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January 06, 2021

Europe’s Geopolitical Moment

There is a growing consensus that the EU has to become a geopolitical actor. To achieve this goal, numerous constraints will need to be overcome. Priorities include defining its position vis-à-vis the incoming Biden administration—and China.

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Josep Borrell
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In late 2019, immediately after being elected president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen announced that she intended to preside over a “geopolitical Commission.” At the time, the EU was under enormous pressure from US President Donald Trump. In the year since, the collapse of multilateralism has continued unabated and the power struggle between China and the United States has intensified, while Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have further expanded their influence. The number of acute and frozen conflicts in and around Europe has increased. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of Europe’s supply and value chains, and its substantial exposure to the burgeoning US-Chinese rivalry.  

As political change in Washington looms, the EU is still struggling to define its future international role. “Strategic autonomy” has long since been enshrined as a goal of European policy, cited the 2013 European Council’s “conclusions” and in the EU’s 2016 Global Strategy policy paper. Some prefer the term “European sovereignty,” but it means roughly the same thing: the capacity to decide and act autonomously.

As a goal, “strategic autonomy” has prompted intense debate—if it is the correct goal, if it can be achieved, or whether it might actually be counterproductive. The ensuing arguments have revealed two things.

First, Europe may have deliberated its international role in recent years, but has not taken sufficient action to make it a reality. This is all the more disturbing, since new security challenges for Europe have continued to emerge during this time. For political leaders, concerns about Europe’s autonomy of decision-making and action touch immediately on defense policy, but also security, technology, health, economics, and finance. This was made all the clearer by four years of Trump’s blackmail attempts and extraterritorial sanctions, as well as medical supply bottlenecks and the Huawei dispute, a very painful dispute precisely because Europe has no real alternatives for the foreseeable future. External pressure combined with actual instances of dependency, and the vaguer fear of blackmail, have all intensified the debate on European self-defense, resilience, and independence. Adding to this is the sheer scale of tasks to be tackled in crisis management and global governance, on both international and transnational levels.

Second, neither the EU nor Germany has so far found a clear position within the contemporary geopolitical world. Tough decisions must be made, trade-offs decided upon. Specifically, trade-offs between the US and China: whether and how the EU might be wise to stand loyally with the Americans in their dispute with China. In theory, European geopolitical debates focus on autonomy and sovereignty; in practice, at their core are insecurities and controversies about US reliability, and the extent to which the transatlantic relationship can be shaped in the EU’s interest. Some observers even worry that Europe may seem to be rejecting the transatlantic partnership. If that appearance is created, Congressional Republicans may seek to use it against Biden if he—a dyed-in-the-wool multilateralist—attempts to revive the US relationship with Europe.

In short, there is considerable pressure to clarify the EU’s geopolitical and geo-economic position, and to increase Europe’s capacity for decision-making and action. This presupposes shared analyses and definitions of problems, as well as common decision-making and shared resources for mobilization. If any of these factors is lacking, the entire thing will be for nothing. This is an outcome we can no longer afford.

Mental Reboot Necessary

The desire to make the EU a geopolitical actor implies something like a paradigm shift. In a speech to the European Parliament in late 2019, Josep Borrell suggested that “Europe must learn the language of power.” The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs called for a fundamental rethink of the EU’s foreign and security functions.

For over 70 years, member states pooled some of what made them powerful. Both internally and externally, they relied on soft power to promote peace and the rule of law. For decades, Europeans thought multilateralism and openness were the right strategy to adopt vis-à-vis the outside world. The protection afforded by the United States during the Cold War meant the European Community could dodge tough security issues, turning the entire debate over to NATO. Most European governments also expected that the US would be available to intervene in areas close to the EU itself, as in the western Balkans in the 1990s and Ukraine in the 2010s. After the end of the Cold War, with Europe seeming to lack enemies nearby, its defense capabilities continued to decline, while the US shifted focus to protecting its interests elsewhere, especially in Asia.

What Europe must now do is strengthen its global power projection for a new epoch and represent its own interests more forcefully, while also remaining capable of conflict resolution. This will inevitably mean different, broader priorities for European governments and EU institutions. The difficulty for Europe is that it must develop this outward-looking mentality and build up resources to underpin this, while at the same time strengthening internal EU cohesion and the will to cooperate. In the meantime, Europe still wanders about in search of identity.

Paths to Self-Awareness

Now for the good news: people are beginning to care about the question of Europe’s global role. In the past, national discourses have been rendered more European by the sheer pressure of events. The debt and banking crises of a decade ago were marked by polemics on many sides, but observers actually spent time considering views within other member states, adding to an overarching sense of “shared destiny.” In the COVID-19 crisis, after an initial period of isolation, politicians looked outward to learn from other countries. National perspectives on dealing with the economic and public health crises were shared across borders.

Public debate of Europe’s wider global role may be going in the same direction. In November 2020, comments by French President Emmanuel Macron gave the process fresh impetus, not least since his interview with the Le Grand Continent website was published online in five languages (and in English by its publisher, the Groupe d’études géopolitiques at the École normale supérieure). Borrell has spent much time and effort on intervening in the public debate, underlined by his energetic online and social media presence. Of course, this has urgent appeal only to a community of foreign policy experts, and must be followed by a broader public discussion. However, one thing is clear: to be internationally active, Europe must become a political Europe. The EU has yet to learn this lesson.

Steps Toward a Strategy

In recent years, the EU has gradually come together to find shared perspectives on key foreign and security policy questions. There have been some milestones along this path. First, for example, came the 2015 review of the European Neighborhood Policy, under the impact of Russia violently redrawing borders through its intervention in eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. By now, the EU had to acknowledge that a much more aggressive Russia had cast its previous “neighborhood policies” into question. In eastern Ukraine and on Crimea, Moscow was working with its own concepts of order, based on spheres of influence, and was enforcing these concepts by military means.

The EU’s Global Strategy paper in 2016 altered the European narrative further. The picture it offered was a realistic one, based on competing interests, and it called for Europe to play a power political role. Quite a change from the past emphasis on helping all states—not only neighboring ones—to transition to Western democracy, supporting them with goodwill and appeals to universal human rights. The Global Strategy saw the EU formulating its interests quite clearly, giving its revamped foreign policy the name “principled pragmatism.” It reflected a growing sense that Europe must actively confront forces when they deliberately undermine states and societies. 

In spring 2019, the European Commission published its strategic outlook on China, another vital step for the EU on its path to becoming a geopolitical actor. The document characterizes China as a “systemic challenger” and “economic competitor,” while also recognizing Beijing as an important negotiating and cooperation partner. The document continues to set the context for debates on China within EU institutions, and thus also for positions prepared ahead of EU-China summits. In this, individual member states have different interests and work under different constraints vis-à-vis China, and hence repeatedly take up different positions. But the strategy has already moved the EU toward a more realistic, coherent, and self-confident approach. This common position needs to be made to work immediately, in the first quarter of 2021, as the EU enters into transatlantic dialogue with the Biden administration.

Europe’s traumatic experience with President Trump has prompted new thinking on threats to the continent’s security. With Trump in the White House, there was growing pressure on EU member states to work more closely on defense policy. The demand was given urgency, first, by US doubts on security guarantees for Europe, second, by Washington’s constant insistence that its European partners get more involved with NATO, and third, reduced American interest in engaging with regions important to Europe. A key practical step was taken in 2017, with the establishment of permanent structured cooperation on defense policy within the EU, carried out under the auspices of PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation). Twenty-five of the EU’s 27 member states now cooperate on projects in military planning and capability development. However, implementing ​​defense cooperation and creating joint capabilities will reach a limit unless Europe has dependable, shared perspectives on present and future threats, and jointly formulated strategic goals.

This was the context of an important recent measure on EU security and defense. The “Strategic Compass”—intended to offer, for the first time, joint threat analysis for all EU member states—was the subject of intense discussion during Germany’s EU Council presidency, in the second half of 2020. The “Strategic Compass” is intended to help formulate strategic goals for the EU, providing a framework for later military planning.

This is a vitally important step, allowing for the development of common strategic perspectives and shared understandings (shared by most, at least) of the challenges Europeans must face together. One essential prerequisite in creating shared foreign policy perspectives and a unified strategic culture is that Europe’s populations come to understand threats to security as essentially indivisible. The security of the Baltic states is of concern to all; Libya and North Africa is not merely a problem for Mediterranean countries. Pursuing common interests together will demand a unified conception of the world, and a high level of mutual trust. For the moment, the conception and the trust are still very much under construction.  

Five Priorities

In view of the complex global situation, the top priority must be to take a holistic view of the challenges Europe faces. Adapting global strategy to new challenges only makes sense if foreign policy is brought together with other specialist policy areas. Foreign policy, in its previous narrow form, will become less and less relevant for Europe’s role in the world. This applies particularly to technology and industrial strategies at the European level, but also economic and monetary policy. Europe’s security and defense ambitions need realistic goals, which should be established within the context of the continuing relevance of NATO, an organization which will itself adapt to the global situation. Discussions about new threats, future conflicts, and the best course of action, military or civilian, should be tightly coordinated across NATO and the EU. Once priorities have been established in various policy areas, EU states will have to take a hard look at whether they have actually set aside enough resources to achieve them. The EU’s financial structure is simply not up to the mounting challenges appearing around the globe. The EU’s medium-term financial thinking depends on multi-annual budgets set down years in advance. European funds poured into research, development, climate, and technology have been too small to give the continent enough of an edge internationally.

In an ideal world, the EU would take clear geopolitical positions, face up to the aforementioned global challenges, and ensure member states establish a single EU security and defense policy, based on joint risk analysis. It would agree that foreign policy decisions should be made by qualified majority voting, rather than unanimity; the unanimity rule has led, time and time again, to delays in key foreign policy statements and decisions. The High Representative, who has ultimate responsibility in this area, has to work with a fragmented EU Council and a fragmented European Parliament. When the EU does take action on foreign policy, it moves slowly, always seeking consensus, but this is not an appropriate procedure for a world where powers are competing openly. Thus, a second priority must be to improve decision-making mechanisms. Since majority voting will remain a long way off, EU member states need to coordinate more closely and act, if necessary, in smaller “coalitions of the willing,” including the United Kingdom. There are fewer and fewer good reasons for states to go solo and conduct their own policy.

It may prove easier to find agreement on a third major task: the effective protection of Europe, which will underpin any necessary options for action. There are other states already quite prepared to make strategic use of information flows, innovative technology, and economic instruments against Europe’s interests. Some are even ready to use violence. In recent years, the EU has significantly broadened its defensive repertoire. European companies are now better protected from unfair competition, especially after October 1, 2020, the date when new EU transparency rules on foreign direct investment came into force. In future, foreign subsidies will less easily distort competition within the internal market. The EU has tightened up its monitoring of Chinese and Russian influence within its borders and nearby regions. All of this is good and important, but dependencies and external influence have to be further diminished. If they are not, Europe will be in no position to act, because it will be in no position to decide.  

The fourth priority must be to define European strategies vis-à-vis the most important actors, a task made easier by the reduced dependencies and expanded resources. If the EU wants to play a bigger role globally, it will have to accept that with some partners, it will have to compartmentalize relations, working together well in some areas, while at odds with the same power in other contexts. The EU will have to learn to live with this. In dealing with China, for example, cooperation can be promoted on climate and arms control, while emphasizing EU interests on investment screening, human rights questions, or the South China Sea.  

The fifth priority concerns the key decision in the first half of 2021: defining the EU’s position toward the United States. The foreign policy implications of this permeate Europe when it attempts to develop transatlantic strategy toward China. Washington will hug its European allies in a tight grip, looking to enlist them into the attempt to stop the rise of Chinese dominance. So far, Europe has been willing to only rhetorically recognize the existence of a US-China power struggle. Its instincts are clearly in the Western camp, if the fight is between the US liberal model and China’s state capitalist techno-authoritarianism. However, European governments have kept their positions deliberately vague, especially on the Huawei/5G question, because of their economic dependency on China.

To project geopolitical power, however, the EU will need the transatlantic partnership, in the medium to long term. Doing more for its own security is a sign that Europe is increasing its contribution to the transatlantic project, not that Europe is turning away from the United States. The EU needs also to think about making its own agenda part of broader transatlantic security policies. Examples here include the Indo-Pacific, Russia, even Iran. A Biden presidency gives Europe several years to assert itself in this way.

Daniela Schwarzer is director of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).