European Leadership: The EU as a Global Actor

By Noah McLean, Ozan Beran Akturan, Esfandiar Rouhani, Andrew Paolo Olivei and Callaway Rogers

How to make globalization an opportunity instead of a threat is the climacteric question of political leadership in the twenty-first century. For the European Union, this question of leadership comes both with opportunities and challenges.

At home, the EU’s internal leadership is characterized by various challenges. From Central Europe to Scandinavia, the EU’s safeguarding of its values of diversity, democracy, and supranational governance is strained by rising populism and nationalism.

At the international level, however, Europe has various political and economic chances to exhibit leadership. In particular, the increasingly unilateral attitude of the United States not only gives Europe a chance to take over the vacuum left by the Americans, but can also spur it to adopt a new position as a burgeoning global actor.

The United States has recently been pursuing a self-centered international policy and looking for supporters, not equal partners. The recent withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNHRC and UNESCO are only the tip of the iceberg. Tentative withdrawals from WTO and NAFTA are also on the isolationist agenda of Trump administration.

On the other hand, the EU is an organization that is committed to multilateral dialogue for the solution of global problems. Especially after Trump’s EU-skeptic attitude at the NATO summit in July and the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, the fracture in transatlantic trust has harmed the atmosphere of cooperation, leaving the EU with the need to decrease its dependence on the United States.

As the French President Emmanuel Macron said in his address to German Bundestag on November 18, Europe must not “become a plaything of great powers… and must not accept a subordinate role in world politics.” This global political leadership that Macron is urging for should have two goals: “winning more sovereignty” as a union and “guiding (the world) on the road to peace” by not letting it “slip into chaos”.

In want of a new global vision, the union put Global Strategy for the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy into action in June 2016. Now, it is time for the EU to define itself an international niche, as suggested by European leaders, in order to become a global power.

This article looks at three opportunities for the EU to realize its global leadership potential: saving the Iran nuclear deal, getting involved with emerging world leaders through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and pioneering an awakening international interest in Africa via political dialogue and economic partnership as equals.


On July 14, 2015, Iran, the UN Security Council P5 countries (China, Russia, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom) plus Germany, and the EU formally agreed to institute the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to reduce economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for a systematic restructuring of the country’s nuclear program. In addition to its significance for global denuclearization, the deal was a watershed moment in EU’s political history: it was the first major international agreement of this scale that the EU signed as a single political entity, a status recently codified by the Lisbon Treaty. For the EU, orchestrating the deal as a unified body was hence a huge step forward towards centralization and global leadership.

The international status quo on Iran was challenged drastically by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA. Even though this American isolationism drove a wedge between European and US interests, at the same time, it gave the EU the decision to save the deal, which represents a new opportunity for Europe to showcase its leadership capability as a global power-in-the-making.

Public statements of various EU officials, most notably Federica Mogherini (who, by analogy, would be EU’s Foreign Affairs Minister), make clear that the EU refuses to back down from the deal and is actively encouraging European companies to reopen trade with Iran. This is the EU’s public stand against divergent US interests: the organization is assuming a new and more prominent role on the western international front by running a surprisingly adamant political and bureaucratic campaign to save the deal.

The EU’s vocal stand against the United States is a clear departure from international economic norms. Multiple high-profile EU representatives have stated that they “are not American vassals,” countering American hegemony for the sake of constructive international dialogue and partnerships. European leaders are eager to show they are capable of not simply being in service of uncooperative American interests and trying to become less economically dependent, although European concerns about military dependence on NATO are still unresolved.

The EU has been encouraging trade with Iran by instituting the Blocking Statute, which aims to minimize costs incurred by foreign trade regulations and make it easier for European firms not to comply with US sanctions. Although the success of this statute is debatable, European leaders are clearly unafraid of creating legislation and wielding their economic power to safeguard their partnership interests from American influence. Thus, the ability and will to realistically separate itself from the isolationist elements of American politics became a key aspect of the EU’s litmus test of global leadership.

Although the United States will reimpose sanctions on Iran, and threaten secondary sanctions on trading partners, the EU will continue to honor the agreement. This critical disagreement will most likely economically harm European firms ambivalent about which side to take. As both superpowers flex their economic muscles, the world watches. Despite its cost, this is the EU’s golden opportunity to step forward and present itself as a global game-changer, now fully involved in world politics.

EU-Shanghai Cooperation Organization

As one of the earliest Euro-Asian international diplomatic initiatives, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO, originally Shanghai Five) is led by China and Russia. Founded in 1996 with the stated goal of battling terrorism, separatism, and extremism, the SCO, along with the members Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, India, and Pakistan, represents 40 percent of world’s population.

The SCO has proved to be a to-go international platform. In addition to its member states, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey have joined the group as observers, making alignment with non-Western emerging global powers a starker reality (Figure 1). By acknowledging new alignment camps in politics, such as the SCO, can EU initiate engagement with countries that are in need of tighter—and tougher—dialogue?

Given that all the post-Soviet states in Central Asia except Turkmenistan have joined the organization after decades-long American and European lack of interest in the region, the EU, as a growing leader, should eventually recognize the continued growth of the SCO over politically isolated regions. Although the EU’s potential partnership with Central Asia and India is more strategic than immediately practical, working more closely with it would allow the EU to assume a more global vision as an international political actor.

There are also indirect effects of the growing traction of the SCO on the EU. As Turkey, with its candidacy for full EU membership for nineteen years now, previously ‘threatened’ to turn to the SCO instead of following its arduous and half-hearted accession agenda, time will prove if the expanding sphere of Russian-Chinese influence, and its new power dynamic on the international scene, will bear significant costs to the EU’s strength in creating diplomatic consensus around its border.   

Thus, a significant European leadership test is how well the EU can integrate and engage its aspirant members, like Turkey, as well as its neighbouring regions. In this regard, the relative success of European Neighborhood Policy in creating multilateral partnership with EU’s southern and eastern neighbors can guide EU to find common working grounds with the SCO. Given the SCO’s extensive investment in Afghanistan, and the member countries’ intensifying diplomatic relations with Iran, Europe can, thus, debate possible partnership opportunities with the SCO considering its involvement with the Iran after the nuclear deal and its nation building efforts in Afghanistan.

Although possible partnership or increased dialogue with SCO might seem like a good opportunity for EU to actualize its Global Strategy, the Union must be wary, however, of the organization’s ulterior motives. In the name of fighting extremism, the Chinese and Russiangovernments could be using the organization to dilute the growing global opposition to their poor human-rights records.

Further, within the SCO, China and Russia have a lot of in-house tension, drawing criticism of inefficiency and impracticality. While these two agenda-setters use the organization as a tool to spread their influence, continued accusations of an inability to come to a joint agreement haunts the organization. However, despite its issues, the SCO has been progressively growing as an international organization led by two non-Western powers, successfully gaining more recognition than ever.

The SCO is an influential non-Western formation that was once missing in the international diplomatic scene, waiting to be incorporated into EU’s global strategy. In light of a recent American reluctance to take part in international initiatives, the EU is left stranded without viable powers to turn to for help. The question of whether or not EU will capitalize on this opportunity to engage with other emerging world leaders—as it is doing in the course of saving the Iran nuclear deal—is still unresolved. 

Map of current and acceding SCO member and observer states, along with dialogue partners. (Source: SCO Council on Foreign Relations)


The EU experienced its biggest influx of immigrants and refugees since WWII in 2015, peaking at more than one million migrants in that year alone, mostly from Africa and the Middle East. For African refugees, interethnic violence and a broadening gap between population growth and economic opportunity at home were largely responsible for this large-scale immigration.

Although the total number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean has fallen since reaching 5,096 in 2016, the journey only continued to increase in peril. Lacking alternatives, many Africans have turned to human smugglers to attempt the journey, becoming subjects of rampant exploitation, with many frequently reporting physical abuses and some even sold into slavery. Many of those who manage to set sail for Europe fare no better—risking their lives at the mercy of the Mediterranean and under-resourced rescue ships.

In response to this, Europe, over the last five years, has quickly assumed a leadership role in managing the migrant crisis. To stem the flow of migrants, the EU’s immediate response was to incentivize African governments to prevent migrants from embarking on the journey to Europe at the first place. However, with almost seven thousand African migrants now locked in inhumane living conditions at various EU-supported migrant detention camps in Libya alone, Europe is in search of a better strategic lead on the problem.

The inevitable security concerns about European domestic safety, which have been successfully exploited by various nationalist and populist European right-wing parties, combined with the palsied European management of the migration crisis, have hence prompted the EU to look at ways to fundamentally restructure its partnership with Africa.

Therefore, during the State of the Union Address on September 12th, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced that “Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnership”. As border security alone will not solve the immigration crisis, Europe is considering establishing an equitable partnership with Africa to focus on economic incentivization to help tackle the root causes of the problems that have been driving this large scale immigration.

This sudden shift in attitudes reflects an acknowledgement that multi-dimensional investment in Africa has the potential to be beneficial for both sides. This EU-Africa partnership thus will not solely be centered on stemming the flow of immigration. For example, with soaring global commodity prices, new investments in exploration and production in Africa can take place within the next decade.

Along with the fact that by 2034, Africa is expected to have a larger workforce than China and India and the fastest rate of urbanisation in the world, a relationship between Europe and Africa based on reciprocal interest has the potential to create many economic and political partnership opportunities to both parties.

As exemplified by the greater Africa focus of EU’s new External Investment Plan, which aims to build resilience in fragile states and societies by supporting and structuring private investments, the EU, concomitant to increasing security concerns, is leading a new chapter of economic engagement with Africa with the hopes of eventual equal partnership.

However, monetary investment will not suffice. Rather, to do more before crises happen, Europe should assume a holistic leadership model in the continent by closely coordinating with African countries of origin and transit. Thus, to create a more prosperous Africa in which a growing youth population can not only feel safe enough to stay but also thrive, it is exciting to see European humanitarian leadership in Africa scaling into new dimensions of economic and diplomatic partnership.


Recently, American and European political interests, with their economical ramifications, have become distinct. In this regard, the institution of the JCPOA was an important moment in political history. Although the American exit from the agreement undermined the sense of transatlantic partnership, it prompted a transition in the EU’s approach towards building international consensus. It gave the EU the opportunity to impose its authority as a distinct political-economic power. European leaders have made the bold decision to be more independent of the American agenda while asserting their own ideology. While the EU’s decision has not seemed to yield any tangible benefits yet, trade deals have powerful implications for the global community over a long timespan.  

Political leadership also requires forming strategic dialogue with world powers, such as China and Russia, with which EU might not directly share more than economic or security interests. For this reason, although Europe might not identify with the Chinese and Russian attitude for global leadership, in light of their growing sphere of influence, it should at least acknowledge the SCO’s motivation. Partnership with the SCO holds opportunities for the EU, especially in Central Asia, where EU desires to step up its engagement. Further, the EU is creating political dialogue with Africa to work towards establishing economic partnership as equals. This African strategy, although mostly necessitated by security reasons, can guide EU’s approach to the SCO as well.

However, the future of the EU’s place as an international leader also depends on the way it will handle its struggle for assuring the European unity against the threats of nationalism and populism. How the EU, as a whole, will counter these internal trends and maintain European unity around the protection of its values will determine the strength of Europe as a union and whether or not it can become a strong leader of its own future at home. Therefore, perhaps before all else, European Union must be able to present an internally unified front to the world in concert with taking advantage of the recent global momentum it created for itself.

The image featured in this article’s headline belongs to the European Union. Conditions surrounding the public use of the image can be found here, and the original image can be found here.