Opinion & Analysis

A new EU leadership and international cooperation for the 21st century

How is Europe’s international cooperation evolving, and why should the new EU leadership pay attention to it? With the approaching EU elections in June, we will explore these questions from various perspectives. In the first commentary of our series ‘To the new leaders of Europe’, Mariella Di Ciommo and Chloe Teevan argue that Europe should invest in a more strategic relationship with countries in the Global South if it wants to realise its domestic priorities.

In June, European citizens will elect a new EU parliament and, in late autumn, or early 2025, the next European Commission and EU foreign policy chief will take office. These future European leaders must carry an unambiguous message: ‘We understand why European citizens are worried about the economy, migration and security – but in a more fragmented and competitive world, engaging in a smart way with partners across the world will be a help, not a hindrance, to their safety and prosperity.’

As Europe’s political influence and economic weight are in decline, it is in the EU’s interest to recognise that realising its agendas relies on stronger relationships and deeper ties with countries across the Global South. Europe must adapt to a world in which relationships have become more transactional and in which countries in the Global South have more agency. It must therefore articulate an offer to partners that seeks to match its own interests with those of its partners. Failing to do so will risk further marginalising Europe to the detriment of its own stability, security and prosperity.

This includes an inclusive industrial policy that engages developing and emerging economies, a balanced migration strategy and a security strategy that continues to support long-standing partners.

The balance in European politics is shifting

Current polls indicate a likely shift to the right in the European Parliament and potentially more reliance on populists and radical right-wing parties to sustain parliamentary majorities. Austria, Belgium, Lithuania and Slovakia will also hold elections this year. While political dynamics vary by country, the electoral results in Finland and Portugal hint to the possibility of a shift to the right in at least some European countries too. This means that European capitals may choose more nationalistic and eurosceptic representatives for posts in Brussels.

As a result, the tone of the next European Commission may differ sharply from the centrist ‘geopolitical Commission’ inaugurated in 2019, even if current European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, the expected frontrunner for the next five years, remains in office. The risk is that policymakers resort to a rather short-term, narrow and Eurocentric international agenda that marginalises the priorities and views of partners across the globe.

Even mainstream political groups are adopting strategies that risk alienating some partners. This will diminish Europe’s credibility and attractiveness to international partners and, consequently, will not make European citizens safer or more prosperous.

The EU’s understandable focus on enhancing competitiveness vis-à-vis China and the US, and related measures to create a level playing field for European business such as the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, could come across as protectionist towards other countries. This could lead to a backlash rather than favour the formation of a pool of reliable partners in the Global South.

The renewed focus on Ukraine and the Middle East in foreign and security policy means that there are limited ideas, and more limited resources, with regard to how to engage partners in other regions. Furthermore, the policy lines that aim to further condition cooperation with African countries around migration management are likely to damage relations with those countries and/or embolden autocratic forces.

Why Europe should match its priorities with those of others

During elections, it is normal that parties’ priorities revolve around what voters in their countries care about most. A recent ECFR poll shows that while voters are concerned about migration, many care more about the economy, security and climate change. However, concerns of voters in these domains can only be better met – or met at all – by acknowledging Europe’s interconnectedness with the rest of the world.

As Europe becomes more upfront about its interests, it must be ready to work with partners to meet their interests too. For example, economic transformation via green industrialisation in Europe requires critical raw materials that must be sourced from countries across the world, including Chile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines. But these countries – rightly so – want to climb up in the value chain, and move away from being a source of raw materials to developing local capacities to process or transform those materials in collaboration with partners like Europe.

Meanwhile, any credible migration policy needs to acknowledge that only sustained and demand-driven investments in Africa’s prosperity, coupled with legal labour migration systems, can curtail irregular migration. Furthermore, in the context of an ageing Europe, European industry has repeatedly emphasised the need for foreign professionals to fill essential labour market gaps and sustain the competitiveness of our industries, including health and technology.

Finally, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised the importance of European investments in its own security and defence, especially as the potential reelection of Donald Trump means that past reassurances are crumbling. Yet, European security depends on security and stability in Africa too. Investing in a renewed security partnership with Africa would benefit both continents.

Europe must invest in a constructive offer to partners

The current European Commission has begun to position Europe to take advantage of a more competitive international environment. Europe has shifted progressively towards a more wholehearted promotion of its interests through its international cooperation, along with efforts to increase European strategic autonomy and sharpen its role as a norm-setter in strategic areas such as climate change or artificial intelligence.

This approach stresses partnerships based on mutual interests with developing and emerging economies and marks a change compared to the past, where international solidarity and the Sustainable Development Goals were the predominant framing for international cooperation.

The EU’s Global Gateway strategy is probably the most visible incarnation of this approach. This connectivity strategy aims to present a comprehensive offer to countries that combines investments in infrastructure from European public and private actors with elements of more traditional international cooperation. Originally framed as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, this package now emphasises Europe’s added value, framed in terms of social and environmental sustainability.

Besides its focus on infrastructure, the Global Gateway strategy invests in health, education and research as vital areas for shared prosperity and sustainability. While the strategy has multiple shortcomings, it is a concrete attempt to reorient European international cooperation towards third countries’ needs, as well as European geopolitical and geoeconomic priorities.

Going forward, it is likely that European external action will grow even more focused on promoting European geoeconomic and geostrategic interests. To be successful in its own economic and political goals, Europe must base its offer to partners on a deeper political dialogue and ensure that its offer focuses on building sustainable partnerships with partners across the Global South. In the case of the Global Gateway strategy, this means making sure that it – or any future initiative of its kind – delivers sustainable hard and soft infrastructure that, at the same time, benefits Europe and contributes to local economic development and social outcomes for its partners.

About the Authors

Mariella Di Ciommo is the associate director of ECDPM’s Europe and Africa in the world cluster. She is also a member of the management team. Mariella’s work focuses on EU foreign and development policy, Africa-Europe relations, finance and gender.

Chloe Teevan is the head of ECDPM’s digital economy and governance team.

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