Quarterly Concerns

Jan 04, 2023

Europe’s Geopolitical Confusion

Those calling for a more “geopolitical” European Union rarely define exactly what that means.

An illustration showling the European treaties and boxing gloves with EU stars
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There is a consensus—which has further strengthened since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February—that, as the European Union finds itself increasingly threatened, it must become more “geopolitical.” But there is little clarity about what “geopolitics” means. It is used in at least five different ways: Firstly, as a straightforward synonym for international politics; secondly, in the strict, original sense focusing on the role of geography in international politics; thirdly, to refer to the strategic use of military tools (as opposed to “geo-economics”); fourthly, as a synonym for “power politics” (as opposed to rules in international politics); and fifthly, to capture a shift away from economic liberalism or the pursuit of economic objectives.

Those who call for a more “geopolitical” Europe rarely spell out which of these five meanings—or perhaps even some other meaning of geopolitics—they have in mind. It often seems as if those who use the term have not even thought about its history or its different meanings and their implications. This leads to a rather confused and often somewhat circular debate in which participants conflate different meanings of geopolitics or different participants mean geopolitics in different senses. It also means that when participants use the term to make arguments that may be controversial and are then criticised for them, they can backtrack and say that they meant something different. In short, it’s an intellectual mess.

A good illustration of this is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s interview with TV current affairs host Anne Will a month after the war in Ukraine began. He said that what scared him was how Russian President Vladimir Putin thought in such geopolitical terms (“What frightened me is this incredible emphasis on geopolitics in the Russian president's thinking”) because to think in such terms was to reject the European “peace order.” In other words, while other figures like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell were urging the EU to become more “geopolitical,” Scholz still saw “geopolitics” as something to be rejected rather than aspired to—even after the Russian invasion. It is easy to dismiss this as German Machtvergessensheit (“obliviousness to power”). But Scholz actually had a point.

The Problematic History of Geopolitical Europe

The concept of geopolitics emerged in the era of high imperialism at the end of the 19th century and originally focused on the role of physical geography in international politics—in particular in the competition between land powers and sea powers. The suspicion of geopolitics that Scholz was expressing has, of course, to do with an awareness of the particular German tradition of geopolitical thinking associated with political geographers Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Haushofer, which is in turn seen as being connected to Nazism. In particular, it was from the German tradition of geopolitical thinking that the idea of Lebensraum, or living space, emerged. The concept, first used by Ratzel at the end of the 19th century, was later used to justify German expansion in Europe.

Advocates of a more “geopolitical” EU, on the other hand, have none of Scholz’ skittishness and use the term rather naively and ahistorically. In particular, they seem to be unaware of the history of the idea of Europe as a geopolitical bloc, which goes back to the 1920s. At that time, many saw European civilization as being threatened by the United States and the Soviet Union and urged it to unify to form a “third force” that could compete with them. The idea of Lebensraum was also central to these ideas of a geopolitical Europe. In particular, the “pro-Europeans” of that era saw Africa not only as a source of raw materials that would help make Europe competitive but also as a space into which Europe’s excess population could settle. In short, the idea of a “geopolitical Europe” has a very problematic history.

Of course, the EU today does not seek Lebensraum. In fact, rather than settling Europeans in Africa, the EU is focused above all on stopping Africans coming to Europe—especially since the refugee crisis in 2015. But despite the continuities with earlier ideas of a “geopolitical Europe,” in particular around the idea that Europe should be a “third force” in international politics (with China having replaced the Soviet Union as the second force), “pro-Europeans” who call for a more “geopolitical” EU have made no attempt to clarify how they understand “geopolitics” and how it differs from the earlier usage of the term. In particular, there has been little attempt to explain how it can be reconciled with the EU itself, which was long understood, particularly by its supporters, as the antithesis of geopolitics in two distinct senses based on two of the different meanings of the term.

The Myth of a Peaceful Europe

Often, when the concept of geopolitics is used in the context of the EU, it refers to the use of military tools as opposed to economic tools. From the beginning, and especially after the rejection of the European Defence Community by the French National Assembly in 1954, the institutions that emerged out of the process of European integration centered more on economics than on security. Since then, much of the discussion of European power has focused on tools rather than objectives. For example, in the early 1970s, in one of the first attempts to characterize what became the EU as a distinctive actor in international politics, the journalist and political analyst François Duchêne conceived of it as a “civilian power” that was “long on economic power and relatively short on armed force.”

However, although it was true that the European Community itself was “long on economic power” and “short on armed force,” this was not true about Europe more generally. After all, between them, Europeans had plenty of conventional military capabilities—and even nuclear weapons. Yet despite this obvious reality, the idea of “civilian power” is often applied more loosely to Europe—as if even member states, as opposed to the common European institutions, themselves collectively lacked military power. This characterization of “Europe,” rather than the EC and later the EU, as lacking military power has long confused the discussion about European power and about the transatlantic relationship—for example in the US foreign policy expert Robert Kagan’s stylized opposition between Americans from Mars and Europeans from Venus, which now seems to have been internalized by Europeans like Borrell.

This loose idea of a “civilian” Europe, as opposed to a “civilian” EC or EU, went together with the idea of European integration as a “peace project” to produce a widespread and misleading self-perception of Europeans as being uniquely peaceful compared to others around the world. The idea of European integration as a “peace project” is not quite a myth, as historian Timothy Snyder has suggested. But Europe’s rejection of military force after 1945 was much more limited and specific than “pro-Europeans” like to imagine: Although they stopped using military force against each other, they remained able and willing to use it beyond Europe, particularly to suppress independence movements in their colonies until they finally lost them between the 1950s and 1970s. They have continued to deploy military force in various forms in the post-Cold War period—even if this wasn’t often through the EU itself.

If we understand “geopolitics” in terms of the use of military as opposed to economic tools, it is far from clear what a more “geopolitical” Europe might even mean. Clearly, EU member states could go further in the development of a common security and defense policy that would enable a greater use of military power through the EU itself rather than through NATO or in an ad hoc way. They could even create the “European army” that von der Leyen has spoken of. But those who advocate such steps to create a “defense union” should be precise. Further integration of security and defense policy would make the EU itself more “geopolitical,” but not Europe more broadly, which, if we understand “geopolitics” in terms of military power, never really stopped being “geopolitical.”

Power and Rules in International Politics

The meaning of “geopolitics” that makes most sense in the context of the current debate about the EU is around the contrast between rules and power in international politics. The EU was meant to replace power with rules—initially among the countries that were part of the European project, but subsequently more widely as it exported its model and “civilized” or “domesticated” international politics. (This is an often overlooked aspect of the idea of “civilian power,” which was never just about non-military means but also about “civilizing” ends.) This contrast can also be thought of in terms of liberal and realist views of international politics. Thus a “geopolitical” Europe understood in this sense is a more realist and less liberal one.

For a long time, the EU did not seek to become a great power, which “pro-Europeans” saw as an outdated concept. Instead, it would make a virtue out of the fact that it was not a great power. This was exactly the argument of Duchêne and later of Ian Manners, the British political scientist, who conceived of the EU as a “normative” power that was particularly suited to play a role in transforming international politics. However, during the last several decades, “pro-Europeans” have increasingly come to believe that instead of transforming international politics, the EU must transform itself adapt to it. Borrell says endlessly that the EU must “learn to speak the language of power.” But what he really means is that it must learn to speak a more traditional or more realist language of power rather than the alternative language of power that the EU was long thought to speak.

This definition of geopolitics makes particular sense when referring specifically to the European Commission, which is most concerned with the maintenance of the EU’s own rules—in particular the single market rules. It is presumably this version of geopolitics that von der Leyen had in mind when she promised a “geopolitical commission” in 2019 (though, typically, she did not spell this out, so it is hard to know for sure for what she meant or even if she had a clear idea of what she meant). The implication was thus that her commission would focus less on the rules and think in more realist terms about how it could deploy its power—particularly the economic power that the size of its market gave it. It would worry less about consistency and aim to think more strategically—or, to put it another way, more politically.

However, there are structural reasons why the EU struggles to do this. For example, if the EU had taken a “geopolitical” approach to Brexit, it would have recognized that the United Kingdom was an important security provider for Europe, which it needed especially as both the threats to it and uncertainty about the US security guarantee increased, and would therefore have made concessions to the UK even if doing so undermined the integrity of the single market. But instead, the EU took its traditional rules-based approach. Similarly, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU reflexively turned to the idea of accession—that is, its traditional approach to its neighborhood—but then found itself unable to offer Ukraine an accelerated track to EU membership for strategic reasons, because to do so would be to undermine the depoliticized application of rules.

Moreover, “pro-Europeans” like Borrell refuse to accept that becoming more realist in international relations terms also means becoming less liberal. For example, while urging the EU to become more “geopolitical,” Borrell insists that it should not give up its traditional focus on norms. In other words, he wants to have it both ways. “I’m a realist Kantian,” he says. This may actually be part of why advocates of a “geopolitical” Europe like the term: its ambiguity, and in particular the lack of clarity about what it is opposed to, allows them to avoid facing up to difficult choices. The question the EU needs to answer is: If it is going to become more “geopolitical” in the sense of adapting to a world of “power politics,” where does that leave its commitment to replace power with rules?

NB. A response to this article, by Zaki Laïdi, advisor to the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, can be found here.

Hans Kundnani is an Associate Fellow in the Europe Program at Chatham House.