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The European Union's foreign policy can wait

The exceptional state of the international context means that Brussels must first of all face up to the urgency dictated by the economic, health and social crisis

This can be seen from Angela Merkel's speech to the European Parliament at the inauguration of the Presidency of the European Council. The exceptional state of the international context requires Brussels to face, first and foremost, the urgency dictated by the economic, health and social crisis experienced by European countries. The foreign policy priorities mentioned also constitute primarily a transposition of the external challenges to the interior.


Starting with the European Parliament

On July 1, 2020, the Presidency of the European Council began, which Germany will conduct until December 31. The inaugural speech was given on 8 July by Chancellor Angela Merkel at a European Parliament quota-ridden, in compliance with the safety standards set out in the anti-Covid protocols. Nevertheless, the warmth of applause was not lacking in some passages of the speech delivered by the four-time Chancellor of Germany. Merkel's presence in Brussels was her first international trip since the outbreak of the health emergency and is charged with the explicit message of wanting to leave the European Parliament, in a context in which the social fabric is recognized to be under pressure and challenged, exhausted, by the difficulties faced in recent months. In an EU that is criticised for suffering from a democratic deficit and a growing "governamentalism" due to the increasingly important role of the European Council, this recognition takes on significant value. The latter, in fact, is attributed with special qualities that no other institution of the Union possesses, and is therefore asked for help in mediating between different perspectives and building a climate of solidarity. This is a speech which, on the whole, has marked the need to respond to the health crisis, followed by the economic collapse. A speech predictably focused on the internal, social and democratic difficulties that once again maintain a higher priority among European needs: it would have been difficult to do otherwise, it would have been in tune with everyday reality. However, it also seems that Merkel has placed a sense full of immobility, repeating several times the need for the EU to observe the mourning of its own losses, almost stopping for a moment, hurt and confused by what happened.

The five priorities of the Presidency

This hierarchy is also underlined by the order in which the five priorities of the German Presidency are presented: fundamental rights, cohesion, climate protection, digitisation and EU responsibility in the world to deal with today's "lightning-speed changes". As usual, foreign policy occupies the last position in this small ranking. Not many words are dedicated to this topic:

"The European Union is a living project", he says, "the EU can be changed and shaped". "It does not restrict our room for manoeuvre in a globalised world, but quite the opposite. It is only with the EU that we can maintain our freedoms."

An Angela Merkel who, in response to the last priority, is calling for innovative solutions, recognised by herself in digitisation, which takes on nuances of foreign policy when it is painted as a response to dependence on third countries in terms of services, communication and available technology, which has become apparent in recent months. Digital sovereignty, thanks to increased ownership of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and data infrastructure, is seen as the way forward. The future game will increasingly be played on big data ownership and the ability to process and connect these data at higher speeds - see 5G - and this admission seems to be a prelude to a more competitive EU in this area.

The foreign policy that is not there

Continuing the narrative of recent years, Merkel in her speech reiterates the need for the EU to rely increasingly on itself in a rapidly changing world, while recognising that many European countries - including Germany - are part of the Atlantic Alliance to which it attaches fundamental importance. This need is demonstrated by the challenges posed by Europe's many neighbours, which are listed one by one from Russia to Morocco - via Syria and Libya - including several crisis scenarios. A look that clashes with the vision of the Global Strategy of the European Union, as it does not go beyond the countries on its external borders, to admit the lack of strength to look away. In order to respond, a "strong European foreign and security policy" is needed, but it is still an impalpable result. The first message is sent to the United Kingdom, which is described as a key partner in response to this fifth priority of the Union and with which Germany will commit itself to speeding up negotiations to reach an agreement for next autumn, although it mentions the need to prepare for a possible no-deal scenario. The other three foreign policy priorities identified, on the other hand, are recognised in the access conferences for North Macedonia and Albania; in relations with Africa - the closest continent and with which the EU-AU conference to reflect on migration and asylum will take place - and in the strategic relationship with China, with which it is becoming increasingly delicate to establish a virtuous relationship because of China's responsibility for the spread of the pandemic and its relationship with Hong Kong. This is why it is strategic to recognise Beijing as a major "trading partner", but also as an actor with "different political and social visions". Because of the Coronavirus (and perhaps also because of the recent unrest?), the EU-China Summit in September will not take place, but work will continue on the relationship between the two actors.

The reality of the facts


The European countries are working well ahead of schedule on the priorities for their Presidency of the European Council, which is why it is fair to say that Germany expected to be able to launch it in a totally different context and had given itself a different hierarchy of challenges. The pandemic has forced Berlin to revise its six-monthly plans and that is why it will be characterised by an all-embracing look within, in response to the economic bloodletting and social tensions facing the countries of Europe. The greatest applause has in fact been wiped out, reiterating the importance of facing up to the Eurosceptic and populist movements that will find fertile ground in the economic difficulties of the continent and which, indirectly, are cited as the main threat to the stability of the European project. The current economic situation largely complicates the plans for a six-month period that could have been expected to have a different flavour. It brought with it many signs: the second Presidency in 13 years (January-June 2007) of an experienced Angela Merkel ready to relaunch the European engine together with Emmanuel Macron; as well as the assistance of the Presidency of the European Commission, impersonated by Ursula Von der Leyen. The two EU locomotive countries could have worked to bring the Nordic and central countries closer to the Mediterranean countries, seeking a synthesis on numerous international policy dossiers that still block the Union's movements. While a six-month acceleration could have been expected before, it now seems complex to envisage the possibility of working towards unity on the CFSP, giving priority to internal economic aspects on which, as we have seen in recent weeks, there is no lack of divisions.


By Marcello Alberizzi


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