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Jan 10, 2024

Europe’s Geostrategic Awakening

Decades of US protection created a false sense of normative superiority in the EU. It also made Europe lose much of its strategic instincts while facing deep-seated systemic deficiencies. Overcoming those will be the key task for 2024 and beyond.

European flags fly outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium March 13, 2023.
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When, in November 2019, the newly appointed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that her commission would be “a geopolitical one,” this was met with a mix of hope and skepticism in Europe and beyond. Hope by those who believe that a strong Europe is indispensable for a stable democratic world; skepticism by those who considered the EU as too opportunistic or dysfunctional to think and behave as a proactive geopolitical power. 

Exactly four years on, in a speech at the European Defense Agency, she said: “Our Union was born as a peace project. But peace requires security. We must think again of our Union as a security project.” What to most of the world would be self-evident, in the European Union is felt as a major trajectory. If von der Leyen used the phrase “security union” in 2019, few in Europe would have even understood the concept, firmly believing that the EU was already a normative global leader, a salient shaper of the post-modern world, a global power. And if there were some troubles, there was no ill that massive amounts of funding could not fix.

Since von der Leyen’s November 2019 speech in the European Parliament raw geopolitics has descended on the EU with full force: Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, the recognition of the long-term challenge posed by China, the reignited conflict in the eastern Mediterranean, inter alia. The EU has been subjected to disinformation campaigns and has seen its supply of critical raw materials and the value chains of its companies weaponized. The EU economy is losing steam and competitiveness.

Today, even those who are secretly hoping for a return to status quo ante bellum understand that the EU will have to change, and that security capabilities are a fundamental precondition for the EU not only to become a genuine geopolitical actor, but to remain a competitive force in the world.

A Dormant Power

The EU has been trying its best to respond. It has been focusing on the most immediate emergencies, functioning in constant crisis mode. While hailed for moving on sanctions against Moscow, enhancing its energy security, strongly supporting Ukraine, taking numerous protective measures to keep its economy and infrastructure safe, it has also become painfully clear that Brussels does not have a capacity for truly strategic behavior, lacking basic features—from common situational awareness and foresight to coherent power projection.

The reason for this is not just a lack of political will or understanding, but a system deficiency.

The EU has been created to secure peace in Europe, not in the world. This makes it an inherently introspective project, a grand compromise machine, risk averse and driven by the lowest common denominator. These features are almost the opposite of what is asked from a geopolitical power: ambition, agility, strategic nerve, a willingness to make sacrifices, the will to win.

Decades of US protection in the defense and security realm enabled Europeans to focus on an unprecedented economic and social development, creating a false sense of normative superiority that the EU could shape not only its own societies, but the world. It also made Europeans lose much of the strategic instinct, industrial base, and muscle memory they once had in abundance. Their EU became a strange body of massive strengths without velocity—a dormant power.

This heavily reflected on the corporate culture of the institutions running the EU, dominated by a silos mentality, intricate internal processes, and constant struggles for power. The same sense of superiority of administrative over strategic thinking was extended to the EU’s external relations as well. But the world cannot be administered.

No Choice but to Change

February 24, 2022, changed everything—not the fact that Russia attacked its neighbor, but the fierce determination and courage with which Ukraine fought back. Ukrainians’ resolve to defend their freedom deprived the EU of its comfort zone and handed it a new lease of life as a strategic actor. Had Russian President Vladmir Putin not miscalculated on Ukraine, the EU could have easily slipped into a net of interdependencies with autocracies that would have been almost impossible to detangle.

Now the EU has no choice but to change. There is a growing frustration created by the dichotomy of what the EU says it is and what it does—or fails to do. What is required is a very robust reform of the ways in which the EU thinks, analyzes, plans, communicates, and executes. The idea that qualified majority voting (QMV) would fix everything and enable a much more robust EU foreign policy is an illusion—if anything, it will raise the stakes and force groups of states with similar interests to fight even harder for their positions, creating more trouble than solutions. The problem goes deeper than that.

Solving European Paradoxes

2024 needs to be a year of deep reflection on how Europe moves forward. In order to lay out ways in which the EU could build its geostrategic positioning, it is important to solve uniquely European paradoxes that cause political friction and policy confusion.

The first one is that although the EU is not a proactive geopolitical player, it is a formidable geopolitical fact. The attractive power of the EU is measurable, not least by the millions of people who want to come to live in Europe, businesses that want to operate in Europe, countries that want to partner with Europe but also, counterintuitively, autocracies that see the EU’s societal model as a threat—a geopolitical threat. Holding hands with autocrats does not work as a countermeasure.

The second paradox is that although the EU has many capabilities, they do not combine to create a strong capacity to function as a decisive foreign and security policy actor on the global level. The EU is the second largest economy in the world in nominal terms, and one of the three largest global players in international trade. EU member states and institutions are by far the largest global providers of Official Development Assistance (ODA). And yet, there is a disconnect between input and output.

The EU’s ability to influence and shape global political and security environment is minimal, even in the Western Balkans where the EU is allowing local autocracies to link up with third party actors who are extending their malign influence. In a number of crisis theaters the EU is the biggest provider of financial support, but cannot influence even at the level of a Middle Power. The conflict in the Middle East is a stark reminder of that paradox. There is no straightforward link between the EU capability to pay to its capacity to shape and influence.

The third paradox is a belief that enlargement has been the most powerful foreign policy instrument. In fact, enlargement has nothing “foreign” about it—the inclusion of European democracies is a strategic consolidation of the European economic, cultural, social, and security space, not only the essence of the EU as a peace project but a precondition for European overall security. The December 2023 European Council meeting delivered, in the geostrategic sense, an almost schizophrenic set of decisions: On Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia it went bold strategically, and rightly so. On the Western Balkans, it did just the opposite, ignoring Serbia’s alignment with Russia and China, and the crucial importance of the opening of EU accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (the decision was essentially deferred until spring 2024).

The New Era of Security

The world has entered an era dominated by security questions. If it wants to remain relevant, the EU will need to solve the paradoxes listed above and focus on creating conditions, both political and institutional, to gain capacity to act as a power.

The EU can be strong in the world only if it is strong at home. Its credibility as a normative and trade force cannot be maintained without a strong industrial base. The idea that Europe can impose its rules and standards on industries around the world, without having competitive industrial leaders itself, is not sustainable. The EU economies will not be able to remain competitive without prioritizing innovation and demography. These are the obvious first set of basic requirements that will need to take absolute prominence in the years to come.

The second set of basics refers to the consolidation of the European economic and security space in a revived process of convergence of future member states. Incremental inclusion is essential, starting with the rule of law as well as foreign policy and security alignment as an absolute precondition for all further moves. The European Union is a community of commonly agreed values, and those who do not share them have no space in the EU.

The third set of basics relates to the European external positioning in the ongoing shift of the international economic and governance order. This will require a robust reorganization of the ways the EU conducts its relations with the “Global South” in particular. More than a decade ago, China understood what the West, including the EU, failed to see: Developing countries and emerging economies are in need of a new generation of infrastructure that cannot be catered for with approaches based on the old development paradigm. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), regardless of setbacks and bad press, has de facto secured China unpreceded access and influence on a global level, primarily through the creation of China-dependent value chains.

Forging New Connections

In consequence, the EU must upgrade its Global Gateway initiative from a communication exercise that relabels development assistance to an industrial dialogue with emerging economies that would utilize the vast financial capacity of the EU. Investments in strategic infrastructure and new value chains is not development assistance, it is a strategic investment and should be treated as such. If billions of ODA have not returned tangible stability and growth dividends to either the recipient countries or the EU, it is high time to rethink it.

Currently, EU member states and institutions on average spend about €80 billion a year on development assistance and €40 billion on export credits. Maybe it should be the other way around, so that European industries and businesses have more incentives and support in investing in developing and emerging economies. In 2023, for the first time in decades, Western Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into China turned negative. De-risking is already happening, and there is a dire need for new manufacturing hubs, and for new markets. China’s loss can be a net gain for the Global South, but only if the EU and other G7 powers find a working formula for high-scaled and immediate investments in much needed infrastructure and the transfer of knowledge.

2024 will see the formation of a new European Commission. Europe should use this opportunity to spell out its interests in no uncertain terms, close its capabilities/capacity gap, and foster a new strategic culture in its institutions. The composition of the commission should reflect the priorities, appointing a Vice President for EU Enlargement and a Vice President for a Competitive Europe in charge of connectivity, value chains, and strategic investment in infrastructure abroad. Meanwhile, the European External Action Service in its present form only proves that the EU needs a completely revamped foreign and security policy shop, one that will be far more analytical, bold, and forward thinking in its support for EU foreign and security policy decision-making. 

2024 will be a decisive year for Europe. It is time to shift gears and add velocity to the strength.

Ambassador Romana Vlahutin is a Visiting Distinguished Fellow for Geostrategy at the German Marshall Fund (GMF). From 2019 to 2022 she served as EU Special Envoy for Connectivity in the European External Action Service (EEAS). Views and opinions expressed in the text are solely the author’s.