With the European elections just a few weeks away and the European institutional cycle drawing to a close, it’s time to take stock and look to the future.

By Jean-Noël BARROT, French Minister Delegate for Europe, attached to the Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs

Looking back five years, it is plain to see that the today’s European Union has little in common with that of 2019. Europe has had to transform fundamentally at pace in the face of a fast-changing geopolitical landscape. The return of war to the European continent, the acceleration of China-US rivalry, the aggressive postures of certain regional powers and the weaponization of interdependences during the public health crisis required Europe to rethink its role in light of the new challenges of a more brutal and uncertain world.

In response to this new context, Europe’s Heads of State and Government adopted a genuine roadmap in March 2022, at France’s instigation: the “Versailles Agenda”. It charts a clear and ambitious course for the European Union to strengthen our defence capabilities, build a solid economic base and reduce our strategic dependencies. This roadmap needs to be deployed and its implementation needs to be both accelerated and expanded. That should be the goal of the new strategic agenda for 2024-2029.

With this in mind, I believe the strategic priorities of the next European Commission should be built around three pillars: (i) a more sovereign Europe guaranteeing the continent’s security; (ii) a more competitive and resilient Europe; (iii) a democratic Europe that defends its value model.

A geographical power Europe guaranteeing the continent’s security

In a particularly unstable geopolitical context, as theatres of conflict multiply, including on the European continent, security must be a key aspect of the future strategic agenda to address the world’s brutalization.

Our top priority must be to provide our full civilian and military support to Ukraine as long and as intensively as it takes, so that Russia cannot win. We need to do more, and better. That is an imperative both moral and geostrategic.

At the same time, we need to continue building a genuine Defence Europe. That requires us to swiftly strengthen our European defence capabilities by boosting the production capacity of the European industrial and technological base and developing appropriate financial mechanisms. In particular, we need to shift from an approach of transferring our stocks to one of producing and acquiring equipment. That will need both public and private finance. The recently decided evolution of the European Investment Bank’s investment mandate is an important first step, but we must go further.

We also need to find a global response to the challenge of migration, which requires progress on its external dimension with enhanced dialogue with countries of origin and transit and on European readmission mechanisms. This is an essential corollary of the Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was a major victory for the defenders of a mature Europe in the form of a recent historic agreement.

While adopting the European Green Deal gave us the means to make Europe the global leader in the ecological transition, we need to work to better preserve the right of future generations to live in a healthy environment, making Europe the first “electric” and “decarbonized” continent and making the health of Europeans a top priority. The new strategic agenda will also need to enable us to better prepare for greater numbers of natural disasters by bolstering our civil protection capabilities and cooperation.

A competitive and resilient Europe

The European Union is a great power that is open to exchanges and has exceptional economic potential. As the world’s largest economy and leading trading bloc, with one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, its normative power today means that the rules it sets will lead the rest of the world in its wake.

Since the adoption of the Versailles Agenda in 2022, we have conducted a powerful industrial policy in the strategic sectors where we were most dependent, in order to provide a European production capacity while diversifying our suppliers. This momentum needs to be continued and stepped up, with an expansion of the agenda in areas where there has not been sufficient progress, such as defence, as well as food security and healthcare. We also need to strengthen our economic security, protecting our most critical assets and fighting the protectionist and distorting practices of our competitors while promoting effective fair competition.

If we are to amplify this resilience agenda, we need to invest in the most innovative sectors where we cannot afford to fall behind our partners and competitors.

This means targeting key fields for the European Union’s future, like artificial intelligence, biotech and quantum computing. While the Versailles Agenda stressed critical sectors where we are in a position of dependency or vulnerability, this new agenda should focus on high-technology sectors.

We also need to once again make use of the lever of joint borrowing, as we did in 2021 in the fight against COVID-19. When it comes to the risk of falling behind the United States, we should remember that by 2027, the consolidated debt of the Member States of the European Union will be no more than 80% of GDP, compared to the federal debt of the United States at 135% of GDP. The United States have decided to run a deficit in order to invest in strategic sectors and the green transition.

We need to adopt an ambitious investment, simplification and competitiveness agenda to head of the risk of decline for good.

That is where the challenge of the next five years lies: fighting the risk of being left behind by China and the United States and enabling ourselves to resume global leadership in key sectors. The upcoming Draghi report will seek to inform us on means of achieving that. Lastly, to enhance the European Union’s competitiveness, it is essential to unleash the power of our internal market of 440 million consumers. Internally, I see three priorities for action: capital, through the capital markets union; skills, through education and training; and the regulatory environment and simplification. Externally, we need to draw more on Europe’s normative capacity to protect common goods and make foreign businesses that wish to export to the European Union respect our standards, including social and health standards.

A democratic Europe that protects its freedoms and values

As we increasingly face attempts to destabilize our democracies, it is essential to give the European Union the means to better protect our freedoms and fundamental values and to export this model in a world that is increasingly challenging them.

That means firstly reaffirming the principle of a Union founded on values, by defending and promoting the rule of law which is, it should be recalled, a strict condition of EU membership itself. I have in mind greater use of mechanisms to prevent or address attacks on the rule of law, as well as ambitious action to advance gender equality.

At the same time, we need to bring to fruition a genuine European democratic space, protected from foreign interference and based on healthy public debate. Protecting our democratic systems will require us to fight more actively against misinformation, interference in our electoral processes, and cyber threats. The Defence of Democracy package currently being discussed in Brussels should enable us to strengthen European coordination in this area, where I would like to see swift progress.

Strengthening the democratic functioning of the European Union is all the more necessary as we must prepare for the prospect of an enlargement. This shift is both existential and essential for the European project that is taking shape. The strategic agenda will have to prepare us for this, helping us to determine the appropriate institutional reforms: those that will guarantee efficient and democratic functioning of institutions suited to an enlarged Union.

In the last five years, we have collectively broken taboos and moved forward in building a sovereign Europe. Today, we are on the right track but we have not yet arrived. For the next institutional cycle, we need to continue this sovereignty agenda with ambition and level-headedness, in order to continue forging a European Union that is ready for the many challenges that lie ahead.