Year LXIII, 2021, Single Issue, Pre-print
80 Years of the Ventotene Manifesto
and the Future of Europe*
I was glad to be back in Ventotene in September 2021, on the 80th anniversary of the Manifesto and the 40th edition of the Seminar on Federalism and the World, started by Altiero Spinelli himself. I had been there before, in 2014, to speak at the closing session of this annual international seminar on federalism. This place carries a unique, symbolic meaning for me and for everything I stand for politically: European integration, federalism, anti-fascism, democracy, and international solidarity. It felt good to be back on the island and debate the next steps for Europe’s global role with young people from all over Europe.
The summer of 2021 was one of chaos and crises. As the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission, I had to deal constantly with the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, its consequences and implications for Europe’s global role. However, we should not forget other crises: Lebanon, Belarus, Haiti, etc.
These days, many politics are based on tribal dynamics. However, for forging the compromises that are necessary in foreign affairs, this is far from helpful. If there is a political tribe to which I belong, then it is the one that fights for a strong Europe as an antidote to nationalism, and as the only way for Europeans to achieve our common goals and defend our European model of solidarity, prosperity, and freedom.
The Lessons of Afghanistan
To highlight the next steps for Europe’s global role, we need to first look at the dramatic situation in Afghanistan and the lessons it provides for Europe, as it is not only a catastrophe for the Afghans, but also a severe blow to the West, and a game-changer for global politics.
So far, Europe had been focusing exclusively on the urgency of evacuations. But we need to analyse other challenges too:
– What will happen to those who stay in Afghanistan? This question applies notably to women and girls, who lack the most basic rights.
– Which lessons can be drawn from the situation, that could allow the EU to improve its capacity in state-building?
– What are the implications for Europe’s ability to act in the field of security?
– What are the consequences for European policy options on Afghanistan, including the question to which extend we deal with the Taliban?
The international intervention in Afghanistan was a “just” war. A clear casus-belli, with an agreed UN mandate. It quickly achieved the initial aim of pushing back Al Qaeda and unseating the Taliban government. It then morphed into something broader, essentially a state-building exercise, pouring in billions in civilian and military aid and exporting our models of thought and organisation.
We did not lose Afghanistan in the last few weeks. We lost it during the preceding twenty years. Our failure was due to a lack of functional politics, not a lack of resources. We proved better at technical and measurable things, like building schools or stabilising a currency, than at helping create state structures and local ownership.
Therefore, the first lesson learned should be that one cannot win peace by waging war, no matter how bright and powerful your counter-insurgency strategy is. Only functional politics can win peace, grounded in local legitimacy, economic opportunities, and a favourable regional context. No amount of external assistance can ever substitute for a domestically agreed political settlement.
Europeans, who are deeply engaged in other theatres –the Sahel for example –must learn this from the Afghan tragedy and avoid repeating it in the future.
The second lesson concerns transatlantic relations, burden-sharing, and Europe’s capacity to think and act in strategic terms.
Afghanistan was the first case in which NATO’s Article 5 was invoked. Europeans provided a strong military commitment (1000 casualties) and an economic aid programme of over €1 billion a year. However, in the end, the timing and modalities of the withdrawal were set in Washington. Consequently, Europeans found themselves depending on US choices, in the immediate sense of organising evacuations out of Kabul airport, but also in a broader sense.
Therefore, Afghanistan must be our wake-up call. Europeans must invest more in their security capacities. The US openly states that it does not want to be engaged in “other people’s wars”. And, rightly, it does not want to do everything alone, neither in Europe’s neighbourhood, nor beyond it. The EU needs the means to be able to act as a global security provider, wherever possible with partners, but also alone if needed.
Concerning the regional context and our policy options, China, Russia, Iran, but also Pakistan, India, and Turkey will all re-position themselves in Afghanistan, with a direct impact on the regional context and our policy options. The EU should not let others be the sole interlocutors of Afghanistan after the withdrawal. We must reframe our engagement.
Moreover, whatever happens in Afghanistan will continue to affect Europe and the countries in between, in terms of drugs, terrorism, and illegal migration. Also, in terms of opportunities. Afghanistan might be the world’s seventh poorest country, but it has many resources, including vast reserves of lithium, which are vital for the economic development of Afghanistan, but also for the world’s energy transition.
Since we failed in keeping the Taliban out of power, we will have to deal with them. Of course, this must be subject to clear conditions on their behaviour, notably the respect for human rights. Beyond the question who has the power, the EU must continue supporting the Afghan people, especially minorities, women and girls. Therefore, the European Commission has already decided to quadruple its humanitarian aid to €200 million.
Building a Stronger Eu Foreign Policy.
Lessons from the Ventotene Manifesto
If we zoom out from Afghanistan, it becomes clear that strengthening Europe’s foreign policy is the most urgent task the EU faces. But it is also the area where the obstacles are the greatest. The idea that Europeans can only be effective in the world by acting together has an intrinsic plausibility. Indeed, the famous Ventotene Manifesto of 1941 already called for a single EU foreign and defence policy. Already 80 years ago, Spinelli was right about this (as about many other things).
By the way, European citizens have called for a stronger EU foreign policy for decades. For many years, large and stable majorities have been asking for this. In recent years, the figures have further gone up (to over 70% according to the latest Eurobarometer).
Citizens understand very well that in a world of superpowers throwing their weight around, in a world of big trends and big threats, there is no hope in making an impact if each country acts alone. This is obvious and yet, making EU foreign policy effective remains work in progress.
The reason is that European citizens are ahead of national governments. Governments are the main decision-makers – and in foreign policy, for the European Union, that has led to the rule of unanimity.
In other areas, as it is well-known, we have transferred competencies to the community-level and agreed to take decisions by qualified majority vote. Moreover, there are also major national interests at stake in these areas, for example the single market, but also energy and climate targets. These are no less “sensitive” policy areas than foreign policy.
However, for these areas, we have collectively decided that it is better to avoid the paralysis and the delays that come with unanimity, and that we would empower common institutions with clear mandates and resources.
In foreign and security policy, we do not have, nor do we even work for, a single EU foreign policy as Spinelli called for, but a common one. It is a bit like the Balladur plan when we were preparing the monetary Union.
However, it is worth noting that we decided to go for a single currency with a single monetary policy managed by the ECB. Or that we have a single trade policy managed by the Commission, based on mandates and approvals adopted by qualified majority vote. Typically, these policies work reasonably well: we can take decisions fast to defend common European values and interests.
However, we have a great diversity of views inside the EU of 27 on international issues. We do not have a common strategic culture. Therefore, it is no surprise that we often take a long time to take a decision. Or that we excel in issuing statements where we “monitor a situation” or “express our concerns” but don’t specify what actions we will take if our concerns are not listened to – which is all too often the case.
I know very well that it is difficult to change things in the EU, especially on how we organise ourselves. However, during the Conference on the Future of Europe, we should be ready to have an open debate, without taboos. And we should discuss how we can give ourselves the institutional means to build the credible foreign policy our citizens are asking for.
In the mid-1980s, the Cecchini Report on the cost of non-Europe, which paved the way to the Single Market, was established through qualified majority vote. We now need to calculate the cost of non-Europe in foreign policy and draw the consequences.
Europe’s Assets and the Recent Progress
The EU is still far from the goal that Spinelli set 80 years ago. However, we have made progress, and there is a lot of potential. We remain the world’s biggest market. Voluntarily, companies worldwide, follow EU rules to have access to the largest group of affluent customers (the so-called “Brussels Effect”). We have the world’s largest Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget. We deploy 17 civilian and military operations on three continents. Europe has three times more diplomats as the US or China. However, here also lies the rub: these are national diplomats, responding to their respective national Ministries of Foreign Affairs (MFA) who, in turn answer to national parliaments and national debates. It is therefore less obvious to state that Europe is three times as powerful as the US or China.
Europe’s main problem is self-imposed, namely: fragmentation. Fragmentation between policy areas, where policy is made in silos; and among member states, where debates and choices are driven by national considerations. The good news is that if something is self-imposed, you can change it yourself. You do not need outside approval.
We should guard against a psychology of European weakness, a sense of inevitable decline and irrelevance. We have many levers and a strong legitimacy, thanks to our strong multilateral credentials.
It might be too slow, but we are still making progress. Ideas, like that Europeans need to “learn the language of power” and develop their “strategic autonomy” are now more commonly understood and driving decision making. We are developing a “strategic compass” with the member states to create a shared threat perception and common security and defence priorities at 27.
We have also adopted a global sanctions regime to go after the worst human rights abuses, wherever these take place. Even if the abusers reside in China and if countersanctions are to be expected.
In addition, we launched two Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations that show that Europeans are ready to take risks and become security providers.
We have assets and good experiences. We need to draw on these to promote our values and interests in the post-pandemic world.
The Post-Pandemic World and the Three Top Priorities
It is hard to summarise the outlook for our post-pandemic world, but I see five main trends: none of them is fully new, but they have all been accelerated by the crisis.
Firstly, there is an unprecedented competition between states, shaping a world of competitive nationalism, power politics, and zero-sum games.
Secondly, our world is becoming more multi-polar than multilateral. The strategic competition between the United States and China often paralyses the United Nations Security Council, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization.
Thirdly, although we have almost stopped travelling as individuals, globalisation continues. Interdependence is increasingly conflictual, and soft power tools are weaponised: vaccines, data, and technology standards are all instruments of political competition.
Fourthly, some countries follow “a logic of empires”, arguing in terms of “historical rights” and “zones of influence” rather than adhering to agreed rules and local consent.
Finally, the world is becoming less free, and democracy is under attack: both at home and abroad. We face a real battle of narratives.
The obvious conclusion is that these trends are unfavourable to the European Union. We prefer a predictable world of rules-based multilateralism, with people and countries free to shape their own destinies Therefore, we have to see these five trends as a call to action.
In the future, three mega challenges will determine the EU’s future role in this post-pandemic world:
How do we deal with a more “crowded” neighbourhood?
The EU’s neighbourhood has become “crowded” and competitive, with Russia, Turkey and others employing hybrid tactics. At the same time, we know that the people in the neighbourhood want more from Europe, delivered faster and better. The European model of democracy, solidarity, freedoms, and fundamental rights remains extremely attractive and powerful. We must continue to work with anyone who shares our vision.
That means maintaining our commitments with the Western Balkans and keeping the whole region on a European path, including reviving the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue. That means supporting Ukraine when it faces Russian aggression while its reform agenda brings the country closer to the EU. That means continuing to put pressure on the regime in Belarus for the oppression of its citizens. That means supporting Libya and its new national unity government. That also means doing all we can to prevent a catastrophe in Lebanon due to the political stalemate. The list goes on.
The agenda is vast, but the EU needs to step up when it comes to its neighbourhood, East and South, both by demanding more and by offering more.
2.The EU’s position in its strategic triangle with the US and China.
The second mega challenge is how to steer the EU’s course in the strategic triangle of the US, China and the EU – and how to mix elements of cooperation and competition into a coherent strategy.
Growing Chinese influence, built on centralisation at home and assertiveness abroad, is recognisable everywhere, and cooperation with China is getting more difficult. This is in part due to the EU’s link between market access and human rights. However, with 25% of all global growth in 2021 expected to come from China, economic cooperation remains essential.
The strategic competition between the US and China will shape the world for decades to come, and the EU needs to steer a clear course. It is crucial to keep in mind that the EU and the US have a shared history, and that our political systems are the product of the Enlightenment, even if our interests are not always identical.
The relations between the EU and China are to a large extend about doing our homework regarding investment screening, foreign subsidies, 5G, procurement, anti-coercion instruments and developing an Indo-Pacific strategy.
How do we ensure effective action on global challenges, especially the climate crisis and the regulation of technology?
Even faced with a crisis of multilateralism, we need to revitalise it to deliver on the big issues. Climate change and technology are two exemplary tests for the multilateral system.
The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was yet another alarm bell saying we face a real climate crisis. Freak weather is not something that will happen in the future, it is already happening today. Sicily registered an absolute record of 48,6° Celsius in the summer of 2021. Global warming is happening twice as fast in the Arctic. We are moving past all sorts of “tipping points”. A world that has heated 3°C by 2100 – which is the current trajectory – is radically different from one with 1°C or 2°C warming.
COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 could be considered as the last moment to halt runaway climate change, but this will require a radical acceleration of global efforts. Climate change is also a geopolitical issue. It will create new security threats and shifts in global power.
On the other hand, multilateralism also needs to deliver on technology, specifically on standard-setting for Artificial Intelligence, data, autonomous weapons, cloud services, and surveillance. We should wonder who will set the rules and on what basis and values.
Throughout history, control over technology has determined who runs the world. But can we continue to rely on the “Brussels effect” if none of the Big Tech companies is European? Europeans need to work hard to help setting the rules for the future.
A Ventotene Manifesto for the 21st Century
In conclusion, eighty years on, it may be time for a new Ventotene Manifesto. One that focuses not just on the critique of nation-states as the source of wars and international anarchy but that highlights their limitations to address the big transnational challenges of our time, such as pandemics, climate change, migration, and digital transition, among others. All these challenges are global in nature, and there are no national answers to them. In addition to equipping our European Union with the powers it needs, we also need to forge a reformed global governance, with clear rules, and above all with effective means to enforce them.
Too often, we see internationally agreed rules being flouted with impunity. Too often, countries are pushing self-serving approaches and are getting away with it. Too often, we hear the siren songs of nationalism where strong men (they are mostly men) offer simple solutions. In too many cases, the existing system is unable to deliver effective action.
Therefore, I call for the discussion of a new Ventotene Manifesto, offering concrete solutions to the pressing problems of today’s unstable world. One that is ambitious and bold, with a sharp sense of urgency. But one that is also deeply practical and modern, to solve the problems that define our age and that of our (grand) children.
[*] This essay is based on the speech delivered by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the Commission on the island of Ventotene on 29 August 2021, for the opening of the 40th edition of the Seminar on Federalism in Europe and the World.