Source: Hertie School

The conceptual and more concrete dimensions of the Commission’s geopolitical ambition point towards three key challenges.

First, geopolitical ambition is costly. However, the Commission’s ability to shift financial resources towards its priorities is limited. The negotiations on the EU’s next multi-annual financial framework (MFF) are, as always, controversial and depend on a unanimous vote by the European Council. The Commission proposed raising the shares allocated to newer priorities such as research and innovation, climate, and defence. Yet the proposed amounts may not be sufficient. The Commission, for instance, proposed spending €100bn on research and innovation under the next MFF (2021-27). This is certainly more ambitious than in the past, but it is unlikely to produce technological sovereignty. The proposed envelope is far below the respective budgets of the US, China and even that of single multinationals such as Amazon. Moreover, it is not set in stone. Past MFF negotiations indicate that newer priorities tend to face substantial cuts to preserve the EU’s traditional internal spending priorities, namely cohesion and agriculture.

Second, geopolitical ambition requires power. As mentioned above, the Commission’s ability to act on behalf of the EU is limited and variable. In most cases, it depends on the member states and the more fragmented European Parliament. This also applies to trade, an area of exclusive EU competence and a core element of the Commission’s geopolitical role. It can conclude negotiations on behalf of the EU, but it depends on the member states and European Parliament for approval and, at times, also national or regional parliaments for ratification. Past negotiations with the US and Canada indicate that there will likely be more domestic backlash in this field.

Finally, geopolitical ambition requires intense coordination. This traditional EU challenge is compounded by the cross-cutting nature of von der Leyen’s priorities as well as the growing need to link internal and external policies. The Commission’s new Directorate General (DG) for Defence Industry and Space will be an interesting test case in this regard. The DG will have to coordinate with other DGs such as Internal Market and Transport. Its competences also overlap with those of more intergovernmental players, notably the European Defence Agency and the European External Action Service. The HR/VP is responsible for ensuring overall consistency regarding European defence matters. However, there is no direct link between him and the DG or responsible Commissioner. This set-up could lead to dysfunctional silos and turf wars. The result would be a divide between the defence industrial aspects managed by the Commission and the political ones steered by the Council.

The EU’s key weakness in the geopolitical game is that it is a fragmented global actor. The ambition of the Commission might well run up against a more fragmented European Parliament and a divided Council. To deliver on its promise of being more geopolitical, the Commission needs strategy and allies. It should propose a vison of strategic sovereignty in policy areas where it does have substantial powers. At the same time, it will have to forge alliances in Brussels, Strasbourg and the capitals. If the Commission fails to play its part as a powerful driver behind common geopolitical stances, there is a real risk that other players use the EU’s fragmentation to further marginalise its role in the world and in its neighbourhood.


Add new comment