When Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) took up her seat as the president of the European Commission, we were promised – in her words – a “Geopolitical Commission”, which would elevate Europe’s role on the world stage. That meant – or so we were led to believe – that she would lead the Commission to engage in the hard choices and necessary compromises of diplomacy and trade, writes Ladislav Ilčić MEP.
In some areas, it could be argued that the von der Leyen Commission has made progress in its geopolitical ambitions. Since the beginning of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the EU has shown – although with some opposition within its ranks – that it stands with nations fighting for freedom. The approach to another geopolitical adversary – China – has changed, with proposed regulations targeting Chinese exports, such as a tougher ban on imports produced from forced labour. There has been some improvement in relations with the U.S., including greater coordination on common global goals in several areas.
However, those are nothing new. Any previous Commission should have supported Ukraine, pushed back on China and pursued re-engagement with the U.S.
The real test for a ‘geopolitical Commission’ is not the straightforward decisions; but the hard ones. In today’s multipolar world, that means the EU’s ability to work with and woo the ‘swing voters’ in global politics & trade. China and the U.S. recognised long ago that those middle powers – especially in southeast Asia, Latin America and India – will hold the balance of power in the 21st Century. If we are serious about a global role, the EU needs to build partnerships with those nations and regions.
The von der Leyen Commission has failed spectacularly in this effort. Instead, the EU institutions have collectively spent the past 4 years antagonising almost every serious middle-power nation, from Brazil to Malaysia; South Africa to Thailand. As a Croatian MEP, I must say that this is pretty disappointing because being part of a huge trading block able to strike global deals advantageous to its Member States was one of the main incentives and promises for Croatia to join the EU.
At fault has been a range of poor decision-making that prioritised domestic politics ahead of geopolitical interest. Vaccine passports and the refusal to consider any patents waiver during the COVID pandemic, angered our own citizens together with many governments around the world. High Representative Josep Borrell’s description of the non-European world as “a jungle” caused similar reactions (he later issued an apology for the remark).
By far the biggest problem though, has been the ill-fated Green Deal. This overly ambitious regulation, fueled by ideology and exempt from reality, is uniquely harmful for both the EU Member States and the developing nations we should be looking to partner with. In June of 2022, 14 developing nations signed a letter opposing the Commission’s Deforestation Regulation because it places huge regulatory burdens on small farmers in developing nations, producing everything from coffee and cocoa to palm oil and rubber.
The Regulation is now in place, and several developing nations have already signalled they will be challenging it at the WTO. Brazil, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Argentina are just some of the countries who have publicly raised the issue in Geneva. These should be our allies and partners and also economically as markets for European exports, investments, and services. Millions of European jobs depend on expanding access to global markets. Yet, instead of building partnerships, the handling of the Deforestation Regulation is building resentment.
This approach makes no sense economically, geopolitically – or even environmentally. The targeting of rubber and palm oil, almost all of which is imported from southeast Asia, is bizarre. The latest World Resources Institute (WRI) global forest data finds that Indonesia and Malaysia are two of the global leaders in reducing deforestation and protecting forests – according to the independent WRI data “In Malaysia, primary forest loss remained low in 2022 and has leveled off in recent years.” A senior WRI official highlighted that “palm oil is no longer a driver of deforestation. The EU should be much more careful in trying to implement the regulations.”
Others agree. The NGO Global Forest Watch (GFW), for example: “From a data point of view, Indonesia and Malaysia should be included as success stories. They have been for a number of years now.”
By alleging that there is a problem (when the independent data says otherwise), we have simply angered democratic allies in a crucial geopolitical region, for no gain. I’ve seen this pattern many times as a PECH Committee member during discussions about the fishing plan for the Adriatic. The data has been completely ignored to facilitate the Commission’s imposition of fishing quotas.
A new approach is needed. The next Commission should aspire to be genuinely geopolitical, and to build deep partnerships with allied democratic nations – especially those in strategic regions. Malaysia has a commitment to Net Zero, and over 50% of its land surface is protected as forest area. We need to stop imposing trade barriers, and instead prioritise closer cooperation with growing export markets in friendly nations. Only then can the EU claim to be a true global leader.
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