EU and the decline of multilateralism

Trapped in a world that slides towards unilateral policies and competition

The European project was born out of the ashes of conflict and destruction. Working together was the only strategic option for peace and prosperity in Europe. This example inspired regional cooperation globally creating various norms and institutions. Now, the world playground of interests transfers the battle into its very own ambitious creation.

As Robert Keohane puts it, multilateralism is “the practice of co-ordinating national policies in groups of three or more states”. In our case, the European Union is the means to achieve such practices. An institution that is based upon these foundations of cooperation and collective prosperity. Gradually, multilateralism has been engulfed within the EU in a bunch of fields: economic, social, foreign, security policies became subjects of shared goals, ambitions and mutual achievements and so on and so forth. Although national interests prevailed numerous times and halted this process of regional engagement, huge strategic steps have been made to drag a whole continent forward, overcoming conflict and division. The practices of multilateralism became the essence of what the EU was all about. And this view was not solely regional rather spread upon the whole world system.

For a long time after WWII, multilateralism characterized international norms. United Nations, World Trade Organization, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and many others, contributed to building a world liberal order for countries to overcome the obstacles of conflict and develop cooperation relations. But the western lead towards this direction started feeling tremors from within in the 21st century. The 2008 global financial crisis was a landmark that shook the foundations of globalization, having terrible consequences for EU sustainability. In 2016, the UK went down a path of questioning its place within the European project and the USA elected a president that favors nationalism and unilateral policies. At the same time, eastern Russian and Chinese giants were growing to grab their share in the world. Power politics competition overshadowed multilateralism and cooperation, a situation influencing the EU both externally and internally.

Multilateralism creates interdependence and works as a double-edged knife. On the outside, the EU faced multiple challenges that threatened its existence and its means of exercising its policies. The regional crises in the MENA region and the destabilization of Sub-Saharan Africa contributed to massive immigration waves and a newly re-emerged terrorism. Failure upon concrete resolutions from the actors involved left the European mediation prospects out in the cold. The case of the Iranian nuclear deal, which could consist of a step towards European energy autonomy, is a very celebrated example of these predicaments. EU efforts in multilateral practices are null and void when the engaging parties are not eager to cooperate. In the meantime, France and Germany, two countries that are pillars within the European project, differentiated their agendas upon foreign policy, both on security and trade cooperation matters.

Things are getting far more complicated when external forces are intertwined on the inside. EU has become a field for competing powers to pursue influence among its members. Looking at the architecture of European security, based on NATO’s endeavor, rivalries are considered to be exacerbated. Right now, the North-Atlantic alliance is facing an identity crisis. But countering Russian aggression will always be a top priority. USA seeks to reinforce particular European defense capacities, while at the same time Russia reinforces its ties with Turkey. And dismantling an ordinance, such as the INF treaty, puts European security at risk simultaneously. American and Russian interests clash within Europe, when the reality of Russian and Turkish economic interdependence, created by EU’s multilateral engagement, crashes hard upon stabilized relations. Trade falls under this equation also. EU-US trading partnership goes through hard times and the Chinese involvement in the region creates even more turbulence. Overall, multilateralism in a period of extensive competition caught the EU into the eye of the storm.

There are tons of analyses to examine how multilateral interdependence has its issues. But the problem persists within the EU due to a lack of cohesion in high politics. Many argue that Brexit could be a chance to reevaluate the course of the European project. What is quite clear though it’s that in a period of Great Powers competition EU is a “theater of war” and not an actor.