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Sweden’s then-foreign minister, Carl Bildt, at a press briefing in Berlin, Germany Sweden’s then-foreign minister, Carl Bildt, at a press briefing in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 8, 2014 (AP photo by Markus Schreiber).

Carl Bildt on the ‘Practical Necessity’ Driving Deeper EU Integration

Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020

“On foreign and defense policy, absolutely, there is an ambition to be more united, and that vision is shared by all of the member countries,” says Carl Bildt, former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister, about the European Union. “Then in practice, as you’ve seen, there are divergences, and they are more or less clear in different areas.”

Those divergences have frustrated advocates of a more forceful EU that operates on the world stage with “strategic autonomy,” a phrase Mr. Bildt finds “confuses more than it clarifies.” But he adds, as someone who has “been watching these things for a fairly long time, I’ve seen a gradual convergence of foreign policy positions.”

During his career as an international diplomat, Mr. Bildt served as the EU’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia and high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the U.N. special envoy for the Balkans, and the co-chair of the Dayton Peace Conference. He is currently co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The EU faces a range of foreign policy challenges today, including managing persistent tensions with Russia and Turkey, defining its long-term relationship with the U.K., and navigating its increasingly competitive relations with China. All of those are complicated by the unprecedented strains in trans-Atlantic ties during the presidency of Donald Trump.

Asked about the implications of another four years of Trump, Mr. Bildt says, “If you ask around the European capitals these days about that issue, I think there is sheer horror at that particular prospect.” Nevertheless, he doesn’t expect a return to the status quo before Trump in the event Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, “because the world has moved on and the challenges are different.”

The EU will continue to seek deeper integration and cooperation to better advance and defend its interests, Mr. Bildt believes. But that process will be driven, “not by ideological visions, but by practical necessity in a world of increasing challenges too great for the individual nation states to handle on their own.”

Mr. Bildt joined WPR’s editor-in-chief, Judah Grunstein, on the Trend Lines podcast last week. Listen to the full conversation here:


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The following is a full transcript of the interview.

World Politics Review: Mr. Bildt, thanks so much for joining us on Trend Lines.

Carl Bildt: My pleasure.

WPR: Let’s start with what’s been a major overarching theme of European Union discussions recently—this question of strategic autonomy and how the EU can promote and defend Europe’s interests in what’s seen as an increasingly competitive global landscape. Do you find this framework of strategic autonomy useful, and, if so, how would you define it?

Bildt: Well, I find it very difficult to define it, and sometimes I find that the phrase confuses more than it clarifies. And, of course, there are also somewhat different agendas behind it, if you look at the debate that’s going on between the EU countries. You could say that there are some countries who have been driving this for a long time, the French primarily.

But then, there have been events during the last few years that have accelerated the debate. You might say that the COVID crisis has indicated the need to be perhaps self-sufficient on different things. We’ll see how far that debate goes. I think the confrontation that we’ve had with the U.S. over secondary sanctions on Iran has demonstrated that, if U.S. actions can de facto make European foreign policy null and void, that is a long-term strategic problem that we’ll have to face.

As I’ve been watching these things for a fairly long time, I’ve seen a gradual convergence of foreign policy positions.

So there are quite a number of different streams coming into this discussion about strategic autonomy. And you might note that, while the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, says that this is the task of our generation, when the commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, presented her State of the Union Address to the European parliament a few weeks ago, the concept wasn’t there at all. And this reflects some of the uncertainties and unclarities that are there in the concept so far.

WPR: To the extent it’s a goal that the European Union collectively decides to pursue, do you believe that it can be achieved without further integration, particularly when it comes to fiscal policy and especially common foreign and defense policy?

Bildt: I think they’re very different in the different areas. There are, of course, areas where we have complete strategic autonomy, if we want to phrase it like that. We have trade policy that’s done on the European level—there’s no national trade policy any longer—where the European Union is a very a strong actor on the global stage.

Fiscal policy is always going to be primarily national. If you look at the share of the GDP spent, most countries in Europe have a public sector of roughly 40 percent of GDP, some with less, some with more. The EU spending is 1 percent of GDP. We have now the temporary recovery package, but essentially it is 1 percent of GDP, versus the national states that are around 40 percent of GDP. So fiscal policy is going to be primarily national for the foreseeable future.

On foreign and defense policy, absolutely, there is an ambition to be more united, and that vision is shared by all of the member countries. Then in practice, as you’ve seen, there are divergences, and they are more or less clear in different areas. But as I’ve been watching these things for a fairly long time, I’ve seen a gradual convergence of foreign policy positions. We have a new debate now whether one should abandon the demand for unanimity in terms of certain foreign policy decisions. We’ll see how that will go. It will not apply to all foreign and security policy decisions, but it might apply to some, and that might come in some years time.

WPR: You alluded to it in your first answer, and now you lead me to it in this one. In terms of the major obstacles to further integration where it’s necessary, do you see them as mainly institutional, such as this question of qualified majority voting that you just mentioned? Or do you see them primarily as political, in terms of the different threat perceptions and priorities especially between the East and the West of Europe, but also at times the North and the South?

Bildt: It could be all of the above. But I think that you will see further integration when the states feel the need for it. If there are different challenges of different sorts—and I think there will be—where any prime minister and president would be forced to say to himself, “I can’t handle this alone. We need to do it together,” then I think you will see that they will move forward with further integration to do things on the European level. A prime example of that during the last five or 10 years is with climate policy. You can’t really do effective climate policy on the national level. You have to do it on the European level in order to have any sort of weight on the global stage.

And I think part of that will now apply to global health policy as well, where there will be the need to do more together. It is clearly applied to trade policy. And I think you’ll see it applying increasingly to a number of different policies and regulatory aspects derived from the single market. We’ve seen the GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] on data privacy and the global impact that has had.

So it will be driven, I think, not by ideological visions, but by practical necessity in a world of increasing challenges too great for the individual nation states to handle on their own.

You can’t really do effective climate policy on the national level. You have to do it on the European level in order to have any sort of weight on the global stage.

WPR: Getting to some of the specific policy debates and challenges that are going on these days, starting with the EU’s immediate neighborhood. We’ve seen a lot of debate about how to manage relations with Russia and Turkey. Obviously, they’re different cases with specific factors involved, but I think some of the questions with regard to them are common, particularly whether to prioritize confrontation or dialogue. How do you see the challenges that Russia and Turkey present to the EU? And do you feel that the challenges are mainly driven by the leadership of those countries under Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or do you feel that they’re more structural?

Bildt: Well, as you point out, it is very different with Turkey and Russia, but as to the last aspect of it, there’s no question that the personality element is there. To what extent that is structural—well, we will have to see that, when there are other leaders in those countries, to which extent that was the case.

Very different, but I will say, to take your overall question, the priority for the EU would clearly be dialogue to sort out the different issues that are there. But we’ve also seen the difficulties of that.

If you take the disagreement that we have with the Russians, it’s essentially about what the Russians classify as their “near abroad,” where they claim some sort of right above the ordinary into the lives of what we consider sovereign countries. Most notably, of course, Ukraine, with their annexation of Crimea and with the aggression into eastern Ukraine, but also Georgia, where they have recognized parts of Georgia as independent states. So, Russia suddenly claiming rights in other European countries that are contrary to the very fundamentals aof European security. The main policies of the European Union on those issues has been to help those nations, notably Ukraine, which is the big one, but also, of course, to engage in dialogue—the Minsk process, primarily by the Germans and the French, so far with very little results—and then sanctions to back that up.

Turkey is a more complex case. Turkey is an accession country, formally speaking. It did apply for membership of the European Union a long time ago. Negotiations were started in 2005. They had come to a standstill over quite a number of issues—human rights and the political developments in Turkey, primarily. So I think membership is off the table for the moment, but it’s still there: The accession process hasn’t been closed down; it’s been frozen. There have been significant agreements with Turkey, notably on the handling of refugees. We have a customs union, or, to be precise, they are part of the customs union of the European Union. So that’s a very close trading relationship. But there’s been an escalation of tensions in the last few months, many of them related to the unsolved issue of Cyprus, which is really one of the great failures of diplomacy in the European area over the last 30, 40, 50 years. And that division of Cyprus complicates the relationship quite a lot.

WPR: You mentioned those sticking points with Russia and Turkey. In light of that, and in light of what those countries are demanding, and what the EU and EU member states would be willing to accept, what do you feel is a realistic objective when it comes relations with both countries in the near term and then, eventually, in the medium term beyond that?

Bildt: On the surface of it, it’s not that difficult. If Russia was ready to implement the Minsk agreement on Ukraine, we will seek a solution to the issue of Crimea—somewhat more difficult. But those issues will have to be sorted out, and the issues with Georgia as well. Respect for borders, respect for sovereignty, respect for independence, respect for the rights of every individual European nation to choose the path it does choose to pursue. That’s fundamental. And as long as Russia does not accept that, you will have that tension remaining. It has surfaced in Ukraine and Georgia, as I mentioned. It could surface elsewhere as well, if Russia doesn’t accept these very basic conditions of the European order and European security.

On Turkey, there are numerous issues that have to do with Middle East, but let’s concentrate on the more immediate bilateral issues. There are a number of issues between Greece and Turkey—on the delimitation of continental shelves, of maritime borders, of economic zones, extremely tricky in view of the geography—that can only be sorted out in bilateral talks between Greece and Turkey or by taking the issue to the International Court [of Justice] at some point in time.

If you take the disagreement that we have with the Russians, it’s essentially about what the Russians classify as their “near abroad.”

The same applies to Cyprus, but with Cyprus, there is the added issue, of course, of the division of the island. That is essentially in the hands of the U.N. I noticed that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has now expressed the hope that there would be another attempt [at negotiations]. First, there has to be elections in the Turkish part of Cypress. But there will be another attempt to see if there’s a possibility to get an agreement. Major attempts to get an agreement on the reunification of Cyprus have failed, notably, when the Annan Plan was voted down by the Greek Cypriots [in 2004], and the negotiations in Burgenstock in 2017 that failed also to a large extent because of the Greek Cypriots. But if those two issues can be sorted out, yes, then there are a number of other issues, but those are the ones that are creating the most headaches at the moment.

WPR: So if I’m hearing you correctly, what we’re seeing now with regard to the EU’s relations with Russia and Turkey is what we can expect—periodic tensions and sometimes heightened tensions, but for the most part, a status quo of continued dialogue through those tensions.

Bildt: Well, I would hope so. You never know about Russian politics. I would have thought that there would have been an interest in Russia in sorting out, primarily, the Donbass issue. It’s a burden on Russia. There are no gains that I can see in this particular policy. But so far, the Russians have been fairly intransigent. And then, of course, it has been complicated by the Russian role in Belarus and other places as well. And that has illustrated the basic contradiction that is there between the European Union, which upholds the rights of every nation to choose the path it wants to go, and Russia, which doesn’t really accept that particular right in the countries that are more adjacent to Russia. So that’s a more fundamental clash that we see there.

WPR: Another big challenge that’s playing out as we speak is the negotiations between the EU and the U.K., in terms of defining the terms of their relations and relationship after the end of this year when the transitional Brexit agreement expires. Particularly when it comes to these questions of foreign and defense policy, how do you see that relationship defined in an ideal world? What would be the best-case scenario for the EU’s relationship and interactions with the U.K. when it comes to some of these strategic questions that we’ve been talking about?

Bildt: Well, I fear that the ideal world is not available, in the short term anyhow. I would have wished the issues of foreign and security policy to be on the negotiating table as well between the EU and the U.K., but the U.K. has not been willing to talk about these issues. Let’s see where we end up, with what might be a fairly limited free trade agreement. I think that’s the most that one can hope for at the moment. We’ll see whether it will be possible thereafter to go back to talks on a somewhat broader and more ambitious agreement. The United Kingdom is not a small island in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s a big country, and de facto part of Europe. So we have a longstanding interest to be partners when it comes to foreign and security affairs. But for the moment, that is off the table for the discussion that is going on now.

WPR: The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has proposed this idea of a European Security Council that, from what I understand, would include France, Germany, EU representatives and the U.K., although I’m sure that, if it is ever implemented, it might look differently. Do you see that as a practical or effective solution, and would having the U.K. half-in, half-out simplify or complicate the debates over the questions that we’ve been talking about?

Bildt: Well, it would clearly complicate virtually everything if you compare it to the situation we had a couple of years ago, when the U.K. was part of the European Union, where we had the United Kingdom around the table on every single issue. So any sort of solution of that sort will be a complicated one.

I would have thought that there would have been an interest in Russia in sorting out, primarily, the Donbass issue. It’s a burden on Russia.

The French do have a more elaborate defense relationship with the U.K. They also have another initiative, which they call the European Intervention Initiative, that they have launched. It involves a limited number of European countries, including the U.K., that are developing their capabilities to do military interventions of some sort. It is outside the structures of the European Union, but it will have to be integrated one way or another into the other structures in the long term. We have other elements of more common European defense policies that are driven more by the Germans, that are exclusive for the EU countries. Whether this can be merged into some sort of European Security Council remains to be seen. The word—the concept—has been around for some time, and it’s defined in different ways by different actors. And so far, no one has been able to pin down a concept for a European Security Council that is not very problematic. So let’s see what happens.

WPR: What about some of the other initiatives that have been proposed in terms of developing a European Union or European-wide defense industrial base, as well as some of the even more ambitious proposals about an EU army? How realistic do you think those are, and how big an impact would they have on the EU’s ability to be a strategic actor on a global level?

Bildt: Well, a European army is clearly not on the table. What is happening, both within the framework of the EU and within the framework of NATO, is that our armies are operating together more and more, in terms of training and equipping. And inside the European Union, there’s now a new push when it comes to integrating our defense industries, the so-called PESCO initiative, with quite a large number—close to 20 by now—of different core collaborative projects started between different European countries or their defense industries, to move different technologies and concrete projects forward.

Most notably, we have, although it is slightly outside of these PESCO structure, the French-German proposal both for work on a new air combat system for the future and a new tank for the future. And we have a couple of other systems that are on the way. One of the problems that we face here is that—back to the U.K.—if you look at the European defense industrial base, the U.K. is a very significant part of that. So if you look at it somewhat long term, in terms of the European defense industrial base, I think we must find a way of having the U.K. part of that. Otherwise a lot of these more advanced projects that are now being talked about are going to be difficult.

WPR: Taking a look at trans-Atlantic relations and the European partnership with the United States, the Trump presidency has very obviously introduced tensions into that relationship. But in other ways, it has also served to highlight and exacerbate preexisting divergences, whether it’s priorities or perceptions or emphasis. What impact do you think another four years of a Trump presidency would have on trans-Atlantic ties?

Bildt: If you ask around the European capitals these days about that issue, I think there is sheer horror at that particular prospect. Because the fear is that we would go fairly rapidly towards a trans-Atlantic trade war. There’s quite a lot of things that President Trump has been talking about that he wants to do in terms of the trade relationship with the European Union, and he hasn’t been doing them for a number of reasons, but they might be on the table.

The United Kingdom is not a small island in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s a big country, and de facto part of Europe. So we have a longstanding interest to be partners.

If you were to listen to John Bolton, who is, after all, a smart guy with some insight into these things, he’s saying that Trump might even try to leave NATO. I think that might be slightly exaggerated, but anyhow, there will be tension. What are the long-term intentions in terms of Middle East policy from the American side of the Trump administration for another four years? We don’t know. So there’s enormous uncertainty on what the effects could be of four more years of a Trump administration. But that’s sad. That’s a prospect that fills the ministries of Europe with a horror that they even have difficulty hiding, I think.

WPR: To what extent do you think these debates and discussions of European strategic autonomy have been fueled by this deterioration of ties or the sense of a questioning of the U.S. commitment to Europe?

Bildt: Well, I think they have been fueled quite a lot by actions that the United States has taken. Secondary sanctions or threats of secondary sanctions against European companies have had a profound effect. Because, essentially, if you take America’s own policy, there was an agreed EU Iran policy, with the JCPOA and fulfilling the obligation of that in terms of developing the trade relationship or some cooperative relationship with Iran. That was blocked by the threat of secondary sanctions from the United States. That’s had a chilling effect on the long-term debate.

There’s also been other cases, particularly with Germany. I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily a big fan of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. But with the United States threatening to have sanctions against an ally, that has led to debate in Germany whether one should not now take steps so that Europe can safeguard itself from economic coercion, not primarily from Russia and China, but economic coercion from the United States. And these things, which were unthinkable to even envisage a couple of years ago, are now the subject of active consideration inside ministries in Europe. So it has been a change.

WPR: Assuming a victory by Joe Biden in the election in November, under a Biden presidency, what changes due to the partnership would you expect to see or would you like to see? And is a return to the status quo ante before Trump possible and is it even desirable?

Bildt: I don’t think there will be a return to the status quo as it was four years ago, because the world has moved on and the challenges are different. But the biggest, most significant change would be that there would be, again, an open, constructive relationship across the Atlantic between the White House and the different governments of Europe and Brussels, primarily. That has not been the case during these four years. And that would not necessarily sort out every problem, but it would mean that there would be an inclination to seek alliance solutions.

And there would be change on two topics that have been particularly controversial during this period. On climate change, there would be a change, which is significant, from the U.S. And on the JCPOA relationship with Iran and to a certain extent Middle East policy, there will be change. And then, policies will be more aligned. On trade issues, I don’t think we see the risk of a major escalation of trade tension between the European Union and the U.S. under a Biden administration. But one should note that the Biden program is a fairly heavy dose of economic nationalism as well. So I wouldn’t say that all of those sanctions will go away, but the ways of handling them and the possibility of solving them would clearly be very different under a Biden presidency.

A European army is clearly not on the table. What is happening, within the framework of the EU and of NATO, is that our armies are operating together more and more.

WPR: Obviously the Trump presidency has been a real wake-up call. Historically, there have been shifts in policy and in approach to the alliance between Republican administrations and Democratic administrations. But clearly, Trump pushes that into new extremes. To what extent do European policymakers and the EU have to assume now the real possibility of this kind of radical shift in U.S. administrations? Do you expect that there will be a continued wariness and a sense of needing to have secondary options in case there is another radical pendulum swing four years from now, assuming a Biden presidency?

Bildt: I think there will be a need to change priorities in Europe, and that is, I think, independent on whether it’s a Trump or Biden presidency or whoever’s going to be after the Trump or the Biden presidency. And that has to do with the fact that the U.S. will be far more consumed with East Asia, and notably China. So a far larger share of the United States’ intellectual, political and military resources will have to be allocated to dealing with balancing the growth of Chinese power and handling the Chinese challenge, however you want to phrase it, than has been the case previously. And that means that the share of attention or the share of resources devoted to Europe will diminish, and that will put the demand upon the Europeans to do more together. And I think there’s a recognition of that, and that is independent of who’s going to be in the White House in the next four years and primarily in the next eight years.

WPR: The question of China isn’t one that just affects the U.S. There’s also been quite a bit of discussion in the EU about the EU’s relationship with China, particularly the need to update the approach to China to balance the areas of cooperation that had been emphasized in the past with the emerging areas of competition. Where do you think that balance should be struck with regard to China, in terms of the relative weight between those two approaches?

Bildt: I think it’s rather different in the different areas. That was emphasized by European heads of state and government at their summit last week. There are a number of areas where we have an interest in close cooperation with China, primarily at this time climate, leading up to the COP26 Conference in Glasglow in November of next year. And we have global health issues, where it’s fairly obvious that we need China on board. And you might say that even the reform of the World Trade Organization and things like that, we need China for that as well.

We do have a somewhat more complex trade relationships and economic relationship. There’s somewhat more tension in it. But we should not forget that China is now a bigger trade partner for the European Union and for the euro area than the United States. That’s a new reality. We have rather extensive negotiations that have been going on for seven years on an investment treaty. We’ll see if it will be possible to conclude that during this year, in which case we will sort out some of these issues. But clearly, that tension is going to be there at the same time as we are talking about what is going to be the world’s biggest market for quite some time to come, or for the foreseeable future. And European industry will have to be in that market.

The fear [of another four years of a Trump presidency] is that we would go fairly rapidly towards a trans-Atlantic trade war.

Then there are tensions, notably on human rights issues. Hong Kong has been very much in focus, Xinjiang; Taiwan will be in focus if there’s further tension on that. I think you will see, in addition to the issues of desirable cooperation, you will see also more tension building up on the more political issues in the dialogue. And that has been obvious also in the last two summit meetings that have been held, by video so far, between the EU and China.

WPR: Obviously, having the U.S. and the EU adopting coordinated positions with regard to China on some of the contentious issues with regard to unfair trade practices and the human rights issues that you mentioned would be more effective. Absent that, can the EU take on China in some of these more contentious areas without the support of the U.S.?

Bildt: Depends on the areas. If it’s climate policy, it’s already been done, you could say. Because we’ve been operating European climate policy and global climate policy without the United States for the last four years. The same thing applies to some of the global health issues, where it was the European Union that shaped the conclusions of the latest World Health Assembly, the policymaking body of the World Health Organization, with the Chinese as well. So on a number of these issues, we have been moving forward with China—cooperation or confrontation or whatever—without the United States.

But that being said, the priority in Brussels is clearly to do this together with the U.S. And if there are new possibilities opening up for that, I think that would be welcome. It was agreed between EU High Representative Josep Borrell and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to initiate a high-level dialogue between Brussels and Washington on China. I suspect that we won’t see that dialogue going very far, until you have some clarity on the next presidential administration. But hopefully that dialogue will be constructive in the years to come.

WPR: In the past, when it came to formulating EU policy on China, there were internal divisions, sometimes determined by particular member states’ commercial concerns with regard to China. We’ve seen a gathering consensus that China is a country that needs to be addressed strategically and coherently. What are some of the obstacles to formulating and implementing a sound EU-wide policy approach to China?

Bildt: You’re clearly right in pointing out that there have been some difficulties in the past, but you’re also right in saying that there has been less of that during this year. We had a period when there were one or two member states who were often blocking the possibility for you to say something about human rights, for example—the South China Sea was also complicated area—because they were under heavy Chinese pressure. That has become easier, and I think one of the reasons for that is that we’re seeing a change in Chinese behavior, a somewhat more aggressive diplomatic approach that have become counterproductive. And we’ve all seen mounting concerns over primarily human rights issues in China, and that has led to a more solidified EU position. So at the moment, I don’t see any fundamental disagreements inside the European Union on China policy. There will always be divergences in details and different assessments and different analysis, but that is not more than you will find inside the Beltway of Washington.

We should not forget that China is now a bigger trade partner for the European Union and for the euro area than the United States. That’s a new reality.

WPR: As the tensions between the U.S. and China have really begun to mount, there have been expressions of concern within the EU about becoming collateral damage or being caught in the middle. Obviously, the Trump administration has been putting a lot of pressure on allies around the world, but also in Europe, with regard to some of the tech questions—Huawei and 5G, among others—as well as other differences between the U.S. and China. To your mind, what should the EU be doing to try to insulate itself from these growing tensions between the U.S. and China, and American calls to pick a side, so to speak?

Bildt: Well, I don’t think that we will seek to insulate ourselves from it, to use that phrase. The European Union is keen to develop its own approach based on its own interests and its own values. And those interests and those values are, of course, going to be far closer to those of the United States than they’re going to be to those of China. That is fairly obvious. But whether it will be possible to work more closely together on every single detail very much depends on where U.S. policy’s going to be.

It’s often said that there is no unified EU strategy on China. There’s an element of truth in that. But I would argue that I don’t find a coherent U.S. strategy on China either. It’s been ramping up of tensions. You see that, initially from the Trump side, it was a question of the trade deficit. We have seen increasing national security concern over networks, as you point out. There has also been a tendency to decouple. I don’t think you will see that word used very much in Europe. And there’s a tendency, perhaps, in the U.S. debate to see if there was the possibility to fundamentally press back the development of China. That is not an aspect of that policy that you find very present in the European debate. We believe China’s going to be there. We believe China’s going to be a fairly major economy, be a fairly major power on the global stage. So we’ll have to shape our policies accordingly.

WPR: A lot of the discussion about European strategic autonomy, for better and worse, has been based on a realpolitik approach to a lot of these questions. But as you’ve mentioned a few times just now, there’s also a question of values. In addition to promoting and defending interests, the EU has values that it embraces and defends and tries to promote as well. So given all of these discussions of strategic autonomy, what role should the EU aspire to play both with regard to European citizens, but also the world, given that the international order seems to be increasingly characterized by competition and rivalry and, at times, confrontation and conflict?

Bildt: Yes, that is what we see developing, but I think it will be important from the European point of view to keep values in focus. Europe has a very strong commitment to democracy and human rights. And of course, there are inclinations through realpolitik as well. Europe is not entirely isolated from that. But with an active European Parliament and with public opinion, the human rights elements and the value element are always going to be there in a relationship. You might argue that that is stronger in the areas that are somewhat closer to the European Union—Eastern Partnership, you see it in Belarus, Russia, Turkey—than in the more far away countries. But what you’ve seen in the U.S., during the Trump administration, where issues of human rights and democracy have been downgraded quite significantly, in my opinion, I fail to see that that will be possible in Europe. I rather see that those issues will be more important in the years to come.

It’s often said that there is no unified EU strategy on China. But I would argue that I don’t find a coherent U.S. strategy on China either.

WPR: As the U.S. under the Trump administration has put up more barriers to trade and against multilateralism, the EU has actually embraced new trade agreements with Japan, with Canada, with the Mercosur bloc in South America. Before we wrap up, we’ve been talking about a lot of the headline strategic issues, but where in the world, whether it’s Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East for that matter—where do you see opportunities for the EU as a strategic actor that it might not be taking advantage of or maximizing, and what can be done to try to do so?

Bildt: The most important area for the European Union is always going to be its more adjacent areas. I mean it’s our near abroad. Be that in the Mediterranean area, be that in the Eastern Partnership, Russia, Turkey, the Middle East.

But also, to a very large extent, Africa. Just to give you some figures, if we go back to the year 2000, there was roughly the equal population in the 54 countries of Africa and in the European Union—roughly half a billion. But we see a demographic expansion in Africa, and if we look at the U.N. predictions, by the end of this century, we might be in a situation where 40 percent of the entire working-age population of the world is going to be in Africa.

So there’s an awareness in Europe of the fact that we are close to where the demographic boom of the next century is going to be. And that means that we have a strategic interest in developing relationships with Africa in contributing to the stability and economic development of it. And I’d add to that, that we have increasing security issues in Africa—the Sahel can be mentioned—and that is fueled also by the climate concerns. So that’s the difference that you see in the European and the American debate. The presence of Africa as a long-term concern is much stronger in the European debate for somewhat obvious reasons than you find it in the U.S. debate.

WPR: Mr. Bildt, thank you so much for your time and generosity with your insights.

Bildt: Thank you very much.