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The European Union needs to focus on rules-based cooperation in an increasingly confrontational world or risk being hollowed out by international tensions says academic Giovanni Grevi, head of Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

In a note, published this month entitled “Shaping power: A strategic imperative for Europe”, Grevi says that faced with a cycle of resurgent nationalism, zero-sum thinking and great power rivalry on the global stage, the EU and its member states should take a counter stance.

He says this should be one that deals with current trends by other means than sheer power politics or occasional transactions.

He says: “There is no question that Europe needs to harden its defences against a growing range of threats. Beyond that, however, the EU’s comparative advantage is its own experience of rules-based integration and the ability to turn that into concrete achievements, at home and abroad. It should mobilise this experience and equip itself to implement a ‘rules first’ strategic approach.”

He also warns that even the largest EU member states are outmuscled in a world of competing heavyweights such as the US, China and Russia while warning that the EU is the only vehicle through which Europeans can advance their objectives.

“The failure to do so would not only damage Europe’s interests but also potentially lead to the hollowing out of the EU itself, as international tensions will continue to contaminate domestic politics and weaken the solidarity between member states.”

Grevi notes that the EU has long aimed to promote rules-based cooperation on the global stage. But says that times have changed.

Emerging US-China duopoly

“The distribution of power at the international level differs depending on which assets are considered. For example, Russia is a major military power but a relatively small economy. In terms of structural power – or the ability to shape how international systems work – the world seems to be headed towards a turbulent duopoly featuring two super shaping powers: the US and China.

“Both have veered off from their respective long-held strategies and their relationship is increasingly confrontational. The Trump administration is progressively opting out of the multilateral order and China is opting for an order with Chinese characteristics, reflecting a different political-economic model and worldview from the West. As a result, neither the incumbent nor the emerging superpower is today championing a rules-based global order. The shift of strategic approach in Washington and Beijing is both a symptom and a multiplier of the competition between them. The latter is emerging as one of the defining features of international affairs.”

If these trends are unchecked, the world may witness the rise of a post-multilateral world. Multilateralism will not unravel overnight, he says, but it would become more shallow and narrow in scope, unable to cope with major global challenges and geopolitical crises.

He says: “The core strategic question for Europe’s future is whether the EU will play in the top league of global shaping powers to promote cooperation, mitigate confrontation and strengthen its own resilience. Building on the 2016 EU Global Strategy, the EU needs to adopt and implement a ‘rules first’ strategic approach to uphold the interests and values of its citizens.

“This strategy should leverage Europe’s core asset, namely its rule-making power, understood in broad terms as the combination of EU-level regulatory and market power and of the Union’s engagement in multilateral cooperation and partnerships.

“Harnessing this power means focusing on connecting internal policies and resources to external instruments and objectives. The EU’s success in turning domestic assets into tools of international influence will be pivotal to help shape a rules-based international order and, therefore, to the future of Europe.”

Grevi concludes that fostering strategic autonomy starts at home. Political rifts within and between EU member states and the surge of populist parties across Europe challenge the credibility and the feasibility of a rules first strategy. “The weakening of Europe’s cohesion is, at least partially, the result of instability and power politics on the international stage. The EU has no choice but to try and reverse this trend,” he adds.

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