Hans Kribbe said the “ring of friends” hoped for 15 years ago by the then European Commission president Romano Prodi was in fact a circle of “czars, sultans and emperors” who trample over a timid EU to protect their own interests. Mr Kribbe’s comments come as Brussels faces a number of pressing foreign policy issues which make it look powerless on the global stage.
The recent poisoning in Russia of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny with Novichok was met with outrage across the EU but Vladimir Putin continues to pursue his interests with little fear of rebuke from Brussels.
It took almost a year for the EU to agree to sanctions after a nerve agent attack in 2018 on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury although EU foreign ministers yesterday backed a Franco-German plan to impose sanctions on those Russians suspected trying to kill Mr Navalny.
EU diplomats said there was broad support among the 27 foreign ministers for asset freezes and travel bans on several Russian GRU military intelligence officials.
The EU also appeared slow off the mark when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to rips up the map of the eastern Mediterranean and send gas and oil exploration vessels into waters claimed by Greece.
Chinese President Xi Jinping continues to make his presence felt on the EU’s doorstep by extending his influence to the Balkans and ploughs ahead with his own economic and political objectives as the EU looks on.
Xi put EU leaders in their place last month when he told them his country did not need “an instructor” on human rights.
Even Europe’s transatlantic relationship looks shaky with Donald Trump dismissing the EU as “almost as bad as China, just smaller” before launching trade wars, imposing sanctions and threatening to pull out of NATO.
And Brussels also stands accused of failing to have the backbone to deal with strongmen leaders within the bloc itself with member states such as Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria appearing unconcerned about the threat of sanctions for breaching EU rules on democracy and judicial independence.
Unlike Hungary and Poland, Bulgaria has avoided formal action by promising changes and setting up bodies to combat graft and overhaul the judiciary but it has dragged its feet and was censured by the European Parliament last week.
Earlier, the European Commission criticised Bulgaria’s shortcomings on courts’ independence and the lack of senior officials jailed on corruption charges in its first report on rule of law in the EU.
Mr Kribbe acknowledged there was some recognition among EU leaders that the bloc needs to become a global player with Ursula von der Leyen describing her European Commission as “geopolitical”.
Meanwhile European Council president Charles Michel has previously declared: “Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field.”
Writing on the politico.eu website, Mr Kribbe said: “The EU doesn’t just need new tools. It needs a new mindset, strategic reflexes and the ethos of a “player.”
“It must grasp what it means to be a player — existentially and morally — and begin to reason like one.”
He continued: “Sadly, there is only limited evidence that this change is taking place. Brussels finds it hard to let go of its old self-image, in which it is not a player but a referee: responsible for upholding the international rules much like the United Nations.
“Some politicians appear to believe Europe pursues global power simply to become a more potent referee, dishing out more yellow and red cards to felons.
“This is what the EU claims to be doing in Belarus, or when Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro fails to put out the fires in the Amazon.
“If this is the EU’s best answer to its strongman predicament, it carries the whiff of self-delusion.”