Rosa Balfour and Stefan Lehne discuss how the EU’s institutional and political dynamics are shaping its role in an increasingly chaotic and contested global order.
Marked by regional struggles for hegemony and intense U.S.-China rivalry, the world order is headed toward a messy multipolarity where Europe has yet to find its place.
Rosa Balfour, director of Carnegie Europe, and Stefan Lehne, senior fellow Carnegie Europe, sit down to unpack the trends in the emerging international system and assess the EU’s role within it.
[00:00:00] Intro, [00:01:31] The Changing Global Order, [00:12:15] Power Shifts Within the EU, [00:21:23] Europe’s Future Political Challenges.
Stefan Lehne, April 24, 2023, “The Comeback of the European Commission,” Carnegie Europe.
Stefan Lehne, February 28, 2023, “After Russia’s War Against Ukraine: What Kind of World Order?,” Carnegie Europe
Rosa Balfour, February 9, 2023, “The EU Must Reconcile Geopolitics and Democracy,” Carnegie Europe.
Stefan Lehne, October 18, 2022, “The EU and the Creative and Destructive Impact of Crises,” Carnegie Europe.
Rosa Balfour, Lizza Bomassi, and Marta Martinelli, June 29, 2022 “The Southern Mirror: Reflections on Europe from the Global South,” Carnegie Europe.
Rosa Balfour, May 5, 2022, “Reckoned with: asserting Europe’s distinctive power in a multipolar world,” Académie Royal de Belgique.
Stefan Lehne, April 14, 2022, “Making EU Foreign Policy Fit for a Geopolitical World,” Carnegie Europe.
After a long decade of crises, the double shock of the Coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has jolted the European Union into finding a new raison d’être. The muddling through of the 2010s contrasts with a hyperactive union working on a triple transition to become a green, digital, and security actor. This implies systemic change.
But can the politics in Europe sustain these efforts? As the war in Ukraine continues and great power rivalry intensifies, the world is becoming increasingly dangerous. Europe's relative global influence is diminishing. Can the EU navigate such global disorder? And are the institutions that run Europe and its domestic politics fit for purpose?
Hello, and welcome to Europe Inside Out, a monthly podcast from Carnegie Europe about the continent's greatest foreign policy challenges.
My name is Rosa Balfour and I'm the Director of Carnegie Europe.
This episode of Europe Inside Out is about the European Union and its place in the changing global order.
I’m joined by Stefan Lehne, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and an expert on EU foreign policy and member states relations.
Hello Rosa, it is a great pleasure to be here.
Stefan, we have just seen a lot of global summitry taking place recently. On first and second of June, over forty European leaders gathered in Moldova for the second meeting of the European Political Community. What did you think of that?
Well, I think the European political community is a very strange animal. I think when Emmanuel Macron conceived the idea, I’m sure in the back of his mind, he had the idea that this might be served as a break on enlargement, basically. He said so much in his speech to the French ambassadors in September. But then he found out that this was a no-go and, probably, he is beginning to change his mind about enlargement himself.
So at that moment, all the ambition evaporated, basically. The European Political Community has no structures, it has no process, it has no deliverables. It is a meeting space. As such, this is quite useful. There's lots of space for bilateral and minilateral meetings on Kosovo-Serbia, for instance, or Armenia-Azerbaijan. But of course, there are many other spaces like this. Like the UN General Assembly or the recent summit meeting of the European Council.
So, I'm afraid if the European Political Community does not develop into something a little bit more substantive, people will stop showing up. I think President Erdoğan was the first one to skip this one, and I think if it goes on like this, it will probably not have a very long and active life.
And what about the G7 meeting that took place in Hiroshima a couple of weeks ago? There we actually saw quite a strong role for the European Union. The G7 declaration came out with a language that actually had been proposed by Ursula von der Leyen. I'm thinking in particular about the introduction of the new term “derisking” relations with China, which stands in contrast to what the US had been arguing until then in favor of “decoupling.” And now, G7 policy, and the US, also seems to be on course correction with respect to China and has endorsed this language of “derisking” and focusing obviously on the security of our economics.
Do you agree with this interpretation? I mean, I was actually quite surprised that the European Union could be quite so influential in this type of format.
Well, I think the G7 is a fascinating institution, basically. When it was created in 1975, after the big oil shock, it was the centerpiece of global economic governance. At that time, the G7 nations stood up for 70 percent of the GDP of the world. Today, they are basically a rallying point and in a way, a lobby of the non-geographical West. And I think they’ve become more coherent again and more useful, possibly, as a result of the deterioration of the Chinese-U.S. relationship and the war in Ukraine.
In both respects, the last meeting was quite interesting. On Ukraine, it took a very forceful, clear line, saying very clearly, there cannot be any peace without the total withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. And on China, as you indicate, there’s been a shift in the language. There is a clear explanation that the West is not out to harm China and it will not block its economic development. And it has a lot of criticism when it comes to Chinese dominance of critical supply lines. But this use of the word “derisking” instead of the word “decoupling,” which was the dominant term for the last few months in the US, clearly indicates an element of détente.
And I found it interesting that this word derisking was first used by von der Leyen, in her major speech before the trip to China. But at the same time, it runs parallel to a shift in views in the United States. Secretary Yellen already indicated that this notion of decoupling was not really realistic.
I agree with you on the G7, and it’s somewhat paradoxical that it’s functioning quite so well, especially with respect to the West response to Ukraine. It’s being also very efficient and the sort of decisions made at the G7 level then get implemented at the level of the members, at the level of the European Union. So there’s that part of the story. But the other part of the story is that the G7 actually represents a shrinking West and that the rest of the world is not necessarily following suit.
Well, actually the question is who is shrinking? Right. Because the United States, in the 1990s, had 40 percent of the GDP of the G7. Today, it has 60 percent. So, we are shrinking, and maybe Canada and Australia to some extent. But the US has developed quite strongly, and its share of the world economy used to be 25 percent. And in spite of the rise of China, it is still 25 percent.
So I think the G7 is effective because the US recently has quite shown tremendous leadership because it has become relatively much stronger than its partners in the G7. But clearly it’s still a bit awkward to have a G7 meeting because it has somehow taste of ancien régime. G7 meetings are not very much appreciated by the Global South. And that’s why, in Japan, they invited also Indonesia, India, Brazil, and Vietnam and a number of other countries from the Global South to correct this image.
But the paradoxical thing is, of course, exactly these countries are also courted by Russia and China in trying to build an alliance around the BRICS group against the dominance of the West.
So what we’re seeing… we’re seeing a sort of simultaneous trends. On the one hand, we're seeing US-China rivalry that is encouraging other countries to take sides, and Europe is caught in the middle of that.
On the other hand, we also see that other countries around the world are trying to navigate this great power rivalry in different ways. Some call it the hedging countries, some call it the middle ground. I see a continuation of some kind of messy multipolarity whereby countries are taking their chances in their regional context and deciding who to side with only if and when necessary. But otherwise there’s a lot of fence-sitting.
And what does that mean for Europe is an important question. So when it comes to the big picture principles about rules based international order, et cetera, et cetera, it’s clear where European countries are. Not just the European Union. Obviously, they’re in the sort of post-Second World War and post-Cold War order that was under the umbrella of the United States. But when it comes to following US-driven policies, I think that’s where Europeans like some shades of gray, they like some nuance, they like to have some room for maneuver.
And on some areas they’re quite willing to talk with rivals, for instance, on climate. Would you agree to this? We’ve got the bifurcation of the world order, but a survival of the messy multipolarity.
Well, the first point is about the Global South. I don’t see the Global South as any kind of coherent group.
I think what has happened over the last ten-twenty years is that the US got tired of its role as the global cop. Its world leadership is not what it used to be, and that has liberated all the rising powers in the Global South. But they are not hedging and they are not looking right and left, but they are doing their own thing.
They are engaged in regional struggles for hegemony. Sometimes they fight with each other, but they are not a group that is somehow under the control or subservient to any other big international actor. In that way, I think we are back in a very complicated age, where there is no clear structure in the world.
The second point is on Europe’s role. After the relatively good performance of the EU following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr Borrell, the High Representative, said this is the waking up of the geopolitical Europe. But you can also see it as the reemergence of the benevolent U.S. hegemony. Because clearly, different from other places, on the issue of Ukraine, Biden’s leadership was exemplary and crucial. Without the strong US leadership role, Europe would have fallen apart because our positions towards Russia over the decades were very diverse and very incoherent. And clearly, this also means, and this is a very uncomfortable notion, is that because of this enormous help in a European conflict, I think the US expects the EU to align itself with its own interests when it comes to their rivalry with China.
Yeah. And also what’s going to happen in the United States after the presidential elections next year.
Just one additional point on the Global South. So last year, we produced a big report called The Southern Mirror and how the so-called Global South views Europe. And we saw the US-China rivalry dominates their interpretation of the world, but that there is huge diversity among these countries. We looked at seven case study countries from Latin America to Africa and Asia. Huge differences of perceptions and also huge differences in what is considered important in their respective countries compared to what the US or Europe sees as important. So I think the point is that the so-called Global South is not going to follow the leads of the agenda-setters.
I think there is a lot of frustration in Europe because we feel that the Ukraine war is such a clear case in terms of the morals of it. And we are frustrated that not more countries are actually joining the sanctions against Russia. We are happy that 141 countries voted in the General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion. But only forty countries have really joined in confronting Russia. I think there are various reasons to that. One is legacy of colonialism, sort of anti-Western feelings that are widespread. The Russian narrative that the West is just as responsible as Russia for what happened finds open ears in many countries. And then there is this notion of double standards. I think it was the Indian Foreign Minister who said that if there are European problems, the Europeans think these are global problems. But if there are global problems, Europeans don’t think these are their own problems.
So, Stefan, I have to say, on these perceptions of Europe, I agree with you and I think all sorts of past mistakes are coming back to haunt us. But I wonder how these perceptions have changed over time. You worked within the EU for many years. How does it look having this sort of before and after?
Yes. In 2003, I was working with Javier Solana in the Council Secretariat. He was I think the first EU strategy. And for an EU document, it is quite well written.
I think it still is the best EU document.
Yeah, and it starts with a wonderful sentence “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure, nor so free.” And I was struck recently when Josep Borrell gave this speech to students, I think it was in October 2022, he used very similar language. He said, “Europe is a garden. It is the best combination of freedom, economic prosperity and social harmony that mankind can ever come up with.” But what the rest of these two gentlemen, both Spanish and both High Representatives, said couldn’t have been more different, because the Solana paper was full of optimists. It basically said, Europe together with the US, we will change the world in our own image. And twenty years later, Joseph Borell says, Europe is a garden with all this wonderful thing, but the world, most of the world, is a jungle. And the jungle may invade the garden. So you have a complete 180 degree switch in perspective from the optimism that we will basically dominate and change the world as we wish, to the fear that the turmoil and the chaos in the world will invade us and destroy what we have achieved. So we are in a completely different world now. And this means also that the EU, as an international actor, has to radically adjust the way it is acting.
And Borrell got attacked left, right and center for using what actually was Bob Kagan’s metaphor of the jungle and the garden.
How is the European garden doing?
The EU has gone through fourteen years of crisis. The Eurozone crisis, the migration crisis 2015-16, Brexit, the Pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and we have very severe challenges to the rule of law in a number of member states. And I believe that in dealing with these challenges, the EU has changed quite significantly.
I was asking myself whether this famous quote by Jean Monnet that Europe is forged in crisis and it will be the sum total of the solutions found in crisis is actually true. And this is frequently sort of misinterpreted as meaning that the EU always emerges strengthened from crises. So my feeling of these crises is that this is not entirely correct. I think there are some crises that really have helped Europe to develop newer structures, new instruments, and there are other crises that have hurt it quite badly. And then there are some crises where the positive and the negative aspects sort of balance each other out.
I would say that the Eurozone crisis brought significant deepening. The whole financial architecture has been changed, banking union has been started. The European Central Bank became a much stronger, more active international actor. I also believe that the pandemic has brought enormous strengthening of the EU. The reconstruction fund, the common vaccination program were huge steps forward. I would also believe that the climate crisis is a massive strengthening element. It’s no longer about deepening integration, it’s about transformation.
By contrast, I would say that the migration crisis has opened up big divisions between member states, but also within societies. It has brought a huge boost to radical right movements that are very anti-European and it hasn’t really brought credible new instruments to deal with the migration challenge. Right now we might be at the beginning of a new wave and I’m not quite sure whether we are better equipped in handling it than we were in 2015-16. I also believe that the energy crisis of last year was not a huge step forward. Most of the effective crisis management took place on the national level, but I don't think that the EU emerged stronger from this.
I agree with you, certainly on migration crisis, but also having been in Brussels during these periods, there were moments in which it really felt like the EU was a house of cards that was about to fall. And in particular, with the migration crisis, all the EU policymakers, people affiliated with the various EU institutions, really felt that if Angela Merkel would fall, then the rest of the EU would fall. And it seems to me that, today, that equation is slightly different. Because throughout the 2010s, in dealing with these multiple crises, there were also the Arab Spring, there was war in Syria, in Libya. I mean, there were very significant crises also just on Europe’s doorstep. In dealing with these crises, the crisis management was really driven by the member states through the European Council. So at the level of heads of states of government, and at the top of this was Angela Merkel.
Whereas today, and Stefan, you’ve just written about this, the Commission is actually playing a much bigger role.
It’s interesting to look at what is sort of a good crisis in terms of the development of the EU structures and what is a bad crisis. And one criteria is clearly whether it’s symmetrical or asymmetrical. The pandemic affected everyone, therefore there was a clear, urgent need to work and to deal with it together. If you look at energy, the energy mixes are vastly different from each other. Some countries are very much dependent on Russian energy, others not at all. Some have a lot of nuclear, others have a lot of renewables. And to find a common denominator and actually a coherent strategy based on this is extremely difficult. But I would agree with you that, overall, we are no longer talking about existential threats to the European Union. That was the case in the financial crisis. This was also the case after Brexit. You remember people expected the next referendum of independence to come soon after, but it didn't happen, luckily. And I think the EU was capable over the last few years to build up a record of achievement that gave the member states a little more confidence and also more readiness to trust the Commission that emerged in this crisis as the key actor to take the lead.
The European Council is still the all powerful sort of central organ of the European Union, but it has a big leadership problem. The President is not strong enough to put heads together and to come to solutions. Angela Merkel is gone. The Commission also has 27 members, but it doesn't have a leadership problem because it’s almost a dictatorship today. I think the last Commission presidents have concentrated power at the very top. They have done this very, very efficiently and therefore the Commission is capable in an emergency to mobilize resources, to come up with solutions and to take the lead. This is contested. The Commission consults primarily with a few big member states. Many of the small ones are frustrated because they're sort of outside the room where it happens. But altogether, in these emergency situations, member states were prepared to follow the lead of the Commission.
Now, I agree with you on Brexit. I think there was a process of a kind of discovery of what was obvious, and that is that actually, member states are willing to pull their claws out when it comes to protecting the single market. And I think that awareness perhaps wasn't quite so strong before, so it gave the EU as a whole a new sense of confidence. But the other thing also is that we always talk about the Franco-German relationship as the engine of the European Union. With enlargement, this has no longer been the case, but all the more with Britain's departure, the sort of constellations that need to come together to lead Europe have changed, and I think they haven't found a new balance. So, even France, and even Macron the other day said this, that the Franco-German relationship is not enough alone to move the train of European integration forward. And we’re seeing all sorts of other groupings of members coming together. Most recently, for instance, a rather surprising team game played by the Netherlands and Spain. They've worked together on issues such as open strategic autonomy. They’re putting forward proposals together. So we’re seeing a rather messy configuration of leadership.
But I do think I agree with you very much on the Commission. It’s very much centralized around the president of the Commission, probably at the expense of some of the commissioners, who might, incidentally, also come from the smaller countries. But personalities also play a role here.
So there is a risk, isn’t there, of a backlash against the Commission? Perhaps in the future, in the next legislature? Is that possible?
Absolutely. I think this is the big, big challenge for the EU in general. I think we had fourteen years of crisis. We might have another fourteen years of crisis. I think there’s no reason to believe that this pressure of new challenges will go away. The climate crisis is getting worse by the months. Russia will remain an enemy and a threat for the foreseeable future. There will be more turmoil in the South. We’ve mentioned the China-US rivalry, which can easily turn into a full confrontation. So the EU has to use the kind of positive record to gain the confidence of the member states, to continue to develop, to be the principal framework in dealing with this challenge. But that would be now my question to you. Are we coherent enough to do that? I believe that the Commission has emerged as a powerful leader, but there is a lot of contestation of this lead among the member states who are divided on some issues, but also from society. Because I think the main challenge, the central challenge, is really the political situation in Europe.
The EU always has to balance this on the one hand, this sort of technocratic politics on the other hand, the politics in every EU member state. And even though we’ve seen a little bit of a dip in populism, the problem and the causes of populism have never gone away. And now we're seeing that this populism that characterized the 2010s is now morphing into something which potentially could shape the face of Europe. And this is the rise of the far right.
Second point is that we have a series of national elections coming up. Spain is going to go to elections in July and it’s very likely that the opposition will win. And it’s also very likely that it will form a government with Vox, a far-right party which is very recently formed but is likely to be influential. We then have another string of elections coming up, Slovakia, for instance. A small country, but it is very likely that formerly populist leader now turns to right wing radicalism. Robert Fico will win the elections and will govern, in which case we might have another country which will behave among the EU-27 in the European Council, a bit like Hungary has been behaving recently. We will also have elections in Poland which are set to be deeply polarizing. It’s still unclear whether the populist right Law and Justice Party will stay in power or whether the opposition will manage to win.
And this means basically the EU is always at the mercy of very brittle politics. And that things happening in one country, can actually alter the balance at the European Council and bring in a wedge in the decision making, cause European diplomats to spend an extraordinary amount of time and energy in crafting solutions that will accommodate the vetoes of countries such as Hungary. Just look at the politics behind the ten packages of sanctions that the EU has managed to agree upon to support Ukraine and to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.
Remember, maybe in the year 2000, for the first time, a radically right party got into the Austrian government. And at that time the European Council decided on sanctions against Austria, which were then done in a very clumsy way and they were lifted after a few months. But it was a breach of a taboo. At the moment you have five-six countries where radical right parties are either in the government or are supporting the government in action. And there might be more. You mentioned Spain. You mentioned Slovakia. Austria too, might see a return of the radical right party into government. And that is for me the problem. How many Orbáns can the EU stand? It can deal with one, particularly now he's more isolated because of his stand on Russia, but can it deal with more anti-European political figures that have quite a lot of domestic support? I strongly believe in this ongoing era of crisis, we need more Europe, we need more coherent, strong action on the European level. And all this participation of nationalist rightist parties will make this a lot more difficult, because what they mean is basically renationalization. They're all obsessed with sovereignty, they're all obsessed with taking back control, basically taking back competencies from the European level. This is probably, for the next five, six years, one of the biggest problems that we are going to face. We have the objective need for more togetherness, more unity, more determination to move forward. And at the same time, we are sort of falling apart when it comes to the political consensus underlying the European project.
Yeah, I think we’re seeing in the 2010s, populism was Eurosceptic. Now, that type of Euroscepticism has actually changed because most of the Eurosceptic parties saw what happened to Britain after Britain left, and no one is actually embracing leaving the European Union. But, and there is already the blueprint for this and this is Viktor Orbán’s blueprint, staying inside the European Union, getting the benefits of the European Union, but trying to shield itself from the interference of the European Union when it comes to rule of law and democracy matters.
So the vision for the future of the European Union is one where you have a single market, you do have structural funds, because, of course, countries like Hungary are net recipients, but politically, it's a lot looser. And it certainly is a European Union that does not do foreign policy, that's for sure. That is a member state prerogative, which is as it is in the treaties today, but a stronger national foreign policy. So, I think it’ll be interesting, and it is interesting, actually, to see what Italy is doing at the moment, because here you do have a far-right government, which is an alliance of populist rights and a far-right ideologically far-right party, that needs the European Union and that so far has been quite cautious on its European policy because it needs the EU from the point of view of the country’s economics. What could happen if you have Orbán in Hungary, Fico in Slovakia, Meloni in Italy, and then, of course...
Possibly Le Pen in France…
le Pen in France, and a right-wing government also in Spain. What kind of bargain, what kind of European Union will the collection of these parties and governments want to see? And what are they going to weaken? And what are they going to keep insofar as European policies are concerned?
I think also the European Parliament elections in 2024 could be interesting because if you look at the polling, the tendency of a decline of the mainstream parties, EPP and Social Democrats, is continuing. And you see a rise of the challenges from the right, more moderate group, the ECR and the ID both gaining ground, not dramatically, but significantly.
And I think you might also see, particularly in the European People's Party, a tendency to build an alliance with a more moderate part of the Eurosceptics because they, otherwise, fear that they might not be able to drive their agenda forward. So you see in a way, on the European level, a similar development that you have in many member states, where the mainstream parties of the center right are basically following the lead of the populist challengers because they are afraid of losing ground further. So I think this is going to be the fundamental sort of tension.
So to manage these tensions will be a huge challenge going forward.
So we’re basically going to have a big disjuncture between the need for technocracy to deal with the systemic transitions the EU is engaging in. So one is on the green economy, another one is on the digital economy, and the third one, of course, is on security, pushed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. So you need technocratic government because these are long-term projects that need to survive electoral cycles. On the other hand, you have the politics of Europe, which at the moment seem to be shifting quite decisively, certainly away from the center, and quite decisively towards the right, also enabled by mainstream center right parties. And that is a role that they've actually always been enablers of right-wing populism. But the disjuncture is that this is an electorate which tends to be Eurosceptic and quite nationalist.
The big question is the degree to which these far-right governments and political parties will actually manage to agree on a joint plan and a joint vision for Europe, or whether, as they have in the past, they do not agree, because fundamentally, nationalism is incompatible with European integration.
Stefan, I enjoyed, as always, talking with you for this month's episode of Europe Inside Out. Thank you very much for taking the time.
Thank you, Rosa. Thanks for having me.
For those who are interested in learning more about the European Union and its place in the world, I encourage you to follow Stefan's work on Twitter @stefanlehne. That is @S-T-E-F-A-N-L-E-H-N-E. You can find me @osabalfour. That is @R-O-S-A-B-A-L-F-O-U-R.
Thank you for listening to Europe Inside Out, a podcast by Carnegie Europe. This was our last episode for season one. We will come back with new episodes in September. Until then, we wish you a nice and relaxing summer break.
Let us know what you think of the show by reaching out to us on Twitter at Carnegie_Europe or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like the show, leave us a rating and subscribe wherever you get your podcast.
Our producers are Francesco Siccardi and Indre Krivaite. Our editors are Maria Dios and Alexander Damiano Ricci of Bulle Media. Sound engineering and original music by Jeremy Bocquet.