2022 could be a make-or-break year for Europe

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has a long to-do list in 2022.

(CNN)In 2022, the European Union must confront some of the most difficult challenges it faces if it is ever to become the geopolitical power its leaders so desperately want it to be.

The Covid-19 pandemic has left efforts to create a more assertive global Europe on the backburner -- at the very moment when the global politics of the past two years has created myriad problems for the bloc. These will only get worse if prompt action isn't taken.
Whether it's a migration crisis on the bloc's frontier with Belarus; the Russian military buildup on the border of Ukraine and the antagonism of member states like Lithuania and Estonia; or Chinese trade threats, the EU badly needs a strategy for dealing with the world beyond its borders before these hybrid issues overwhelm and weaken the union.
    Bold proposals have been made by the Commission that could, in theory, go some way to solving these problems.
      On Russian aggression and other military issues, the EU has proposed rapid deployment units tailored to specific missions, reducing the reliance on NATO and the US to protect the continent.
      On China, Brussels is trying to counter Beijing's giant global infrastructure initiative by offering alternative investment options. In recent years, the EU has tried to walk a near-impossible tightrope, maintaining an economic partnership with China while not alienating an increasingly anti-Beijing US.
      The Trump years made Europe acutely aware that it could not afford to rely wholly on America as an ally. Balancing this relationship between Washington and Beijing would, Brussels perhaps naively believed, prevent the EU from getting squashed between the two powers.
        Most European officials agree that the challenges facing the EU need to be addressed, but the reality of trying to achieve a common foreign policy has been uniquely difficult for a bloc of 27 countries with different domestic priorities.
        "While the EU makes most of its big decisions on a super-majority basis, member states have always been very reluctant to surrender their veto power over foreign policy," said R. Daniel Kelemen, Jean Monnet Chair in European Union Politics at Rutgers University.
        Consequently, any common EU foreign policy is at the mercy of individual member states who wield unanimity-blocking vetoes that they are only too happy to use.
        Countries like Hungary and Poland, who have been on Brussels' naughty step for anti-democratic, anti-EU policies, hold the power to tank any meaningful EU policy in retaliation for threats to have funding pulled or voting rights removed.
        This creates a fresh problem for Brussels, as rivals like Russia and China can "deal directly with national governments, essentially making them a Trojan Horse within the EU, agents of hostile regimes," says Kelemen.
        Andrius Kubilius, former Lithuanian Prime Minister and current MEP, notes that the Kremlin in particular exploits this by seeking to "strengthen relations with individual member states" and not with EU institutions -- because the institutions are almost always more hawkish than national capitals.
        However, the foreign affairs headaches facing the EU are bigger than disagreements between member states.
        "The way the EU is currently set up fundamentally prevents it from addressing the crises facing us," said Sophie in 't Veld, a Dutch liberal MEP.
        "The Commission could take the initiative, as it did with Covid, leading to a positive outcome. But on foreign affairs, [it] is completely beholden to the member states who do not even have a mandate to come up with [a] pan-European vision," she added.
        The issue of the EU Commission's reliance on member states comes up often when talking with current and former officials. They point out that the current Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, only got the job as a result of a fudge.