It’s time for the EU to step up efforts to revamp the liberal international order

The EU stands at a critical juncture. It must now mobilise a concerted commitment to revitalising and reforming the liberal international order, write Helene Sjursen, Viacheslav Morozov, Michela Ceccorulli, Enrico Fassi, Sonia Lucarelli, Senem Aydın-Düzgit, Thomas Diez, Franziskus von Lucke, Pol Bargués-Pedreny, Jonathan Joseph, Ana E. Juncos and Johanne Døhlie Saltnes

Major conflicts are eroding the liberal international order and posing serious challenges to the EU. Russia’s war against Ukraine has accelerated de-globalisation trends. The insecurity of dependence on global supply and production chains involving authoritarian powers has led to moves by nation states to ensure greater self-sufficiency.

Current crises have exposed the flaws of the liberal international order; however, they have also demonstrated its indispensability for global peace and prosperity.

John Ikenberry argues that the US would be mistaken to give up its leadership of the liberal international order. Yet, the same logic applies to the EU, which needs to exert its influence to secure a re-envisioning of that order to make it more just and durable. In a special section of the journal International Affairs, we discuss how the EU might ramp up efforts to ‘rescue’ the liberal international order.

Transparency and inclusion

The EU is focusing on geopolitical concerns and on efforts to achieve strategic autonomy. But while it does so, it should not forget that an efficient foreign policy requires legitimacy. To enhance the acceptability of the liberal international order, the EU should emphasise transparency, inclusiveness and consistency.

To enhance the acceptability of the liberal international order, the EU should emphasise transparency, inclusiveness and consistency

Yet to bolster support for a rules-based international order, simply searching for arguments to persuade others of the rightfulness of the principles of a liberal international order is unlikely to be sufficient. The challenge for the EU is, instead, to change existing institutions and procedures in a way that ensures that all affected have a say in interpreting the principles of this order, and the ways in which they should be implemented.

Burden-sharing in migration

Migration, while a critical test of the liberal credentials of European political communities, also represents a golden opportunity. The geopolitical landscape is becoming increasingly unstable. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the EU has learned some important lessons. It now knows it could cope with mass refugee arrivals, and offer rapid and effective emergency relief to people in search of protection.

The EU's Temporary Protection Directive gives refugees a temporary right to accommodation. Adoption of the Directive shows that it is indeed possible to achieve humanitarian and strategic objectives at the same time. Receiving refugees from Ukraine has strong support in Europe. This demonstrates how the EU can confront Russia while offering protection and relief to those whose lives have been disrupted by the latter’s actions. For that to work, however, member States must share the burden. They must also respect the human rights of those fleeing from war.

Increasing representation

Human rights protection is a key principle of the EU’s foreign policy, and its commitment to the liberal international order. Yet the Union’s human rights policies have attracted criticism for inconsistencies and a lack of transparency.

When seeking to promote human rights, the EU could work to create better avenues for dialogue with individuals and affected parties. This is especially important in the EU’s relations with states where citizens face difficulties in making their voices heard. Thus, strengthening real and honest human rights dialogues with stakeholders in third states is one way to compensate for the EU's otherwise executive-driven human rights arrangements.

Strengthening the global climate regime

To strengthen climate protection, the EU must draw on its progressive reputation while reinforcing its political ties with emerging economies. It must implement the Green Deal stringently; indeed, the carbon border tariff is essential to prevent actors from undermining the Deal. Strict implementation of the Deal will demonstrate that green transition and welfare are not mutually exclusive, but must be considered together.

Reinvigorating the Green Diplomacy Network would spur climate-regime laggards to increase their commitment to combatting climate change

The EU is now being given the chance to demonstrate respect for the Global South. It must take the needs and ideas of Global South countries seriously, and enhance their standing in international negotiations. A reinvigoration of the Green Diplomacy Network would provide the means to forge a new consensus. This would place more pressure on laggards in the climate regime to increase their contributions to combatting climate change.

Prioritising EU enlargement

EU-Turkey relations are currently at a low point. However, the EU stands to benefit from a Turkey which ultimately returns to democracy and the rule of law. Relying on a purely transactional relationship devoid of any rules and values will not prevent Turkey from challenging the EU. This is because the nature of contestation in Turkish foreign policy lies in the authoritarian nature of its regime.

Through closer engagement with rights-based organisations in EU-enlargement candidate states, the EU could ease their path to accession

Turkey is still, formally, a candidate country for EU accession. The EU would thus gain from prioritising the rule of law in its relations with Turkey. It would also benefit from developing novel mechanisms to support the rule of law, primarily through closer engagement with the Turkish public and rights-based organisations. The EU could extend this approach to other countries in the enlargement queue that are suffering from the erosion of the rule of law during their prolonged accession path.

Building equality and cohesion

Exploiting the discontent of those who have been left behind in the historic transformation of the post-Cold War period has so far been the exclusive preserve of right-wing populists. The polarisation of European societies constitutes an obvious concern. A new policy of redistribution could complement the imperatives of economic security and the green transition as part of Europe’s bid for leadership in a changing world.

Greater economic equality and social cohesion should be political priorities for the whole of Europe. Now could be the perfect moment to reinstate them. Doing so, however, would require keen commitment to the restoration of Ukraine. It would also require a plan for Russia that could (when the nation is ready) help it decentralise politically and redistribute its abundant resources in favour of the formerly colonised periphery.

If the EU is serious about rescuing the liberal international order, it should move away from its current strategies of ‘crisisification’, panic politics and geopolitical paranoia. It must promote a bottom-up liberal order that focuses on common norms, representation, justice and mutual recognition.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Helene Sjursen Helene Sjursen Research Professor, ARENA Centre for European Studies, University of Oslo More by this author
photograph of Viacheslav Morozov Viacheslav Morozov Professor of International Political Theory, Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu More by this author
photograph of Michela Ceccorulli Michela Ceccorulli Associate Professor of Political Science, Department of Political Science, University of Bologna More by this author
photograph of Enrico Fassi Enrico Fassi Senior Assistant Professor, Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, Catholic University, Milan More by this author
photograph of Sonia Lucarelli Sonia Lucarelli Professor of International Relations, University of Bologna More by this author
photograph of Senem Aydın-Düzgit Senem Aydın-Düzgit Professor of International Relations, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sabancı University More by this author
photograph of Thomas Diez Thomas Diez Professor of International Relations, University of Tübingen More by this author
photograph of Franziskus von Lucke Franziskus von Lucke Postdoctoral Researcher in International Relations, Institute of Political Science, University of Tübingen More by this author
photograph of Pol Bargués-Pedreny Pol Bargués-Pedreny Research Fellow, Barcelona Centre for International Affairs More by this author
photograph of Jonathan Joseph Jonathan Joseph Professor, School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol More by this author
photograph of Ana E. Juncos Ana E. Juncos Professor of European Politics, University of Bristol More by this author
photograph of Johanne Døhlie Saltnes Johanne Døhlie Saltnes Collaborating Researcher and Lecturer, University of Brasilia More by this author

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