Mar 02, 2023

Europe’s Geopolitical Necessity

For a long time, the European Union avoided external relations by concentrating on enlargement. Becoming a normal power now does not mean that it is compromising its original values, quite the opposite.

An illustration showing the European treaties and boxing gloves with EU stars close together.
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In recent years, a growing chorus of European Union and national leaders have stressed the need for Europe to step up its geopolitical profile. At the same time, there has been no shortage of criticism levelled against this aspiration. Some have highlighted the uncertain ends pursued under the calls for a “more geopolitical Europe,” pointing to the ambiguity—or as Hans Kundnani called it in a recent IPQ article, “confusion”—behind this label. Others have criticized the ways in which this idea has been publicly pushed forward, such as Josep Borrell’s clumsy metaphor depicting Europe as a “garden” to be defended against the “jungle” that the rest of the world would represent.

The greatest point of contention, however, concerns something more essential: whether the EU, founded as a democratic, inward-looking, and somewhat utopian peace project, is in danger of losing itself in a newly proclaimed quest for power. We argue that such anxiety is misguided. What a more geopolitical Europe requires is not to trade its morality for power, but to aim at a better balance between the two.

Political Modernity and Power

As a construct meant to transform the nature of relations between European states through democratic and liberal means, European integration has often been cast in direct opposition to the notion of power. From this perspective, a focus on power could seem to carry the risk of bringing the European continent back to the mindset that led to its past conflicts and divisions. Yet, it should not be forgotten that one of the key tenets of political modernity and democracy is not the negation of power, but rather its recognition and domestication.

Acknowledging that power constitutes an inescapable feature of social and political life represented a fundamental break in the history of political thought. In contrast with their medieval predecessors, modern theorists stepped away from preaching that the only path toward a prosperous, secure, and well-governed political community was through the infallible practice of (Christian) virtue. Most famously, Niccolò Machiavelli undertook instead to discuss “the real truth of the matter [rather] than the imagination of it.” This novel and realistic attitude led him to stress the necessity for rulers to resolutely apply power, in particular in times of great danger, and, in doing so, to make compromises with morality on occasion. In other terms, Machiavelli's originality was to conceive of politics as an autonomous field of human activity which, without ignoring morality, could not be reduced to it.

While Machiavelli was characteristically concerned with the acquisition of power and its preservation in the hands of the prince, this focus on power remained nonetheless a constant preoccupation for thinkers of modern democracy. Indeed, as Montesquieu famously highlighted in The Spirit of the Laws, a “constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” He thus concluded that “to prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power.” In other words, what Montesquieu theorized was the separation and channeling of power, not its abolition—thereby providing a key foundation for all democratic political systems established in the modern era, from the United States’ constitution to the institutional architecture of the EU itself.

Power and the European Union

In this sense one could already say that it is misleading to describe the EU as being forged in opposition to the notion of power. Through the subtle equilibriums that its founding treaties have instituted between the national and the supranational level as well as between and within its institutions, the EU actually represents a highly sophisticated way to take power seriously.

It is true, however, that this channeling of power is also undergirded by the implicit norm that its ultimate expression—the use of force and threat thereof—clearly remains off-limits in relations between EU member states. This taboo is, thankfully, deeply entrenched in European minds today, but it does not exist to the same extent outside the EU. There, tragedy remains, if not a certainty, at least a possibility, as the Russian aggression against Ukraine dreadfully reminds us. Thus, despite the United Nations or regional collective security organizations like the OSCE, international relations still take place, as French philosopher Raymond Aron put it, “under the shadow of war.”

As a result, while a major achievement of European integration has been to dramatically mitigate the effects of anarchy among EU member states, the EU has always struggled with figuring out how to deal with external actors whose behavior may not follow a similar code.

For a long time, the EU has enjoyed the luxury of circumventing this problem via its policy of enlargement, combined with the benevolent protection of the United States through NATO. Enlargement amounted to absorbing the external world rather than having to deal with it as an “other” to be engaged with on an equal footing. Today, however, this approach is reaching its limits. If they occur at all, the accession of Western Balkans countries, Ukraine, Moldova, and potentially Georgia will mark the final geographical extent of the EU. As for NATO, its umbrella remains solid, the war in Ukraine having acted as an electroshock. But this does not preclude a strategic reorientation of the United States toward the Pacific and, possibly, toward its own domestic challenges, likely reducing Washington’s willingness to devote “blood and treasure” to the defense of Europe.

Thus, the EU can no longer entertain the idea that it could escape power politics in the same way that its own member states have done among themselves. It now needs to take the question of power more seriously when dealing with the outside world. European power must balance the power of others.

To be sure, the EU is not entirely new to this endeavor. Since the early days of European integration, the power of the single market has been essential to obtain concessions when negotiating trade agreements or to nudge industries into adopting EU norms and standards. Over the last few years, the EU has also started to pull its weight more assertively in other domains than commercial and economic matters. In 2016, Europeans used their financial power to prevent a fracturing of the EU, reaching a deal with Turkey to stem unprecedented flows of refugees. Europeans have exerted their collective power even more forcefully over the past few months as they imposed unprecedented economic sanctions on Russia in reaction to its aggression against Ukraine, while providing significant military support to Kyiv.

Europe as a Normal Power

To some, the geopolitical narrative that has taken shape in Brussels and certain EU capitals may amount to systematically downplay moral considerations. Yet, the fact that discussions revolving around power now dominate the EU discourse must be seen within a historical perspective. It is in fact a welcome counterpoint to the background of the more traditional self-understanding of the EU as a distinct and “morally superior” kind of actor on the international scene, because its actions would be strictly based upon rules and norms.

As highlighted by the two geopolitical moments mentioned above vis-à-vis Turkey and Ukraine, the relationship between morality and power is complex. Sometimes, both can be at loggerheads, as was the case with the Turkey agreement—which was essential to preserve the unity of Europeans but raised moral questions. On other occasions, morality and power are better aligned, as is the case with Ukraine today, with the EU assertively using multiple levers of power to help defend the territorial and political integrity of an independent nation.

Because the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility are in constant tension, there is no universal maxim or overriding principle that one could follow to always strike the right balance between power and morality. In each situation that the EU may face, it will be the responsibility of Europeans to consciously decide where to strike this balance. In this sense, Europe’s geopolitical awakening is a moment when Europeans must learn to make choices among what Isaiah Berlin would call a plurality of values. This is and will inevitably remain a source of controversy and, oftentimes, a messy process. But this is, after all, the essence of politics.

It should therefore be clear that the ultimate goal of a more geopolitical Europe should not be to make the EU more powerful only for the sake of power. Power is the ability to exercise one’s will over others—as per Max Weber’s classic definition—but it is also about withstanding attempts by others to impose their will on oneself. Making Europe a normal power will help shelter Europeans against the tragedies of international politics—a condition for the survival and self-fulfillment of the EU’s democratic model.

In that sense, today’s aspiration for a more geopolitical Europe may well be truer to the original vision that gave birth to the EU rather than if it were to remain a morally pure, but largely powerless, ideal.

Sébastien Lumet is co-founder of the Brussels Institute for Geopolitics.

Elie Perot is program director at the Centre for Security, Diplomacy, and Strategy (CSDS) of the Brussels School of Governance (BSoG-VUB).