When Joseph S. Nye coined the term soft power in 1990, he may not have had in mind the possibility that the European Union (EU) would become what it is today: an actor with global legislative leverage. This influence is confirmed by the recognition European standards are given regarding issues including data protection, food quality and management and aviation.
From this point of view, the importance of the EU does not lie in its global enforcement capacity, far from it, it lies in its influence in promoting initiatives and regulatory frameworks with high standards. These allow companies and individuals to sell products both in a market with 500 million inhabitants, as is the EU, and also in other countries without the need to adapt production to new standards because they already have European ones, which are the highest.
The ‘Brussels effect’, as Anna Bradford termed it so well in 2012 when referring to this type of covert soft power, has a greater effect a priori than we might expect in, for example, the fight against climate change and neutrality in cyberspace.
Aware of its capacity to promote and bring with it a large part of the world’s countries, the European Commission is promoting the establishment of a digital and a green agenda that will structure the public policies of the Union itself, its Member States and its partners.
A promising Green Deal
“In the midst of chaos there is also opportunity” wrote Sun Tzu in his famous book The Art of War.
In May 2020, the president of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen launched an ambitious, global initiative that is probably the most far-reaching one in the recent history of the European Union: the European Green Deal (the EU Green Deal).
This initiative was first introduced in December 2019 by President Von der Leyen without great fanfare. However, the same president, with fierce political desire, and a pandemic running out of control, knew she had to relaunch the Green Deal in May the following year. The significance of the moment the Green Deal was launched was defined by Frans Timmermans, the vice president of the European Commission, as “the greenest stimulus plan in the world” whose main objective is to move towards an environmentally sustainable European economy and achieve carbon-neutrality by 2050.
Thanks to the ‘Brussels effect’, the Green Deal becomes de facto yet another element in the machinery of the EU’s foreign action and in its capacity for regulatory leverage at the global level, putting the Paris Climate Agreement at the centre of international politics, and establishing a clear strategic and operational framework for its relations with its partners.
Consequently, it is not surprising that the Green Deal derives from the “relaunch” of the One Planet Summit initiative, jointly promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron and Costa Rica President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, on 11 January 2021, together with the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People. The initiative reaffirms the will of a significant group of countries that seeks to conserve 30% of the planet by 2030.
In addition, the return of the United States to the Paris Agreement, marked by an executive order signed on 20 January by President Joe Biden, consolidates the common position and the interest that both the EU and the United States have in leading the fight against climate change, recovering the international influence lost under the mandate of President Trump, and reclaiming the multilateral forum as the focus for conflict resolution envisaged at the Yalta Conference and embodied in the San Francisco Conference (1945).
While President Biden has not shown himself to be in favour of the American Green New Deal (GND), proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed. Markey in May 2019, it is to be expected that the new US position will be, de facto, very close to the European one and probably less ambitious than the GND, but significant both in content and in form.
The EU: a more global, active, digital and green actor
The political agreement between the European Parliament and the Council of EU Member States in December 2020 on the new instrument to finance the EU’s external action, called the “Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument – NDICI” for the Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF) 2021-2027, is essential for strengthening European soft power and for the EU to become the global actor it claims to be.
The NDICI is not just a simple 79.5 billion euro instrument for foreign action, it forms the centrepiece of strong political and citizen commitment to the digital transition, preserving nature and protecting the planet’s biodiversity, through financial lines of cooperation between partner countries and regions.
This instrument establishes something which is unprecedented in European foreign action: at least 20% of the 79.5 billion euros must have an action component related to combat climate change and another (7.5%) to protect biodiversity. Likewise, the NDICI simplifies and eliminates the “artificial and geographical” barriers imposed by the previous European instruments for financing foreign action and cooperation, it also introduces the necessary interconnections between the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Furthermore, in absolute terms, the budget for external action by the European Union is the largest in history when compared to the 58.7 billion euros in the 2014-2020 MFF, or the 56.7 billion euros for the MFF 2007-2013.
Finally, within the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, a new extra-budgetary instrument called the European Peace Support Fund has been created to finance European foreign action with military or defence implications and whose objective is to prevent conflicts, preserve peace and strengthen international security and stability.
All in all, we can see how the European Commission has made a titanic effort to simplify and order financing instruments for European international cooperation. However, the foreign policy challenges for the European Union are enormous. Not only in terms of executing this colossal budget, but, more importantly, in achieving results that are sustainable and durable over the long term.
At this point, the question that all of us who work in international cooperation must ask ourselves is: How can we live up to these expectations? And, therefore, at the end of 2027, will we find ourselves in a better world than the one we found in 2021?
Marc Reina, thematic manager with the EL PAcCTO police cooperation component.