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Archival image of the President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen and the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, European Commission

Navigating chaos, new tools and missed opportunities: Year 1 of the ‘Geopolitical Commission’

A year in to the 'Geopolitical Commission', how, if ever, did the EU turn crises into opportunities?

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January 26, 2021

By : Viola Scordia & Antoine Michon


January 2021 is considered globally as the first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic which has reshaped the daily life of countless people, notably in Europe. But for European citizens, it is also the time to take a look back on the first year of the ‘Geopolitical Commission’, one of the programmatic cornerstones announced by Ursula von der Leyen upon taking up the presidency of the European Commission (EC). This appellation supposedly translated into two main objectives: reinforcing the relevance of the Union as an international actor, and reshaping the global order through strengthened multilateralism. Now a year in, where do we stand? Needless to say, the Commission and the now-27 EU Member States have been facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions. Furthermore, from the assassination of Qassem Soleimani on January 3rd to the management of mask delivery in March and budget and Brexit discussions that took up the last days and nights of December, the first year in office for Ursula von der Leyen and her High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission (HRVP), Josep Borell, has been indeed far from idle. Then again, as the popular saying (most likely mis-)attributed to either Sun Tzu or to Albert Einstein, goes: ‘in the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity’. Did Von der Leyen’s EU seize it?


Of crisis and missed opportunities

Internally, the Union has undisputedly made a giant step with the adoption of a collosal recovery plan and the issuance of mutualized debt on financial markets, thus turning the broader crisis into an opportunity for integration. In terms of external action, 2020 has been marked by a row of missed opportunities for the EU, which weakened the promise made a year ago by President Von der Leyen and her HRVP.


Becoming a more relevant actor on the international stage and shaping a “better global order” has to start in the Union’s neighborhood, yet the past year has been marked by repeated deficiencies to effectively and coherently do so. First and foremost, the repeated offensives orchestrated by President Erdogan, affecting some of the most evident blind-spots of the Union’s foreign policy strategy (migration, Cyprus, Libya…), were addressed outside of a relevant and up-to-date framework for EU-Turkey relations, further straining the already-stagnating cooperation efforts. Onwards, we observed a failure to successfully bypass US secondary sanctions on Iran, a failure to do virtually anything in Libya and in Yemen, and a failure to come up with a proactive, principles-based and efficient policy towards the creeping annexation of the occupied Palestinian territories by Israel. The common thread of these deficiencies is the presence of major political disagreements between Member States. Thus, when European sovereignty was threatened, it was individual Member States (lest one, specifically) who had to take it upon themselves to intervene, in the absence of a relevant EU framework. Last year, we already pointed out that Ursula Von der Leyen was the great absentee from the European public response to emerging crises at the time (Iran, Libya, ‘Deal of the Century’). It seems as if in the past twelve months, little has changed. In the absence of strong EC responses, a messy competition over leadership in times of crisis arose between HRVP Borell, EU Council President Charles Michel, French President Emmanuel Macron and – to a surprising lesser extent despite the German presidency of the Council of the EU during the second semester of 2020 – Chancellor Angela Merkel. In this context, the commendable efforts undertaken by the HRVP to enhance communication around his endeavors (a daily updated blog, the regular use of op-eds in EU and foreign newspapers, a closer connection to think tanks, etc.) struggled to find resonance among citizens, and failed to consolidate the HRVP’s role as face of Europe’s foreign policy. The complete lack of transparency regarding the content of the “EXCO” meetings (a new format of weekly discussions gathering the ‘outward looking’ Commissioners) presided by Josep Borell has not contributed to creating trust and awareness among EU citizens when it comes to external action.



An array of ambitious instruments, but for which policy?

The most revealing, although not surprising, setback to Ursula Von der Leyen’s ambitions was the umpteenth refusal by EU Member States to extend Qualified Majority Voting [1] to foreign policy, thus preventing any effective empowerment of the HRVP and the Commission’s president on the matter. However, in the new dialectic of European power and sovereignty (also known as “strategic autonomy”) which has been promoted over the past months following the COVID-19 pandemic, several crucial tools have been agreed upon. . This was most remarkable in the realm of geoeconomics (new merger and competition rules for the establishment of EU champions, tougher foreign investment screenings among others), as well as a (contested) reform of Union’s asylum system and migration cooperation strategy and the establishment of the EU’s very own border police with FRONTEX’ standing corps. The successful implementation of a newly rationalized European instrument for international assistance, the NDICI (Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument) still depends on the tailoring of specific and coherent priorities for each country. Just like the ambitious and much needed human rights sanctions regime adopted at the end of 2020 (which gives the possibility to freeze assets of and ban entry to the EU to human rights abusers), much will now depend on the political will and on the capital that European decision makers decide to invest in these tools – and thus the extent to which the defense of European principles is considered a priority. One major obstacle preceding the strategy dilemma is the budgetary issue. In fact, in addition to the worrying delays that have characterized the adoption of both the Union’s Multiannual Financial Framework for 2021-2027 and the Recovery fund, it is worth pointing out that despite the unprecedented amount awarded to the EU, the Union’s external action remains one of the policy areas having benefitted the least from the increased budgetary attributions.


Beyond practical terms, “building a common strategic culture”, to use the HRVP’s words, requires sacrifice and complete political alignment. The signals sent by French President Emmanuel Macron, who awarded Egyptian autocrat Abdel Fattah el-Sissi with the highest French civil award only a few days after the adoption of this sanction regime, followed by renewed arms delivery by Italy to this very same government which is accused of torturing and killing an Italian researcher in 2016, are thus terrible. As long as Member States keep putting national economic interests before European values and unity, any decisive and concrete steps forward on the path to building a “relevant actor on the international stage” will remain wishful thinking. Without unity and readiness to sacrifice national sovereignty, the ‘Strategic Compass’ for Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), due to be released in February 2021 and aiming at defining what kind of security and defence actor the EU wants to be, as well as the new priorities for the Union’s Southern Neighborhood , will be void of substantial meaning, and more importantly, of credibility.


What is perhaps most significant is that all of the above happened in a period marked by US disengagement. With the recent change in administration, Benjamin Haddad may have had the best prediction for the year so far: “the temptation will be great for some to abandon the efforts undertaken in recent years in the fields of defense or trade, only to rely again on a more predictable American ally”. It seems like just as last year, the most challenging opponent the EU will have to confront in 2021 is none other but itself.




[1] Qualified Majority Voting is the most-used voting procedure inside the EU Council, and it allows for any decision to be made as long as 55% percent of EU Member States (15) representing at least 65% of the overall EU population support said decision.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the authors, and not to their employer, organization, committee or other group or individual.
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