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Securing Post-Brexit Europe

MADRID – It is said that good things come to those who wait. If so, then the European Union’s new Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, more than a decade overdue, must be a very good thing. Actually, it is exactly what Europe needs. But the timing of its release – in the immediate aftermath of the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU – could relegate it to irrelevance. How the EU moves forward with the strategy will be a bellwether for the future of the European project.

The strategy, developed by Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, does precisely what it should: it provides a coherent guiding vision and a flexible framework for adopting concrete policies. It strikes the ideal balance between realism and ambition, recognizing the EU’s limitations and pinpointing the improvements that are needed.

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The strategy’s grounded perspective is apparent from the first sentence: “We need a stronger Europe.” This signals a major shift from the previous, outdated strategy, issued in 2003, whose much-maligned opening sentence declared, “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure, nor so free.”

Specifically, the strategy emphasizes the importance of the EU’s enduring soft power, in which prospective enlargement plays an important role, while acknowledging that soft power alone is not enough to ensure security. Moreover, it implicitly establishes the right sequence for the development of the EU’s approach to the world, by offering a far more specific vision for addressing regional challenges than it does for global challenges. The message is clear: the EU needs to get its act together within its neighborhood before it can grasp a broader role.

All of this is well and good, but it will amount to nothing if EU leaders do not “join up,” as Mogherini puts it, to ensure that the strategy fulfills its potential. And, so far, the outlook does not look particularly promising.

“Brexit,” which has thrown global markets into turmoil and raised serious questions about the Union’s future, has eclipsed the release of the security strategy, which barely got a mention in the conclusions of the latest European Council summit. Making matters worse, instead of inspiring much-needed soul-searching among EU leaders, the British referendum seems to have spurred many to allow national political interests, not to mention personal ambitions, to guide their thinking.

This self-serving impulse was on display in European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s fiery comments calling for the UK to invoke Article 50 (the withdrawal procedure) immediately – a move surely intended as a shot across the bow of his political rival, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had called for deliberation and time. It can also be seen in French President François Hollande’s tough posturing, which seems motivated by the expectation of a battle with the far-right National Front’s Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. And it is abundantly clear in the struggle between the European Council and the European Commission for control over the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, in which the Council is concerned primarily about upholding the autonomy of the member states.

This is precisely the kind of short-sightedness that has long undermined the EU’s image in the world and, by reinforcing the impression of fecklessness and ineptitude, in the member states as well. If it continues, Brexit could, as the doomsayers warn, be the EU’s downfall. If, instead, EU leaders rise to the challenge that Brexit poses and come together to realize the vision set out in the new global strategy, the EU could emerge from this tumultuous period stronger than ever.

In uncertain times, Europe must decide how it will address the existential challenges it faces. The sensible way forward is to minimize weaknesses by maximizing collective strengths. The alternative – for each country to go its own way, as the British have chosen to do – would be reckless. But the most dangerous approach – the one that would bring the most strife and insecurity – would be to continue pretending to be united, while acting independently.

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Already, EU leaders have missed an important opportunity. They could have woven the process of defining Europe’s aspirations, and of drafting a security strategy that reflected them, into broader discussions of what the EU should be, including at the most recent European Council summit. They should not also miss the opportunity presented by the strategy that has been produced.

Such opportunities do not come along every day. Whether the new EU strategy symbolizes the start of a new chapter for Europe or a dead letter about a defunct project will depend on whether European leaders can overcome their parochialism and commit to cooperation. The early returns are not promising.