Focus topics

The EU must network more effectively

By Reinhard Buetikofer
Reinhard Bütikofer - Europa-Politiker mit einer klaren Sicht zur EU
European politician Reinhard Buetikofer (Greens), Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with China.

It is a truism that Europe needs to strengthen its role as a geopolitical and geoeconomic actor. But how it can achieve this is far less clear. This is where the strategic report on “Connectivity and EU-Asia relations” comes in, which the European Parliament adopted on Thursday by a very large majority (526 votes in favor, 43 against, 119 abstentions). The Chinese “Belt and Road Initiative” shook us up. But the ‘connectivity’ strategy is not simply a response to BRI, but a strategic perspective in its own right, which admittedly also benefits from the disappointment existing in many quarters about BRI.

MEPs call for more coherence between European foreign, development, trade, and security policies. Networking is actually in the EU‘s genes – but there has been little sign of it in external relations. The Parliament is thus making a series of “governance” proposals, which are about Brussels’ better coordination and European member states being on board. Civil society and business representatives must be involved, and, of course, the strategy needs enough money.

‘Belt and Road Initiative shook us up’

The starting point for our push was the document “Connecting Europe and Asia”, published by the EU Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS) in September 2018. The paper never became popular, not even in Brussels. Connectivity needs a second breath. At its core, the paper was about physical infrastructure development: ‘bricks and mortar’. But we need to go further. To realize the basic idea of “strength through cooperation” in a contemporary way, more dimensions must play a role: digitization, for example, and contacts between people through exchange programs – priorities such as safety, health, and standardization. We must cooperate much more closely than before with partners who, like us, have an interest in ensuring that multilateralism is not stifled by great power politics. The strategy should be aligned with the EU’s overall objectives, such as the Green Deal, human rights and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Whereas the 2018 document focused primarily on Asia, the EU Parliament has a global strategy. It identifies a number of partners: A connectivity partnership already exists with Japan and negotiations are underway with India, soon to be at the summit level. We want a partnership with the African Union, if possible, by the end of 2021. Much hope rests on South Korea and Australia, and the EU adopted a joint declaration on connectivity with the Asean Community at the last ministerial meeting.

Partnership with the African Union

There is a greater interest in connectivity than Ursula von der Leyen’s EU Commission has realized so far. BusinessEurope, for example, places great emphasis on the topic in its China strategy. The 2019 connectivity conference organized by the Juncker force met with gigantic interest; 1400 participants came, a quarter being from Asia. But there is now to be a new conference in 2021, as the EU Commission has just confirmed. Among the EU member states, France, Germany and Poland have emerged as particularly interested. The current Portuguese EU presidency has a strong focus on digital connectivity and is about to inaugurate the “EllaLink” deep-sea cable for high data transport to and from South America, which incidentally was built with Nokia technology.

Simply put, the emphasis on what a global European connectivity strategy can achieve certainly also helps to ensure that Brussels, Berlin, and Paris do not get too carried away with autonomy narratives. For a geopolitical commission, for an EU that aspires to global politics, it is impossible to dispense with connectivity as a central pillar.

Reinhard Buetikofer has been a Green Member of the European Parliament since 2009. The 67-year-old is the Chair of the European Parliament Delegation for Relations with China and a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.


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