In the age of COVID-19, the European Union is functioning in a unified way when it comes to economic and health policy. However, unifying European foreign policy is fundamental, too, and Brussels should make this happen now in the region of the Eastern Mediterranean.
The European Council’s seminal Covid-19-crisis summit on July 17-21 pointed a way forward that addresses the needs of all of its 27 member states. The decision to forge a generous recovery package was of historic significance as it shattered taboos: about increasing the EU budget without a parallel rise in national contributions, and the provision of a quasi-guarantee of certain types of debt. This inclusive package – comprised of the future Multiannual Financial Framework and a Next Generation EU recovery package – was impressive indeed. It was a consequence of Franco-German diplomacy and a political process conducted with the hardest-hit states.
A push forward for the economic integration
These political decisions push forward economic integration, which is beneficial both for northern and southern Europe. And this is also clear if one takes a careful look at the Programme for Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union where it plainly states that: “The EU’s unified economic area without internal borders is the bedrock of our prosperity, social security, and cohesion.”
Another important element signifying more European integration is the first stage of implementing the European Commission’s vaccines strategy. The common vaccine purchase on behalf of all member states is a policy milestone that indicates that Europe understands the necessity of achieving health sovereignty. It is not coincidental that this also is part of German presidency’s agenda.
Why the EU must act geopolitically
The last decade’s economic crises, migration flows, new geopolitical landscape created by Washington and Beijing’s rivalry, and most recently the pandemic, make it clear that the EU should act geopolitically to fortify itself and also its member states individually. There cannot be internal cohesion and prosperity if the EU lacks international robustness.
And the new European Commission has explicitly said it wants to be a “geopolitical commission.” The German presidency could now move to upgrade its neighbourhood policy. The EU has large and direct stakes in numerous regional theatres, one of the most heated at the moment being the Eastern Mediterranean, namely the region in which the eastern waters of the Mediterranean Sea border Southeast Europe and Western Asia.
The significance there is huge. The Eastern Mediterranean holds the possibility of making Europe independent from Russian hydrocarbons, on the one hand, and tackling future migrant and refugees flows, on the other.
Until now, the EU has been engaged in the region through its member states: in particular Greece and Cyprus, as well as Italy, and in the past the United Kingdom. Of course, France plays a special role in today’s regional developments, too. The national interests and goals of these countries have converged and conflicted.
Today, Turkey’s actions under its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have caused new instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara is present on major fronts on three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is weaponising Islam and building networks in major European capitals. It is therefore obvious that Turkey, despite its faltering economy, aspires to transform itself from a regional power into a global competitor with the West.
The EU as stability factor in the Eastern Mediterranean
The nurturing of stability there should be a top priority for an EU that wishes to be the guarantor of a rules-based international order. But it could also gain access to the hydrocarbon resources of the Eastern Mediterranean and, by promoting stability in Turkey, help avert new refugee flows.
Germany holds the European Council presidency at a crucial moment. Germany is a state whose special role and historic experience impels it to act to prevent military conflict. The German presidency could help establish a multilateral status quo in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The first step to achieving this is to look at its own history. In the early years after World War II, the heart of the Schuman Plan was the establishment of a superior single authority to control the production of steel and coal – the driving forces of the world economy at the time. Everyone would have access to natural and human resources, networks, and technical means – and thus to prosperity and peace. We do not need to push the analogies too far. Indeed, we have to remember that following World War II Europe was plagued by hatred and the vestiges of war.
A multilateral mechanism for oil and gas
The modern equivalent of coal and steel is oil and gas. A modern Eastern Mediterranean version of the Schuman Plan could mean that oil and gas are managed as goods under joint mechanisms. The key to a policy is the creation of a single independent mechanism under which the states involved would cooperate by sharing technical know-how and allocating fundamental infrastructure, from pipelines to depositories. Thus, economic burdens for infrastructures and security resources would be decreased and cooperation would become a core element of the Eastern Mediterranean status quo. The grand scope of this authority should, however, result in a multilateral shift in the region. It should act as a mechanism for easing tensions and guaranteeing stability and order.
At this time of tensions and uncertainty, the EU’s stakes in the Eastern Mediterranean should convince it to play a more active and engaged role. The EU should now adopt a stricter and more hard-nosed role to secure its own core interests in the region. This means confronting Turkey if necessary. And it should become a peacemaker by establishing stability and a rules-based regional order through innovative economic institution-building in the future. An oil-and-gas mechanism (with states’ rights being respected according to international law) could be the necessary precondition for a peaceful shared future – not just for oil giants but also for the people of the region.
This is why it is high time that the German presidency thought out of the box.
Anna Diamantopoulou is president of DIKTIO – Network for Reform in Greece and Europe, a leading Athens-based think-tank. She is a former European Commissioner and Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy.
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