Two years can be a long time. When we started the TRIGGER project, in December 2018, the ambition to study the role of the European Union in the global order appeared as a genuine academic endeavour, supported by a consolidated stream of literature in social sciences. At the same time, the debate often remained confined in the aisles of university departments, rather than being a top priority item in the ivory tower of EU policymaking, or among citizens. The Juncker Commission was rather focused on its ten key priorities, timidly projecting its leadership outside the European borders. The election of leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, among others, frustrated any attempt to look at the global order with hope of a planetary alignment on the sustainable development goals. Gradually, the ambition of multilateral fora declined, and the debate shifted on the need for changes in corporate behaviour and adoption of new technologies as the only chances to move out of increasingly unsustainable global trends. All of a sudden, recent achievements such as the SDG declaration and the Paris Agreement on climate, both only three-year old, appeared as a reminiscence of a distant, long-gone past.

Twenty-four months down the road, the context has changed dramatically. On the one hand, EU institutions have become more aware of the need to reaffirm their role in the global order, and the new European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen presented itself as “geopolitical”, more assertive and less willing to compromise on European values in the global sphere. The Sustainable Development Goals have become more central in Europe’s external action and (gradually) in the European Semester, but at the EU level the Commission preferred to avoid the muddy waters of good governance and social impacts, and adopted a “SDG minus” agenda, centred on the twin transition (Green and Digital). Ambitious, bold legislative reforms were put forward in the form of the European Green Deal, the Industrial Strategy, the Data Strategy and several related pieces of legislation. The rise of the EU as the last standing champion of multilateralism was also accompanied by a growing awareness of the decline of soft power in the US: this was both seen as a voluntary retreat by the Trump administration, analysed by scholars from various angles; but also a more subtle and steady decline fostered by rising market concentration (Philippon 2019); excess power of digital platforms (Zuboff 2018); a model of capitalism insufficiently oriented towards sustainability and fairness (Raworth 2017; Kalff and Renda 2019), and the gradual erosion of a once uncontested leadership in innovation (AAAS 2020).1

Unfortunately, the early efforts of the von der Leyen Commission were soon frustrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which hit EU institutions where it hurts the most: healthcare and welfare policies, areas in which EU competences are almost non-existent, and coordination between Member States was (and still is) relatively loose. Since the beginning of 2020, the European Commission was called to make herculean efforts to keep the single market together, avoiding protectionist measures on personal protective equipment and skyrocketing reduction in mobility of people and goods across EU member states. The pandemic has also affected global cooperation, with rising tensions between the United States and China, culminating in explicit accusations of originating, or at least failing to contain, the coronavirus; and a gradual withdrawal of the US from the WHO, accused of flanking Chinese positions and paving the way for “mask diplomacy”, which seems to be leading to new Chinese allies both in Europe (e.g. Hungary) and in neighbouring areas (e.g. Serbia). The pandemic has also fed populism and extremism, with notable peaks in the repeated clashes between French President Macron and Turkish President Erdogan.

Perhaps the emblematic moment of this gradual bouleversement of the global order arrived in November, with the US presidential elections that ushered into a situation of stalemate, with the president-elect Joe Biden facing an almost unprecedented (and frankly preposterous) refusal to concede by the outgoing president Donald Trump, and an ensuing paralysis at a time in which the country is devastated by a pandemic that has already killed 300,000 people since the beginning of 2020, and sees more than 130,000 new cases every day.2 At the moment of writing, it is still unclear whether the US elections will result in a new administration that is more supportive of the multilateral order (as the Biden one promises to be), or in a chaotic transition dominated by post-truth and populist narratives (as the Trump administration has been).

Faced with this turmoil, the European Union has realised the need to “go it alone”, or at least reduce its dependency on strong allies in the pursuit of prosperity, sustainability and peace. The so-called “Sinatra doctrine”, evoked by some scholars referring to the song “My Way”, was rephrased by High Representative Josep Borrell (with respect to China) as a Gainsbourg-Birkin doctrine (Je t’aime, moi non plus), possibly evoking a season in which Europe will finally hold its fate in its hands.3 More generally, references to strategic autonomy and technological sovereignty have proliferated in official documents and speeches of EU leaders throughout this first year of the new legislature. However, as of today it is not clear whether the EU would profit more from an assertive strategy, aimed at strengthening the bloc’s competitiveness and reducing its dependency on other parts of the world; or from a more open strategy, oriented toward forging new alliances (India, Korea, Latin America, Africa) and gradually fill the gap of leadership left by the United States, and not yet occupied by China, in the name of a renewed multilateral order. The impression, so far, is that the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened the initial thrust of the Von der Leyen Commission: at the same time, not without difficulties, the emergency has also led to important steps forward, including the introduction of the possibility to raise finances directly at the EU level, the emergence of the “Team Europe” approach in external action, and an unprecedented agreement on Next Generation EU, which will mobilise massive resources for the protection and transformation of the EU economy in the years to come.

Against this ever-changing backdrop, EU institutions need to find new ways to increase the strength and sharpness of their projection at the global level. They can do this by adopting policies and strategies aimed at strengthening their actorness and effectiveness; by using new tools such as foresight and AI-enabled simulations to define their short-term and medium-term strategies; and by piercing the veil of misinformation and post-truth, engaging more directly with citizens. EU institutions will have the additional responsibility of seeking to “protect” the economy, society and the environment from the devastating health and economic effects of the pandemic; “prepare” them to absorb future shocks (which, also due to the effects of climate change, appear inevitable in the years to come); and “transform” the economy to achieve a dramatic shift towards sustainability, in line with the Green Deal and SDG ambitions (ESIR 2020). At the time of writing it is far from clear how EU institution will manage to implement this “protect-prepare-transform”, and how they are going to solve the possible trade-offs between economic, social and environmental objectives; as well as between “protect” stances, and “transform” ones. To be sure, this will require new tools and a renewed political commitment and cohesion.

The TRIGGER project is working on many of these tools. In particular, we are building AGGREGATOR, an atlas of EU and global governance, which helps comparing the positioning and involvement of the EU in various domains of global governance, and relates it to the specific multi-level governance and differentiated integration arrangements adopted within the EU in different policy domains. AGGREGATOR aims to become a one-stop-shop for consulting information on global and EU governance and will be increasingly complemented by a user-friendly interface that provides suggestions on where to find data and information, including in external sources and databases. AGGREGATOR also incorporates the CEPS Eur-lex database, which enable searches through the acquis communautaire. In the coming months, we will also make the vast corpus of EU impact assessments and ex post evaluations available in machine-readable format: this will add an invaluable source of knowledge to understand what motivated EU action in the past.

While AGGREGATOR represents the analysis of “the past”, we understand that policymakers increasingly need to strengthen their ability to interact in real time with “the present”, and also develop a shared and dynamic vision of “the future”. For us at TRIGGER, the analysis of the present is enhanced by COCTEAU, our public engagement platform aimed at “CO-Creating The European Union”. COCTEAU is based on the idea that policymakers increasingly need to interact with the public when setting their agenda, when working on the implementation of existing policies, and when monitoring and evaluating the impact of their body of rules. During the second half of 2020, we have organised workshops with experts in public engagement and gamification to collect a first round of feedback on the design of COCTEAU, and we are confident that we will be able to develop an innovative tool for policymakers during the third and final year of the project.

Finally, policymakers increasingly need to develop alternative visions for the future. The Von der Leyen Commission has made important steps towards incorporating foresight in the better regulation agenda, and a first report was already published in 2020, with very interesting insights in this respect. TRIGGER goes one step forward, developing medium- and long-term scenarios to 2050, which can orient EU strategic choices by showing the perimeter of possible alternative futures. We built four scenarios (Duplomacy; World Wide Gap; Eutopia; GAIA) which now incorporate also the possible effects of the pandemic.

Past, present and future will co-exist in the PERSEUS platform we are developing for policymakers. This will provide a single user interface for consulting all the research and the data we have developed during the TRIGGER project, accompanying the user through various possible use cases. During 2021, we will organise meetings with policymakers with a variety of portfolios, to find out ways to enhance the user experience by developing built-in pathways for the use of PERSEUS. We will increasingly disseminate the results obtained so far, so that the research and policy communities can provide feedback and hopefully help us on the way towards advancing in the research on Europe’s role in global governance. PERSEUS will be enriched by an important “COVID Extension” (COVE) in 2022, thanks to the recent launch of a new Horizon 2020 project called PERISCOPE, which incorporates key results from the TRIGGER project, a full-scale COVID Atlas and guidance for policymakers on how to take decisions in times of uncertainty, while preserving their orientation towards resilience and sustainability. This will help us achieve new inroads in the quest for data-driven, evidence-based, foresight-based policymaking, and will offer EU institutions with an enhanced set of tools to shape their role in the global landscape.

Author: Andrea Renda