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It’s not enough to talk about the European Union’s standing and influence in today’s rapidly changing world: the EU needs to thrash out a new foreign policy adapted and responsive to 21st century challenges.

This is urgent.  True, EU leaders, foreign ministers and senior official often engage in bouts of hand-wringing over Europe’s “loss of influence” and declining presence on the global stage.  This is often followed by a resounding thumping of chests as everyone agrees that Europe is – after all – still an important and relevant international player.  It’s not that simple, however.

Europe certainly has much to offer. The EU single market attracts goods, investments and people from across the globe.  European technology helps the world tackle climate change, urbanisation and other 21st-century challenges, European design excites fashionistas the world over and tourists flock to European cities to enjoy good food, wine and visit exquisite monuments.

Europe’s ‘soft power’ resonates when it comes to peace-making and reconciliation, trade, aid and the promotion of democracy and the rule of law.  With Croatia now in and others lining up to join, the EU retains its zone of influence in the neighbourhood.  And as the Eurozone crisis gives way to recovery, however fragile, global concerns about Europe’s economic performance are easing.

And yet.  There is no doubt that the EU’s star does not shine as brightly as it should in many skies.  EU-watchers who once – too optimistically – believed that the Lisbon Treaty and the creation of the European External Action Service would lead to a more forceful EU foreign policy are disappointed.

Their disappointment is even stronger when it comes to European security and defence policy.  Many believe that because it has no army, navy or air force at its command, the EU will always be a second class international actor, handing out cheques but not pro-actively influencing global events and decisions.

No appetite for military action

Europe’s partners know that while governments in France and Britain may still have an appetite for military interventions in response to international crisis, their citizens – and Europeans more generally – certainly don’t. Significantly, Germany, Europe’s most powerful economy and an industrial machine that’s the envy of the planet, has made clear that it is not overly interested in taking on global responsibilities of the military kind.

Germany is viewed by many as a reluctant giant which, as one newspaper recently put it, seems content to lurk in the shadows. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is fond of saying that Europe must become more competitive as China and other powers rise. “The world doesn’t sleep,” she said recently. However, she hasn’t coupled that with any grand visions for a continental revival.

Within Europe, the doomsayers — of which there are many — insist that the Eurozone crisis and the impact of economic stagnation on European societies have accelerated the loss of EU influence in the international arena.

China, India, Russia, Brazil and others are often seen in the EU as fierce rivals who want a ‘full-scale reversal’ of their relationship with the West by demanding better representation in multilateral fora and a stronger voice in global governance. Others argue that Europe should be more assertive and more self-confident when dealing with the cheeky new kids on the bloc.

It was partly to respond to such concerns that the EEAS was set up three years ago to act as an EU foreign ministry — and certainly the EU flag is now more often seen flying across the world. But in today’s competitive world of rising powers, new alliances and increased geo-strategic competition, the EEAS is still seen as under-performing.

Much of the criticism is levelled at Catherine Ashton, the head of the EEAS and the EU’s de facto foreign minister. It has to be said, however, that Ashton’s role is a difficult one and constrained by the limited space she is allowed by some of the EU’s bigger member states, including Britain and France.

Pressure for a more effective foreign policy

The good news is that some EU countries want to go further. The foreign ministers of Italy, Poland, Spain and Sweden argued recently that Europe needs a strategic framework to help it navigate a more complex world. The famous question posed by Henry Kissinger, the former US national security adviser and secretary of state, about the dialling code for Europe has, by now, by and large been answered, the ministers said.

“The critical question is no longer how to reach us, but instead what Europe should say when the phone rings,” they complained, adding: “we now have the hardware of institutions in place, we need to focus on the software of policies that makes the entire thing operate in a clear and credible way.”

The ministers are right: Europe needs a new strategic framework to help it navigate a more complex world than the one that existed in 2003, when Javier Solana, the former EU “high representative” for foreign and security policy, drew up the first-ever EU strategy for living in a globalised world.

Such a new blueprint for “global Europe” need not be long and complicated.  It needs to start by recognising that the world has changed dramatically in the last decade – and include recommendations for a few pivotal changes in policies and attitudes.

While the 2003 document centred on traditional security threats, the focus should now shift to  non-traditional challenges – climate change, energy and food security, maritime piracy, cyber security – which must be tackled urgently.

The EU has strong expertise and experience in all these areas.  But concerted international action on these and other issues requires that countries and organisations build new networks and alliances.  It means working with like-minded nations but above all also cooperating with non-like minded countries.  It means talking with others, not haranguing or talking down to them.  And this means a change of EU diplomatic tone and style.

Respect for emerging powers

Global competition for influence has increased as China, Russia, India and Brazil become more assertive and more vocal on the global stage.  The EU may have “strategic partnerships” with these countries, but the agreements need to be reinforced and strengthened – and the EU has to learn to treat these nations with respect and use their insight to readjust its worldview.

Working only with the big guys of the emerging world is not enough.  The new world order is being fashioned not just by China and Brazil but also by countries like Indonesia and Mexico, Kenya, Australia and organisations such as ASEAN.  The EU  needs urgently to upgrade its ties with these nations and bring them on board as  partners.

The compelling need for better global governance in today’s still-chaotic multipolar world demands such cooperation.

Relations with Turkey are an albatross around the EU’s neck.  They need to be repaired urgently in order to allow for real consultation on regional and global flash-points.  Europe’s relations with Turkey are under close scrutiny the world over, with people questioning just why the EU remains so reluctant to open its doors to such an important regional and international actor.  The answers are not edifying.

The EU’s international and moral standing are conditional on its ability to build an inclusive society which celebrates diversity instead of fearing it.  Europe cannot condemn discrimination against minorities in Pakistan and Myanmar if its own track record in dealing with such issues is not above reproach.

Democracy and human rights

Europe’s values – democracy, the rule of law, human rights (to name a few) – are important and should be promoted more actively across the globe.  But those doing the promotion should do so with sensitivity and humility.  The message is too important to be drowned out by arrogance.

While often irked by EU hectoring and lecturing on human rights, many countries are anxious to learn more from Europe about regional integration, reconciliation and reform.  Europe’s “soft power” lies in its ability to teach an anxious world about conflict management and peace-building.

The point has been made most sharply by Asian leaders like former Indonesian foreign minister Hasan Wirajuda who have warned that the gains of the “Asian Century” are at risk because of unresolved historical conflicts and abiding mistrust in the region.

Ironicially while the new world order demands the establishment of networks and coalitions, the EU will become a more significant power if it builds on its uniqueness as a foreign policy actor.  As such, while the transatlantic relationship is vital and important, hanging on to US coat-tails, especially when it comes to Asia, is not a good option.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership certainly has its value in terms of jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic but it would be unfortunate if it is seen as the West “ganging up” against the rest.  For the moment, that is how China and other Asians see it.  The EU should act urgently to correct that impression – and invest more in the outcome of the Bali ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation in December.

Civil society actors

Foreign policy today is not just the exclusive preserve of diplomats. Civil society actors, social media, sports personalities, artists, academics and think tanks are now an essential part of the game.  The EU’s new global outreach must include such thought-leaders.  As the Arab Spring has shown, dealing only with governments is no longer an option.

As Javier Solana, the EU’s former ‘high representative’ for foreign and security policy said recently, in today’s world of flux, the nature of power is changing. Power was once measured in the size of armies and population, not in terms of GDP per capita, reputation and whether you get to host the Olympic Games.  It is also about ideas, innovation, art and culture.

It is worth remembering that while military force and interventions can provoke regime change, in the end, all parties — the victorious and the defeated — have to come to the negotiating table and find political solutions. And this is something the EU and Europeans are very good at.

It is often argued that further EU integration will lead to a united, coherent, and effective European foreign policy. This is true of course.  But the integration process remains slow and painful.  The need for a smarter and more forceful EU foreign policy is urgent.

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