Where does the EU go from here?

To bridge the gap and preserve its place on the world stage, the EU needs to ensure that it not only keeps abreast of the changing playing field, but that it is also a driver of those changes. Because the concept of multilateralism itself is changing, the findings of the MERCURY, EU-GRASP and EU4Seas projects indicate that the practice of multilateralism within modern global politics is extremely challenging.

How will multilateralism evolve in the future? Will it be determined by the extent of interrelations between the established and emerging elements of a multilateral world? How far are all actors prepared to cooperate? Academics and policy makers are currently engaged in a debate to identify how a global multilateral governance system might look in the next 20, 50 or 100 years.

A theory put forward by Dr Luk Van Langenhove, project coordinator of EU-GRASP, draws a comparison with the concept of ‘Web 2.0’. This is a term to describe the second phase of evolution of the World Wide Web, characterised by social media and tools for interactive participation. Similarly, the transition from Multilateralism 1.0 to Multilateralism 2.0 reflects the movement from a closed to an open system, characterised by increased connectivity between state and non-state actors, ranging in size from sub-national to regional, and including citizen and civil society organisations.

Fully adopting the Multilateralism 2.0 concept means accepting that this will not be a system of equal power for all actors, rather of varying degrees of influence that should constantly shift according to the most appropriate way to tackle a certain issue. Collaboration between governments at different levels, and other multilateral players, should come to be viewed not as competing interests but as a means for mutual strengthening and for working towards solutions to problems that surpass the capabilities of a single nation.

Multilateralism 2.0 is already somewhat in existence; however whether it will evolve into a fully-fledged system of governance is uncertain. Academics argue that the EU must engage fully with the principles of Multilateralism 2.0, not only to strengthen its negotiating position on the global stage, in line with the reality of today’s international order, but also to take advantage of the opportunities that a more open system represents. While the transition to Multilateralism 2.0 is underway, it will not be an easy one.

The ability of the EU to establish a strong position as a global actor with the dawn of Multilateralism 2.0 will depend on a delicate balance between three variables: the willingness of the EU to perform the role of global multilateral actor, its capabilities and available resources and the acceptance of the EU as a global actor by others.

Willingness to move forward means taking a flexible approach to engagement in sub-regional multilateralism (as discussed in the EU4Seas project), which has in the past been relatively neglected as an academic and political priority, and international multilateralism with different types of actors.

Increasing levels of globalisation - the exchange of people, goods, capital, ideas, information and technology around the world – is also drawing distant countries ever closer. This presents both challenges and opportunities, and the EU must be prepared to fully embrace the new world order.

In terms of capabilities, an important aspect of continuing to move successfully towards Multilateralism 2.0 will be in increasing the efficiency with which the EU operates internally, and learning from the underlying reasons for past successes and failures. It has been argued that the EU should focus on its internal complexity not as a weakness but as a strength, i.e. being well-practiced at exchanging ideas from a variety of perspectives and encouraging dialogue allows the constant re-evaluation of multilateral decisions.

Related to this is the importance of not sacrificing the credibility of the EU with Member States in favour of acting multilaterally. This could happen by failing to accurately reflect the interests, concerns and views of its members, and the communities, businesses and civil societies within Member States. A lack of trust in the EU among its members risks undermining the authority and challenging the unity necessary to act decisively.

There is a need to improve communication between Member States and the speed at which decisions are made, so that the EU can speak more powerfully on foreign policy and global issues with a unified voice. Being clear on what the EU’s values are and where it stands in Europe should make it easier to decide on policy abroad.

The issue of credibility extends into the readiness of other global players to accept the EU as a regional player and rests to some extent on how well the EU resolves its internal issues. In the case of sub-regional multilateralism, failure to promote fruitful internal cooperation and solidarity within the EU undermines its legitimacy as a global multilateral actor, in the sense that it may be pursuing with external partners something that it has not successfully managed internally.

A further conclusion from the joint research is that not only are most modern political issues global in nature, but it is also becoming increasingly difficult to separate issues, such as climate change mitigation and the global economy, or globalisation and national security. Essentially, the boundaries between policy domains are blurring, which brings its own set of challenges and further highlights the need for effective multilateralism in providing working solutions to interlinking problems.

Principles for effective multilateral interaction, i.e. engagement, legitimacy and credibility, are key to successful multilateral action. Multilateralism may not be the solution to all problems, but plays a vital role in promoting peace, democracy, security, economic prosperity and sustainable development in an increasingly interdependent world.

It is for these reasons that the researchers from the MERCURY, EU-GRASP and EU4Seas projects jointly stress the importance of a constantly evolving research agenda to ensure strong links between research and policy are maintained.