Politics of Scale in the Foreign Affairs Council

on 01.03.2021

The Council’s conclusions, following the “very busy and very important” Foreign Affairs Council, indicate that the EU is attempting to stand firm in a geopolitical storm despite the recent controversies.

The FAC occupied itself primarily with two burning issues: the future EU-Russia relations, and the trajectory of the Union’s cooperation with the United States. The Foreign Ministers likewise took stock of the current situation in Myanmar after the military coup d'état, Iran’s perceptions of the JCPOA since the about-turn in the US administration, and acknowledged the possibility of adopting a fourth set of measures in the case of Belarus.

The Foreign Affairs Ministers were eager to hear suggestions from the High Representative, Josep Borrell, regarding the EU’s next steps vis-à-vis Russia following his trip to Moscow. The outcome of the visit considerably amplified the voices of the trip’s critics and stressed the urgency to deal with what the EU Global Strategy called the “strategic challenge” of the east that is currently “drifting away from Europe.”

Although making ground-breaking foreign policy decisions is a difficult task, especially with Russia employing the well-known “divide and rule” approach, the recent dealings with Moscow have shown that being a bystander is much harder.

At the end, the HR/VP announced the unanimous agreement amongst the EU27 to begin drafting the proposal to impose restrictive measures against individuals directly responsible for Navalny’s persecution. In fact, on the basis of the High Representative’s proposal, the EU might impose these under the umbrella of the so-called European Magnitsky Act, while still attempting to engage Russia in constructive dialogue. This will allow the EU to target both state and non-state actors involved with greater precision.

The other highlight of the videoconference of the EU Foreign Ministers was the symbolic virtual presence of the newly appointed US State Secretary, Antony Blinken. The 'transatlantic dimension’ of FAC not only supported the EU’s new strategy on multilateralism but gave weight to President Joe Biden’s words that “America is back.“ There was an exchange of views on EU-US cooperation regarding converging foreign policy issues such as Iran, China, and the European near neighbourhood.

The debate with Secretary Blinken fell neatly into the EU’s overarching plan to support multilateral diplomacy with the recently published new strategy to strengthen the multilateral international order. In this document, the EU has defined strategic priorities on issues no country can face alone. These are the following: Peace, Security, Human rights, the Rule of Law, Sustainable development, Public health, and Climate Action. The EU intends to push forward cooperative solutions to “build back better” and base its efforts on a more interest-based approach while “making use of all the instruments at its disposal.”

The “fit for purpose” agenda clearly states the aim to foster multilateral inter-state and inter-institutional cooperation. Given the fact that the number of permanent seats for the EU members at the UN Security Council will soon decrease to two post-Brexit, it sees the necessity to form new alliances in order not only to remain relevant on the world stage but, also to include the third countries in “non-traditional” partnerships to learn the “rules” of such an inclusive multilateral game. Note that this came just days before the United States officially re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement.

In order for this to yield the desired long-term results, the Member States must bite the bullet and utilise the politics of scale of all 27 nations to show its “collective Team Europe strength.” After all, this new strategy is a good start that provides positive momentum for the EU to be more ambitious in the Common Foreign and Security Policy, but so were many before.

Contrary to popular opinion, when EU diplomacy rests, the world does not. And, while the FAC reflected a rather cooperative spirit, the question of what the EU wants to and is able to achieve on its own – as well as a part of a highly interconnected environment – remains relevant one crisis after another.

If the criteria for the EU as a superpower rested solely on the geographical focus of the FAC’s agenda, contemplating whether there is a gap between capabilities and expectations would no longer be relevant. While the meeting gave the impression that the EU is slowly beginning to choose the path of proactiveness instead of ex-post responses, one needs to be realistic when assessing the EU’s capacity to respond to international crises that occur on the Union’s doorstep.

As the new strategy says, the EU “must step up its leadership.”