The EU must do much more to ramp up its joint defence capabilities and co-ordinate its foreign policy, the incoming president of the European Council has warned in a sign of fear that the bloc will be squeezed by the US and China.
The union needed to be “more self-confident” and avoid becoming “collateral damage” in a tussle for international influence between Beijing and Washington, Charles Michel said in an interview with the Financial Times. The former Belgian prime minister called for the EU to “act boldly” on the global stage.
Mr Michel will be at the centre of EU policymaking from next month when he takes over from Donald Tusk as European Council president, chairing summits of national leaders. He urged a “permanent upgrade” in mutual trust among leaders, making it easier to agree more ambitious reforms to give the bloc more clout in global affairs
“It’s important for us to have our own capacities in order to have more weight,” Mr Michel said in an interview last week. “We will never be aggressive or offensive but we have to be more self-confident.”
Other EU leaders also want the union to do more to assert itself. Last week French president Emmanuel Macron warned Europe to behave as a global power or “disappear”. Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming president of the European Commission, has said she wants a more “geopolitical” approach from Brussels.
The EU’s traditional alliance with the US has been shaken by Donald Trump’s unilateralism and the UK heading for the exit. China’s broadening global ambitions are forcing EU policymakers to reconsider how to protect the bloc’s economy. The trade war between Beijing and Washington is also rippling around the international economy.
“For me it is crucial for Europe not to be collateral damage of these tensions between China and the United States,” Mr Michel said.
He told the FT that the EU’s failure to respond to the recent escalation in the Syria crisis showed why a more co-ordinated European foreign policy was needed, saying the bloc needed to learn how to better promote its interests and values.
“We were not there. Europe was not there, and I regret this situation” he said of the recent international outcry over Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria after Mr Trump decided to withdraw troops.
The union has repeatedly struggled to project itself internationally, as individual members pursue their own foreign policies and the US overshadows Europe because of the global reach of the dollar and power of its military.
Mr Michel said that the EU needed to better harness “the possibilities we have — the capacities we have to exercise a positive influence”. He said he wanted better use of European diplomacy, common defence and trade policy.
Better co-ordination on foreign policy could entail, for example, closer work with the African Union to promote stability in countries such as Libya, he said. Boosting development in Africa was, he added, “the best way to prevent illegal migration”.
Europe has also been pushing defence initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Co-operation, with projects ranging from a spy school to a new generation of missiles, and the European Defence Fund, which is set to receive €13bn in the EU’s next seven-year budget.
Washington has criticised the increased military co-operation, suggesting it would undermine Nato. However Mr Michel insisted: “It is not the goal to be a new Nato. It is the goal to have an approach inside Nato and with Nato.”
Mr Macron, a key ally of Mr Michel, warned in an interview with The Economist that the security alliance was facing “brain death”.
On trade, Mr Michel urged the EU to use agreements with other countries to promote priorities such as tackling climate change. He also backed efforts to increase the international role of the euro, noting how dependence on the US dollar had scuppered Europe’s attempts to uphold the Iran nuclear deal rejected by Mr Trump.
During his five years in the post of European Council president, Mr Tusk burnished an image as an outspoken leader ready to vent his frustrations with national governments.
Last month, he slammed leaders’ failure to agree to the opening of EU accession talks with two Western Balkan countries as a “mistake.” He also warned that there was “a special place in hell” for Brexiters like Boris Johnson.
Mr Michel portrayed himself as an “honest broker” who could work to overcome divisions between EU member states and would be attentive to national sensitivities. He said five years representing Belgium in summits had left him convinced “that it is really a necessity to upgrade the confidence between countries, between the leaders.”