Can Europe develop soft power with global geopolitical clout?

EU intends to be one of the world’s primary geopolitical centres of gravity through the use of its powerhouse economy, cultural leadership and technical expertise

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Tue 14 Dec 2021, 10:06 PM

It is increasingly clear that force of arms is no longer a viable option for nations to settle disputes – if in fact it ever was effective in modern times. Consider the tragic and counterproductive consequences of United States military interventions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. With sustainability the watchword today, such sacrifice of life and treasure appears to be utter folly.

Global competition continues, however, and is still a hard-nosed endeavour, but the “grand game” is largely played out today in the realm of so-called soft power, which employs economic, intellectual and cultural assets as leverage to influence events and even entire countries.

The European Union is signalling that it intends to be one of the world’s primary geopolitical centres of gravity through the use of its powerhouse economy, cultural leadership and technical expertise. Last week it unveiled a programme called Global Gateway, a 340-billion euro programme clearly developed as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and more fully conceptualised than the nascent Build Back Better plan from the United States. Global Gateway intends to offer capital and expertise for infrastructure and other projects in underdeveloped foreign countries.

The European Commission is also proposing new measures that would punish those seeking to influence its politics and policies through economic pressure such as trade restrictions, cutting off natural resources or employing boycotts of European products. The bloc’s executive branch has put forward an “anti-coercion instrument” to battle what it views as unfair trade pressure, arguing that new tools are necessary because of the “weaponisation of trade for geopolitical purposes”.

Long seen as too fragmented and timid in action to provide transformative global leadership, has Europe now entered a new era?

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen thinks so. Taking office two years ago with the pledge to lead “a geopolitical commission”, she says countries around the world have not had sufficient options in finding investment for big infrastructure projects.

“When it comes to investment choices, they are currently relatively limited. And the few options that exist too often come with a lot of small print, which includes big consequences, be it financially, politically, but also often socially,” she said in announcing the Global Gateway programme last week.

Rather than try to lend and build to unduly control other nations or provide large projects for only EU firms, von der Leyen said Europe wants to “show that a democratic, value-driven approach can deliver on the most pressing challenges”. She highlighted the EU’s priorities of a green economy and digital technology.

With existing and some new outreach funds marshalled and repackaged under the umbrella of Global Gateway, the European Commission, the 27 EU member states and the European Investment Bank would provide about 300 billion euros in public and private funds by 2027, some 60 billion a year. Possible soft power projects the EU could support include green hydrogen, underwater data cables to help close the global digital divide and spending in schools.

It is another component of EU push for “strategic autonomy”, the notion that it is not constrained by other powers. In building infrastructure it says it will filter out “abnormally low tenders” from international contractors that use “foreign subsidies that undermine the level playing field”.

Reinhard Bütikofer, a member of the EU parliament from Germany, has long argued that the bloc needs be more aggressive in wielding true global influence.

“Many partners around the world are ready to work with us to realise the Global Gateway strategy in Asia, Africa and the Americas,” he said. “Now it’s a matter of effectively setting up management of the strategy.”

Before the pandemic hit, lower-income countries were already facing a $2.7 trillion infrastructure investment gap, according to estimates from the World Bank.

Jutta Urpilainen, the EU commissioner for international partnerships, said the bloc wants to help meet that shortfall “to create strong and sustainable links, not dependencies, between Europe and the world and build a new future for young people”.

Feeling abandoned itself by the US under the previous presidential administration, the EU seems determined to not only strike out on its own but actually lead. On digital governance and climate change, it has already blazed trails well ahead of the US.

While it seeks to engage and influence developing nations, the EU also wants to protect itself from coercion in trade or energy supplies. Tariffs on steel and aluminum imposed by the previous US administration “was one of the biggest shocks of the last years that influenced European thinking”, said Jonathan Hackenbroich of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who leads a team titled The Task Force for Strengthening Europe against Economic Coercion.

The group now has another issue to consider after Belarus threatened to cut gas supplies to the EU last month if the bloc imposed sanctions over a migrant crisis on the border with Poland.

Whether such a measure would lessen or heighten trade and political tension is unclear. It would have to be approved by a majority of EU member nations and by the European Parliament to become law, but France, which will take over the EU presidency in January, said in a statement through its trade ministry that the proposed anti-coercion measures fill “a critical gap” and would be a step toward a “less naïve trade policy”.

Sometimes hamstrung by its history and multitude of cultures and agendas, the EU seems determined to sweep away some of the bureaucracy and verbal bluster to take the leading place it deserves as the world’s wealthiest economic zone and trader in goods.

It says it can deal a fair hand and give a boost to countries in need, but as parliamentarian Bütikofer says it will need to “walk the talk” and demonstrate those ideals.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Milan

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