Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Alliance Building to Strengthen the European Union (Resumed): European Council on Foreign Relations

Ms Almut Möller:

I thank the Chairman, the Senators, and the Deputies. It is a great honour to be here in the Houses and I thank the committee for inviting me. To underline what the Chairman just said, the European Council on Foreign Relations is a non-partisan think tank, and I am based in one of our offices in Berlin. We care deeply about views from across the Union, and with this project, we started to map out the views of the 28 member states to the best of our ability. The most interesting part of this work has been travelling to capitals where there has already been a lot of strategising going on over alliances within the various arenas and levels of the European Union. This is my second time in Dublin in a little more than two months, and this is particularly exciting because, as the committee will be aware, there is much thinking going on here, so it is also a great opportunity for us to share our insight and see to what extent that resonates with thinking here.

I will explain briefly what we did in our quest to better understand how member state capitals look at the issue of coalition building. The environment is very clear in that increasing dynamics of bilateralism are emerging in the EU 28 - soon very likely to be 27 - not only because of a more conflictual environment but also because of the changes ahead in light of the UK departing the Union. We sense in our data and survey a great deal of overall commitment to working together but we have also spotted quite a few blind spots and I will talk about them briefly as well.

The committee will see an interactive explorer visualisation which I will use occasionally. The backbone of this project has been going to EU capitals and speaking to those people in state chancelleries, foreign ministries, and other relevant ministries that shape EU strategy, and asking them about their preferences, interests, the countries they contact most, and what that means for the coming years. This is a survey of experts who work on policy in that sense. We also have people from academia and think tanks in the sample who help us balance it. This is not looking at the EU environment in Brussels. A lot of interesting work has been done on that in other fields, but this is looking at member state capitals and their engagement. We came up with a number of areas and chapters that we asked participants about, and I will show them briefly. We asked basic questions about preferences, such as who people contact most, with whom they share interests, who is the most responsive, and who is the most disappointing, which is something people would normally not tell us, even though it is in the room. Our data very clearly show the top three most disappointing across the board, which are, excluding their own views about themselves - Poland, Hungary, and the UK. We then asked about influence, and we tried to trigger a ranking because that is often interesting. We also have an ambition to create a matchmaking platform for countries in terms of their policy priorities in the coming years, to look at their potential partners, including ones who might be overlooked, and how that might play out on policy. We are looking at a relatively complex chessboard of 28 member states, for the time being.

I will briefly show the committee the overview to make it more interesting. This interactive PDF is available free of charge online so members are welcome to browse it on long summer evenings or winter nights. It is a bit of a beast but it is brilliant in that one can also browse it according to preferences, so one can just set it to Ireland or other countries to look at their policies and so on. I will show the committee our overall findings, and I reiterate that this very much about perceptions. This is how people working on EU policy in national capitals perceive each other. We came up with a ranking, which is always something of interest. Here we can see the bigger members states, such as Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Poland among the top performers in terms of their coalition potential, clout, and weight, which is no surprise. However, smaller member states such as the Netherlands and Sweden also rank fourth and sixth, respectively. That is interesting because a question that came up a number of times was what a country's coalition potential is and how it can be exploited better. Size can be of advantage but is not necessarily a guarantee for success, and a few countries that are not even members of key integration projects such as the euro can rank high. Ireland finds itself ranked 20th in our research.

I refer to five broader lessons we took from this, and one I mentioned already which is the capacity of the big member states. France, Germany, and a few others have a lot of potential, but it is clear that some of the best connected member states are smaller and have been active in shaping new coalitions in this new environment. This includes the engagement around the Netherlands, Ireland, and the New Hanseatic League, which is an interesting group emerging from a single policy issue. We have followed this with great interest, not least because we had come up with our own idea of an artificial group of countries which we call the affluent seven, which has quite a bit of overlap with the countries of the New Hanseatic League. The argument we wanted to make was that we should look beyond established alliances that are no longer getting much traction, or are not important enough to punch their weight together. We talk a lot about France and Germany, and these days there is a lot of talk about the Visegrád, V4, countries. The old coalitions of the founding member states or the net contributors or even the Club Med around Spain, Italy and France, are no longer getting that much traction. Our encouragement was to look beyond that. A few years ago when we started this project, we came up with the idea of the affluent seven group and there is overlap with the New Hanseatic League, which is interesting. We travelled to a lot of the countries involved in this, including to Dublin, to see that there is perhaps a potential to move beyond the fiscal issue and go a little bit wider. This is interesting and promising research for us.

Another lesson is that member states cannot rely on their relationships with France and Germany alone. It is important to be out there, and I understand there has been quite some activity between the governments in Dublin and Berlin over the past years, but we have found in our data that there is a great deal of disappointment at times when it comes to the attention countries are getting back from Germany and France. Everybody is looking at them and at times there is a lack a capacity or a lack of willingness to re-engage. Our suggestion is that there are other ways for member states to draw the attention of these key players, and that involves creating alternative coalitions that are of relevance to them. We see it clearly, as I pointed out, in the New Hanseatic League, which is of interest in Berlin and is perhaps also raising eyebrows at times, hence it is attention that can be useful. There is also the question of the Visegrád countries. There is a strong interest in Slovakia and the Czech Republic in Berlin these days, partly driven by their membership of the V4.

A broader lesson we took from the survey is about overcoming geographical challenges through strategy. This is particularly interesting when one travels to the periphery of Europe, though I do not like that term very much. When we look at the data on Portugal and Finland, we have found that there are some strategies that can help overcome the disadvantages, and this is a relevant finding for Ireland. Let us take Portugal, for example. Portugal strongly perceives itself as an Atlantic power. It is located next to a big neighbour and based on our data, Spain is an important entry point for Portugal into the core of the EU. Spain has probably not been delivering as well as would have been expected over recent years, so that is somewhat of a problem for Portuguese engagement. We found that this can be overcome through issue areas that I will also refer to shortly. Finland has engaged strongly with the Baltic environment. It helps a great deal that the Baltic states have seen quite an interesting trajectory since joining the EU and are playing a very interesting role that is different from both the V4 and south-eastern Europe.

We thought this was worth exploring further. I can only be staccato really and hope the committee will forgive me for that. The consultation between the UK and Ireland is one where some of the geography and interests make it more difficult so the question of how to bring it towards the centre of the EU is of great interest.

I want to talk about priorities and partners because on this occasion we tried to find out what the priorities of governments across the EU are for the coming years. This is the answer we get for the entire EU. Members can browse the document. This is the overall picture I am outlining. When we went out in the field in summer of last year, the top four topics or priorities were a common immigration and asylum policy, a single fiscal policy and eurozone governance, a fully completed Single Market and a common border police and coast guard. We do not know what that means in the end regarding a consensus on a direction of travel in these policies in the context of this visualisation. This is just a broad list of priorities. Members can look at countries. I will quickly jump to Ireland to see where it finds itself. Members can see that the fully completed Single Market, the single fiscal policy and eurozone governance are strongly in line with overall EU interests in what will be the talk of the town in the coming years. It is even more than average regarding the fully completed Single Market. Members will see a plus two here. This matter is really important for Ireland and Irish respondents. Members will also see two areas that get a great emphasis in the sample from our Irish respondents, namely, a common digital policy, which is probably no surprise to members, and the common energy policy. So there are two areas where there is consensus with the EU at large and there is a slightly stronger emphasis than the EU average on three of them.

What we then tried to do was structure the findings of our survey and ask who shares those priorities with Ireland and thinks Ireland is an important partner in these areas. These are the results we obtained. If members look at the fully completed Single Market, which is the number one priority here, they will see in bold that the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Finland also agree that this is an important priority. What one would wish for in this visualisation is for a blue dot to appear next to them, which I will show by jumping to Sweden. Sweden's top priorities are set out. If members look at the fully completed Single Market, they will see that Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Finland appear. Ireland appears a bit less because it is less statistically relevant in our serving but it is still there. Then there are blue dots - a little blue dot and a larger blue dots. That means that Ireland thinks that the fully completed Single Market is a priority and thinks that Sweden is a partner in this. Here members can see that the Government representatives with whom we talked and the academics we included see that there is already a relationship here that is probably worth exploring because it is not that developed. We call a match making platform. It is a lot about perceptions. We hope it is a bit of a quarry for ideas. If members look at preferences and shared interests to show them what they can do with this instrument, they will see that we are asking which EU member states generally share many of Ireland's long-standing interests on EU policies. That goes beyond day-to-day business and is about a longer-term commitment to the EU, eurozone membership, etc. Interestingly, Malta, Cyprus, the UK, Luxembourg and Portugal show up as countries that share a great deal of interests with Ireland when it comes to EU affairs at large. This shows the results we get from the Irish respondents.

Members can move between the two. Here we have a broad range of countries. Interestingly, the Nordic countries, France, Germany and the Netherlands show up. These are really lopsided relationships. This is something we find quite a bit. It is not exclusively relevant to Ireland. By and large, in all our data, there are only eight mature bilateral relationships. Members can probably think of some of them such as the Franco-German relationship, the Germans and the Dutch, the Slovaks and the Czechs, the Finns and the Swedes, etc., but there is then a lot of lopsidedness that we think is worth exploring because it means there is an interest in one side and not so much on the other. What is the reason for that? There are many ties that do not show up that are close to non-existent. We believe that in this environment of European integration, from a strategic perspective, there is far more potential to engage not only in like-minded initiatives in bilateral relationships but also in more conflictual relationships. We believe that, ultimately, this serves the health and vitality of the Union at large. We do not want to promote a Union that only consists of bilateralism and is a kind of Congress of Vienna-style intergovernmental union. We think it is very important to place that into the wider EU context. This is also a strategic question to ask. What does the emergence of new bilateralisms across the board mean for the overall cohesion of the EU? This is just a thought to leave with members. I stand ready to respond to questions and to go deeper into some of our findings. Our hope as a think tank is that there will be a renewed debate based on data we gather. We continue to gather the data and have done so for the second time. We are refining our methodology as we go along and will do this again next year. We hope to be even more interesting and accurate that time around. I thank members for their attention.


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