any of the major foreign policy issues and it is very difficult for them to compromise and find a consensus. The requirement for unanimity on foreign policy decisions will long be a stumbling block. No EU member states will want to give up its individual veto. European Council President Charles Michel has said that the torturous search for the lowest common denominator is what makes up the "magic" of the European project. But, more and more, this magic trick is failing to convince anyone.

World stage is changing

The 27 state leaders who attended this special summit were concerned with defending their own interests and did not come any closer to achieving their stated goal of strengthening the EU's role on the world stage. They would need to be more united and more determined for this to actually happen. If the EU wants to play a significant role on the world stage, it needs a self-confidence and daring that it still lacks.

This stage is changing, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic. The US seems to be leaving it, while China, Russia and Turkey are looking to star. Many African and South American states no longer want to be merely extras. And the EU? Its member states are busy squabbling among themselves. That is not the way to nab a leading role.

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union