As part of GLOBSEC’s GEOPE Project at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum 2021, high-level participants including policymakers, experts, civil society and media representatives, and young leaders took on the challenge of discussing three important topics in various panels and roundtable debates. These discussions included: the changing international environment and the EU’s role on the global stage, the potential for achieving a more coherent European foreign and security policy, and the legal and institutional framework of a more effective EU foreign policy.

Changing international environment and the EU’s role on the global stage

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed that the EU, while a strong economic power and a standard setter in green agenda, continues to struggle to act in a coherent and swift way on the global stage. Participants questioned what the necessary ingredients to achieve this goal were and how the EU could strengthen its capabilities. These general discussions were complimented by the group’s recognition that the EU needs to address global challengers, especially China, and its need to also look at the immediate neighbourhood, including the Western Balkans.

China’s rising power, along with its growing geo-political and geo-economic ambitions, continue to raise concerns among the transatlantic community. The EU has yet to agree on a common strategy towards China. While member states differ in their approach, China has been successfully using various tools to undermine a coherent and strong challenge from the Union. Many ask when and what kind of red lines need to be drawn.

At the same time, as participants pointed out, the EU cannot build a grand global strategy without securing and supporting its immediate neighbourhood. The EU has unfinished business in the Western Balkans region in terms of enlargement, reconciliation, and building bridges between the Western Balkan countries and the EU. The region is facing numerous challenges that present an obstacle to regional progress.

Is there potential for achieving a more coherent European foreign and security policy

The past two years have been marked by a far-from-festive mood. The COVID-19 pandemic yielded a crisis that turned out to be truly global and transformational in every aspect of life. Even before the pandemic, Europeans began discussing how best to approach “strategic autonomy” — a vision for Europe in the world that would allow the continent to decide its own future without overly depending on others. EU member states agree in principle to the notion of an interest-driven Union capable of defending its economic and political interest abroad. However, much mismatch of perceptions and next steps forward still exists among EU member states.

A new foreign and security policy approach is needed, as participants agreed that while the EU is an economic giant it continues to be a political dwarf. The challenges coming from China, Russia, and non-state actors are threatening the basic democratic values of the Union and are hindering its work on the global stage. Solutions should be found in strengthening the EU’s foreign and security policy, but also take a stand to protect democracy inside and outside the EU. One of the biggest threats are the attempts to divide the EU – to reduce the confidence of the citizens in European institutions, values, and policies. There are different motives and different means to the attacks but the goal is always the same— division. The path of success is the path of cooperation inside the EU and the use of the proper tools. For example, building a strategic EU identity, have smart policies, commit, and remain cooperative, but through reliable structures.

Legal and institutional framework of a more effective EU foreign policy

If the EU aims to be an influential foreign policy power, the EU member states need to act together towards a common strategic culture, to aspire to a common understanding of security challenges (both nominal and geographical), and to develop a coherent strategic vision of foreign and security policy. Can a reform of the legal and institutional framework enhance the EU foreign policy? While the need for a coherent strategic culture is agreeable and prioritised by governments and experts, the implementation of ambitious legal and institutional changes is not foreseen as very plausible. In the midst of the Conference on the Future of Europe some bold ideas are already presented, including treaty change and increased flexibility in decision-making (split responsibilities). Yet, the notions of incremental change within the current legal framework, trust, and re-definition of what is EU foreign policy by including trade, digital and green agenda, etc, are more feasible channels to increase coherence, effectiveness, and impact of the EU’s foreign and security policy.

*The summary is published within GLOBSEC GEOPE—Geopolitical Europe: Are the Member States Ready for It? Project supported by Jean Monnet Actions of the EU’s Erasmus+ program.

*The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.