Despite domestic pressures, foreign affairs dominate agenda at EU summit

Despite domestic pressures, foreign affairs dominate agenda at EU summit

European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels. (AFP)
European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels. (AFP)
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With 2024, a big election year for the EU, fast approaching there is much important domestic policy business for the bloc to attend to. However, it was foreign policy that ultimately topped the agenda during the European summit of presidents and prime ministers of the 27 member states in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, in what might be a prelude to some troubled months to come, internationally.

The growing proliferation of foreign challenges is a huge headache for the bloc’s leaders, because only a very limited political window of opportunity remains for them to get major pieces of domestic policy approved before the European Parliament election campaign kicks into top gear. These include finalization of the bloc’s multiyear financial framework covering the period until 2027.

During the summit, there was some after-dinner discussion of this, along with the EU economy and its competitiveness in terms of driving longer-term prosperity.

The EU single market was founded on an open, liberal model but leaders of member states are increasingly aware of a fast-changing international context in which other key nations are heavily subsidizing industry through measures such as the US Inflation Protection Act.

There was also a brief, related discussion with the presidents of the European Central Bank and the Eurogroup (the finance ministers of eurozone nations) to discuss the economic and financial landscape, and continued close coordination and governance of macroeconomic policies. This included a review of the progress of Europe’s Capital Markets Union and Banking Union, plus the work to establish a digital euro.

Yet, these critical topics were largely overshadowed by the urgency of developments in global affairs. This reflected a recent warning by Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, that the world might be living through “the most dangerous time in decades … the war in Ukraine, compounded by the unfolding situation in the Middle East, may have far-reaching impacts on energy and food markets, global trade and geopolitical relationships.”

Ukraine is now high on the agenda at every EU summit, and this was supplemented by discussions about the respective challenges in Kosovo-Serbia relations, the South Caucasus, and the Sahel. Yet it was the dramatic current situation in the Middle East that took up much of the available time at the summit.

There were a number of reasons why the discussions on the topic took so long, including diplomatic concerns about European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s unscheduled trip to Israel this month.

Nathalie Loiseau, a European lawmaker and senior member of French President Emmanuel Macron’s Renew Europe group, said: “I don’t understand what the president of the commission has to do with foreign policy, which is not her mandate.”

Perhaps the biggest criticism of von der Leyen’s trip is the perception by some that she did not place enough emphasis on the need for Tel Aviv to respect international law during its military operations in Gaza.

The huge amount of time spent on the Middle East at the summit is tinged with irony, given the relative present-day weakness of Europe in the region.

Andrew Hammond

The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, even dared to issue a public criticism of her in which he stated that foreign policy is decided by the leaders of the EU’s 27 member countries during international summits, and discussed by foreign ministers in meetings “chaired by me.”

A second reason for the lengthy discussions about the Middle East was that Ukrainian authorities and a growing number of EU leaders are concerned that the crisis in Gaza will distract or undermine the political focus of the West on Ukraine.

The country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, voiced this sentiment on Thursday and said that “we must do everything to prevent an even larger international fire from breaking out in the Middle East. The enemies of freedom are very interested in bringing the free world to the second front … the sooner security prevails in the Middle East, the sooner we will restore security here in Europe.”

A third reason for the focus on the Middle East was the growing concern about social unrest in Europe as a result of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. European Council President Charles Michel, for example, has warned of “major (domestic) security consequences” with the potential “to exacerbate tensions between (European) communities and feed extremism.”

Adding to these concerns is the possibility of a new European migration crisis if the conflict spills over into neighboring countries. This in the context, too, of multiple European governments, including Germany, still dealing with the effects of the 2015 migration crisis, during which about 1 million Syrian refugees crossed from Turkey into Greece alone, according to UN estimates.

The huge amount of time spent on the Middle East at the summit is tinged with irony, given the relative present-day weakness of Europe in the region. For much of the 20th century, European nations were key players there. The Venice Declaration of 1980, for example, moved momentum toward international recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood.

However, it has been decades since Europe had such significant political influence in the region. Now, the US is the only nation, even when we consider China, with the diplomatic and military clout to affect the brewing crisis in the region.

The relative powerlessness of Europe is underlined by the likelihood that — despite visits by several European leaders to Israel recently, including Germany’s Olaf Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron — Netanyahu will probably ignore the summit outcomes. These include the much debated European compromise language for “humanitarian pauses” to allow more aid to flow into Gaza, and “support for the holding of an international peace conference soon.”

Taking all of this together, it is clear that much has changed in Europe since Mark Eyskens, the former prime minister of Belgium, said in 1991 that the bloc was “an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military worm.”

The EU’s relative lack of influence during the current Middle East crisis underlines that it has a long way to go in its ambition to become a genuinely global geopolitical player in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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