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January 06, 2022

Op-Ed: The Case for a Sovereign Europe

The EU needs to improve its capacity to act. The new German government is ready to play its part in order for Europe to be seen as a strong actor on the international stage, says the SPD's foreign affairs spokesperson.

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European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium June 20, 2018.
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In his highly acclaimed speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a sovereign, unified, and democratic Europe; for a European Union that regards itself as a community of solidarity based on fundamental common values ​​and a shared understanding of how we live together in society. Macron’s main theme that day was the need to strengthen European sovereignty. In future, he suggested, the EU should be able to determine its own interests and values, and to take action within a rules-based context. At stake here is nothing less than the organization’s capacity to act, both internally and externally.

A sovereign Europe would aim to strengthen and protect European values ​​and interests. In addition, it would seek to maintain and to further develop a rules-based multilateral world order. Boosting European sovereignty does not mean placing limits on member states’ ability to act. In fact, their capacity is increased by the possibility of joint European action. A sovereign Europe possesses all the instruments needed to assert its values ​​and interests, preferably in collaboration with allies and partners but, if necessary, acting on its own. The basis of all this is a wide-ranging idea of sovereignty, one that includes autonomous capacity for action on foreign and security policy, and on economic, social, ecological, and technological issues.

Promoting European Integration

A sovereign Europe must ultimately be based on the EU’s fundamental values, ​​as well as on the principle of cooperation. In this context, European integration is imperative. Only by developing existing institutions and legal instruments can the EU expand its capacity to act and its ability to determine its own foreign and security policy. For this, the EU Council of Ministers will be a cornerstone. For the EU to be seen as a strong actor on the international stage, it needs to streamline voting rules to improve its ability to take action in the world.

The coronavirus pandemic presented the EU with its greatest challenge yet. The crisis clearly highlighted the vulnerability of the international community, both internally and externally. It made clear to everyone the need for resolute joint action. To achieve this, member states must work together even more closely to promote European integration. Their coordination must improve even more. The Franco-German initiative for a European reconstruction package is the right answer for the current phase of the crisis.

The coalition agreement, which put the new German government of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and Free Democrats (FDP) in power, has consciously adopted the concept of European sovereignty, committing Berlin to strengthening the EU’s strategic sovereignty. The new government is promising to reduce dependency and vulnerability in strategically vital areas, including energy supply, health, imported raw materials, and digital technology. This should enhance capacity for global action, while not leaving the continent isolated.

The ultimate aim is to strengthen Europe sovereignty as a normative power. Above all, this means implementing our common values ​​consistently; these are the principles that guide us in how we behave with our partners. Within the EU too, European values ​​must be protected. Violations of shared basic values, ​​or attempts to circumvent them, ​​must be met with sanctions. To make this possible, we urgently need effective mechanisms to enforce the rule of law, for example by linking it to the disbursal of EU budget funds.

Diplomacy and Military Action

In resolving crises and conflicts, a sovereign Europe relies on the primacy of politics, making use of diplomacy and dialogue, civilian crisis prevention and conflict management, democracy, and peace promotion, as well as cooperation-based multilateralism. This approach can be found in the program for government recently agreed in Berlin.

However, to successfully resolve crises and conflict, the EU must also be capable of rapid military action where needs be. On questions of peace and security, it must  act as a united, credible actor. But for this to happen, we need institutional reform, along with political will within individual member states.

Transatlantic relations are a core component of EU foreign policy. Confidence in the relationship suffered greatly during the presidency of Donald Trump, but the election of Joe Biden has restored the relationship to one of partnership. The United States has rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement and the UN Human Rights Council, a clear sign of US support for multilateralism based on rules and values.

However, the focus of US foreign policy has turned toward the Pacific, and Washington has made it clear that Europe must do more to guarantee its own future security. Therefore, EU member states have to provide sufficient resources, but must also summon the required political will, and make sure that new capabilities are coordinated and shared appropriately. The development and readiness of military capabilities must be significantly stepped up. Examples of this include the Franco-German projects Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and Main Ground Combat System (MGCS), developing air defense systems and armored warfare capacity. These projects aim to safeguard Europes security and defense sovereignty, but are not in conflict with the transatlantic security and defense partnership. Europe needs projects like these to ensure that its place in the transatlantic alliance represents a sovereign commitment to transatlantic security and defense, based on common values, rather than a course forced on Europe by military dependency.

United Fronts vis-à-vis Russia and China

Europe’s relations with Russia have seen repeated setbacks and problems, including disinformation campaigns and menacing military gestures, as seen at the Russian-Ukrainian border in recent weeks. A sovereign Europe will be able to present a far more united front to Russia. Different member states have varying perceptions of the threat from Russia; we must take this into account, above all by taking seriously the concerns of our Eastern European partners. Our aim must be a common European “Ostpolitik”, focusing on a united, coherent approach to Russia. A sovereign Europe will be open to dialogue with Russia, while aware that this requires real Russian willingness to reduce tension through constructive engagement.

China promotes global competition between different economic and social systems, and must be strongly countered by Europe, in partnership with the United States. The European Commission recently announced its “Global Gateway” investment program, offering crucial strategic support to emerging market economies and developing countries. A sovereign Europe also has areas of cooperation with China, where constructive influence can be exerted, to the benefit of both sides. A common European approach will be needed for this, especially on human rights, trade, and investment, as well as climate and environmental policy. European states must not allow Beijing’s political strategies to sow disunity in their ranks. Only a sovereign European policy on China will allow us to develop differentiated answers and reactions to the specific challenges we face.

A New Role for the Euro

Expanding the international role of the euro will be crucial in this, as well as developing the institutional architecture and governance structure of European monetary union. If this can be done, it should help safeguard confidence in the stability of the eurozone. Necessary steps in this will include reforming the Stability and Growth Pact to allow more investment, as well as bringing banking, capital market, and fiscal union to completion. This will create European capital and banking markets that are both integrated and liquid, solving the issue of European financial fragmentation. The only way for the EU to counteract the “exorbitant privilege” that dollar sovereignty gives to the United States is to offer banks and companies alternatives to dollar-denominated financing. This step will allow Europe to determine its own economic relations with countries like Iran and Russia. 

In future, European trade in oil and gas should increasingly be done in euros. Ultimately, EU member states could pool their national economic development aid funds, via a new European Development Bank or through existing institutions like the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. All of this would serve to strengthen European sovereignty.

A sovereign EU could also be assertive in the global economy, which is increasingly shaped by geopolitical interests. The EU must protect its own economic interests, safeguarding the resilience of its members’ welfare state models. This will require the development of global standards, while protecting our own key industries and critical infrastructure, and expanding our capacities, especially digital.

An open economy like the EU is dependent on the global exchange of goods, services, capital, knowledge, and technologies. Europe’s economic interest is for the global economy to remain open and for its close connections with international partners to be maintained. Moreover, this must happen within a multilateral order that respects and defends international law, fair competition, and social standards. If Europe can achieve technology leadership in digitalization and technological development, this will allow it to shape its own societies and economies by its own rules, while also negotiating fair global rules from a position of equality. In this way, European sovereignty will directly link to the goal, first laid out in the Lisbon strategy, of making the EU the world’s most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy.

Nils Schmid is foreign affairs spokesperson for Germany’s Social Democrats’ (SPD) parliamentary caucus.