Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Mar 04, 2021

Let’s Strengthen European Foreign Policy

The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call that it is time to finally forge a more united policy on how the EU approaches the outside world. Achieving this should be Germany’s core focus.

The Barleymont building in Brussels
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The world is facing a situation of aggressive geopolitical competition. These tensions have accelerated following the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, the pandemic’s new dynamics have amplified some worrying global tendencies. The deterioration of democracy and the erosion of fundamental freedoms, intensifying state-led disinformation campaigns, and a return of isolationism have put the global political order at risk. Indeed, the pandemic is a wake-up call for a more united European foreign policy and an effective multilateral global order.

At the Munich Security Conference in February, Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasized the fact that multilateralism and cooperation are the most important tools of German foreign policy. The key institution for Germany in this regard is the European Union. Only a strong and united EU, combining the weight of its 27 member states, can assume a responsible and active leadership role on the international stage.

There is great untapped potential in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. All components—both hard and soft power—of the EU's external action need to be combined and integrated. To this aim, the EU and its member states should shape a stronger, more autonomous, more united, and more assertive foreign and security policy. Three key goals need to be achieved.

A Reliable “Partner of Choice”

Values such as democracy, freedom, the rule of law, peace, multilateralism, security, human rights, and social justice are at risk internationally, but also in our immediate neighborhood. Trust in multilateral cooperation and democracy has declined. Once stable institutions such as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization have come under pressure. The EU should therefore continue its role as a reliable partner worldwide—as a preferred “partner of choice” for third parties, principled, but not dogmatic, as an honest broker. In doing so, we Europeans must operate closely with our allies and defend international institutions. Multilateralism only works when all partners work together.

The EU is already a strong negotiator in the multilateral system, for example, when setting global standards in global value chains and data protection. This must become more visible and recognizable. We should formulate our strategic interests better and advocate for our ideas for a rules-based world order and necessary reforms of organizations such as the WHO and WTO, together with like-minded partners. Close partnerships between democratic states are more crucial than ever. Hence, the EU is looking forward to a trusting, reliable, and predictable partnership with the new administration of President Joe Biden. Working together on a new transatlantic agenda in order to shape the future as equal partners is of utmost importance now.

A Stronger Political Will

The European tagline "United in Diversity" does not mean "Trapped in Disagreement." No EU member state alone has the capacities and resources to deal with all the current international challenges. Thus, a stronger and genuine political will on the part of the member states, not least Germany, is required to jointly agree on and push EU foreign policy goals.

The decision-making process on Common Foreign and Security Policy matters often lacks speed and efficiency. In order to ensure that the EU can take on an active leadership role, it is essential to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting—at least in some areas. The adoption of the “Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime” (also called the “EU Magnitsky Act”) in December 2020 is a suitable addition to the CFSP toolbox. However, it is unfortunate that the European Parliament's call to use qualified majority voting for this sanctions regime has not been heeded. Decisions on human rights issues and sanctions by qualified majority voting would be a concrete means to strengthening EU influence on the global scene.

It is not sufficient for the EU to just define foreign policy objectives, though. Ambitions have to be underpinned by means and capabilities. It is about our “ability to act.” Initiated largely by the German EU Council presidency during the second half of last year, the EU’s “Strategic Compass” is regarded as a new instrument to unite member states behind a common foreign policy vision and a common security and defense culture. It will give new impetus to the EU’s geopolitical agenda by specifying the overarching priorities of the 2016 Global Strategy.

After the first-ever joint threat analysis was put together at the end of last year, the process is going to be finalized during the French EU presidency in the first half of 2022. Hopefully, this exercise will help to develop a common understanding of what Europeans really want to achieve specifically and which capabilities the EU should—and should not—provide with respect to crisis management, enhancing partnerships, and protecting its citizens.

Being Prepared for New Challenges

In addition to being more united, our common defense capacities must be strengthened, too. Even though security and defense matters remain largely in the hands of member states, the EU has been playing an important role in setting up new meaningful structures since 2016. These include the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD), and the European Defense Fund (EDF), to name just three examples. These are all steps in the right direction. Certainly, it takes time to build up joint military capabilities and command structures. The task now is to further develop these initiatives in order to pursue the political concept of a fully-fledged European Defense Union.

In parallel, the EU has to manage external and internal challenges. In recent years, the two pillars upon which the European defense and security framework rests have been challenged.

First, the US commitment to NATO has been put into doubt during the Trump years. President Biden has since reaffirmed America’s full commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. Nevertheless, this means at the same time that we Europeans have to shoulder more responsibility by investing in military capabilities that enable our shared defense in our neighborhood, but also globally. We must remain transatlantic and become more European at the same time!

Second, Brexit means that the EU has to adapt to the departure of one of its strongest military players. The EU has just begun a new partnership with the United Kingdom based on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Even though this agreement is unprecedented in its scope, it unfortunately does not entail provisions for future relations in foreign and security realms. New ways need to be found for how the EU and the UK can cooperate on foreign policy. I believe it would be in the interests of both sides to maintain a close and lasting collaboration in this field based on our shared interests and values, particularly on strengthening democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights. There is potential to have a constructive dialogue with London.

On May 9, the Conference on the Future of Europe, a two-year discussion forum with multiple events across our continent, will begin. Our European values are still attractive, but our model has long since ceased to stand unchallenged. Emerging new powers claim economic and political influence, and China in particular rivals the Western world in its promise of prosperity.

It is high time for a comprehensive debate on forging new, more ambitious partnerships worldwide, particularly with our neighboring continent Africa but also with other democracies like India and the countries of Latin America. Innovative ideas such as the German proposal for a European Security Council should be openly discussed. The future of Europe and its foreign and security dimension lies in our hands.

David McAllister is a German MEP for the European People`s Party (EPP) and chairman of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs. He is also a member of the DGAP Advisory Board (Präsidium).