European Union 2020 – Source: EP

The Reconfiguration of Global Geopolitics and the Role of the European Union

Brexit is done, and far from being a closed issue, the UK’s retreating process has ten months ahead. That will mean not only hard negotiations but also a world trade scenario transformation. Furthermore, the trade war truce between the United States and China, as well as the next U.S. presidential election, puts an extra uncertainty factor in this global geopolitical reconfiguration.

So, what will be the new role of the EU considering that scenario? I would expect it to be more like a player one, but the current circumstances makes me seriously skeptical.

In the first place, the UK wants to keep its benefits as an EU member but avoid the constraints and duties by being part of it. On February 3rd, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave a speech claiming for a free trade agreement with the EU “with zero or minimal tariffs and quotas,” like the one that the UK signed with Canada. For Johnson’s counterpart, EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier, this free trade scheme combined with the regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU would be unfeasible.

Apart from that, the UK has been pretty quick in its re-entry to the global systems. It already reactivated its traditional networks with the Commonwealth and with China, letting Huawei operating part of the 5G infrastructure in England, even when that upset the United States.

Secondly, the EU is losing its former appeal. Even though at its beginning it was the archetype of the modern and promising supranational organization, now it is a significant but self-centered commercial bloc, whose prosperity has made it slow, bureaucratic, and complacent. Whereas the United States and China are disputing the global rule-maker position, the EU seems too worried looking into itself.

A third question is heterogeneity among EU countries in terms of who gets benefits and who contributes. I would say that the EU is composed of prayers and payers, but no players. Following the European Commission’s 2018 budget statistics, the prayers would be those that continually get benefits from being part of the Union, like Poland, Greece, Romania, Hungary, and Portugal. The second group would be the payers, the countries that, having fitter institutional models such as Germany, France, Austria, and the Netherlands, have subsidized the well-functioning of the entire conglomerate. The UK was, until the Brexit, the second biggest net EU contributor after Germany. Finally, there should be players. Unfortunately, in my view, I cannot find any.

The EU tried to be a global player in 2019, at least twice. In June, it signed its first free trade agreement with a Latin American bloc, the MERCOSUR (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay). Unfortunately, the volatile character of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, and the populist tendency of Argentina’s vice president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, make it difficult to take the cooperation initiative forward, or at least, to maintain the initial terms of the agreement. Furthermore, agricultural pressure groups from France, Austria, and Belgium, among others, want to tackle the free entrance of their main competitors: Brazil and Argentina, enhancing the obstacles for the agreement.

The other EU trial to become a player was the one staged by Emmanuel Macron. The French president delivered some signals to reshape the bloc role in world politics, but that pretension did not last.

Is there any chance for the EU to become a player yet?

China has already occupied not only Asia, but also Oceania, and Latin America. Similarly, the United States has strong and consistent trading relationships with China and Latin America. On the other hand, the UK has a strong bond with the Commonwealth and has shown some intention to let China in and to strengthen commercial and political relations with several African countries. The European Union, however, is just trying to regroup its internal mess: to calm the prayers and to convince the remaining payers to stay. Let’s see if some player emerges soon.