Editor’s Note: Matteo Garavoglia is non-resident fellow of foreign policy at the Brookings Institute. The opinions in this article are those of the author.
This weekend, EU leaders gather to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome – the document that created the European Economic Community and ultimately led to the creation of the European Union itself.
But there will be one notable absentee in Rome this weekend: British Prime Minister Theresa May. She turned down the invitation, which seems sensible, considering her intention next week to formally notify the European Commission of Britain’s intention to break away from the bloc.
The question of what’s next for Europe is a curious one these days. Some feel that the EU can only survive if it drops its high-minded ambitions.
But in a strange way – and despite his perceived Euroskepticism – US President Donald Trump has presented the EU with an opportunity. As the US slowly withdraws from its global engagements, Europe has a chance to carve a leadership role for itself. At least in selected policy areas.
Much has been said recently of Europe’s collective failure to spend 2% of national GDPs on defense.
But the fact that Europe exercises its real leadership in “softer” foreign policy is often overlooked.
Collectively, EU institutions and member states are the largest providers of humanitarian assistance worldwide. The EU institutions are collectively the fourth-largest donor in development aid, while European institutions run the most extensive election observation missions in the world.
Moreover, they host far more refugees than any other developed country (except Turkey).
The US, meanwhile, spends well under the 0.7% target set by the OECD on foreign aid. Now it is expected to spend even less.
Among other initiatives, President Trump is proposing massive cuts to America’s foreign aid, planning to accept far fewer refugees, and reinstating the global gag rule on abortion (a Republican tradition).
As the Trump administration increasingly signals its disinterest or open hostility for these policy areas, it will fall even further behind Europe when it comes to owning global leadership through soft power.
Meanwhile, the European Union currently faces three major challenges.
The first is the refugee crisis – namely how the continent transitions from an emergency situation – which created the EU’s deal with Turkey – to a sustainable solution.
The second has to do with the economic and political stability in poorer countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
And the third is how to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in light of the Trump’s administration apparent disinterest in the subject.
Europeans could turn these challenges into opportunities.
When it comes to the global refugee crisis, European countries have long been divided between those prioritizing securing the EU’s borders and those welcoming asylum seekers.
But they must now be bold and strike a grand bargain: those countries willing to do so should go ahead with proposals to complete the Common European Asylum System – the European Commission’s proposal for a new deal across member states that seeks to cope fairly and swiftly with the scale of the refugee crisis by simplifying the procedures granting asylum.
Those member states that do not have the political will to join such a scheme should contribute to it financially.
On improving political and economic stability in neighboring states, the temptation might be to work with poster-child countries such as Tunisia or Egypt. But Brussels has to be smarter and identify which sector of a country’s administrative apparatus is most likely to lead to state collapse if severely challenged.
Europeans should then focus on boosting resilience in that specific policy area. In line with the EU Global Strategy, the Trust Fund for Africa should be employed for this purpose.
As for the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Europeans must ask themselves a number of questions. Should they stick to all 17 SDGs, or prioritize some over others?
How could they engage more effectively with other key partners such as China, Japan, India, Brazil, South Korea, and Australia? Should they limit themselves to plugging the gaps left by the Trump administration, or aim to forge a new global consensus without the US?
Europeans are now responsible for the heavy lifting in these policy areas. Until a new administration that is interested in these issues takes over the White House, Europe is going to have to take the lead on them.
Its reward could be the undisputed global acknowledgment of its leadership role in “soft” foreign policies – courtesy of President Trump.