Jan 16, 2023

The Meaning of Geopolitical Europe: A Response to Hans Kundnani

A “geopolitical EU” is not a theory, but a set of assumptions as well as a more realistic vision of the world. In dealing with Russia’s war against Ukraine, it already has brought impressive results.

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Coming from the academic world, I understand the desire to question the meaning political actors give to their ideas. The idea of a “geopolitical Europe” is one of them. That is what Hans Kundnani tried to do in a very succinct way in his article “Europe’s Geopolitical Confusion.” His conclusion is that the concept is fuzzy and not well defined. So let me question that conclusion, with which I strongly disagree.

Yes, “Geopolitical Europe” (GE) is certainly not a theory. Nevertheless, it is a set of assumptions that have dramatically affected European Union thinking and behavior since 2020. So, let me define briefly what GE means and what it entails.

A Vision of the World

Above all, GE is a vision of the world—a view that breaks with the classically interdependent and liberal vision of the world on which the EU based its policies. We imagined, in a very naïve way, that an increased interdependence on energy would make Russia less aggressive. This was a terrible mistake we are now correcting at an incredible speed and in a very effective way. At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, German dependency on Russian energy imports was 55 percent for gas, 50 percent for oil, and 30 percent for coal. In 2023, those figures will be 0 percent for gas, 0 percent for oil, and 0 percent for coal, all this without economic disruption. What an achievement!

Reducing EU dependency vis-à-vis a country that may harm you is a concrete achievement of Geopolitical Europe. Unfortunately, Hans Kudnani never mentions this example or any other one, probably because he is more interested in concepts as such, not in their effectivity. However, for a political actor this is a nonstarter. Concepts matter as long they are translated into policies. Otherwise, they remain abstract and limited to the academic sphere. Which is fine, but frustrating.

GE is not throwing the EU’s values under the bus. It is correcting the over-optimistic assumptions it drew from it, while at the same time re-evaluating   risks attached to economic interdependence. Europe realizes that interdependence can be weaponized for political purposes and does not necessarily entail a liberal transformation of political systems around the world. In short, it’s a sea change in the EU’s perception of the world.

A Realist Assessment

In a sense, GE could be defined as a realist assessment of the international system—meaning greater acceptance of the conflictual nature of the world system, a readiness to reduce its vulnerabilities, reduced confidence in the capacity of economic interdependence to pacify international relations, and a readiness for political confrontation when our interests at are stake.

Geopolitical Europe factors in more seriously the return of classical competition between states as a major driver of international competition. Having said that, the EU does not deny its Kantian and liberal heritage, as Hans Kundnani suggests, because it believes that the peaceful resolution of conflicts remains the most appropriate way to regulate world relations. It also believes that the force of the norm is preferable to the norm of force.

However, Europe needs to be ready to face situations where its partners or foes do not share its own vision and prefer using force instead of referring to accepted norms. That is why we have, for the first time, used the European Peace Facility for supporting a state at war. It’s a Peace Facility that will also enable the training of Ukrainian soldiers to wage war. The EU military mission for Ukraine was set up in two months whereas in general it takes at least a year to get an EU training mission off the ground.

The EU military support to Ukraine is very significant. It amounts to roughly €8 billion in less than one year. Of course, this figure represents only 45 percent of the United States’ military commitment, but this is not negligible. In terms of percentage of their respective GDP, the US and EU figures are virtually the same. Moreover, when economic and financial assistance to Ukraine is added, the EU comes first.

All in all, GE is not simply a discourse or a change of perceptions, but is series of concrete steps taken collectively, including in the very sensitive area of military aid. Russia’s war against Ukraine is transforming the EU into a credible global actor, dealing with issues of war and peace, and not simply engaging with trade and regulation issues. Those issues remain vital for the EU. But we have added the missing geostrategic layer which until now hampered our influence and credibility.

Soft and Hard Power

The EU has finally admitted that the weapon of soft power is insufficient today to defend its interests and values in the world. Of course, there is some ambiguity about the notion of soft and hard power. However, if we stick to Joseph Nye’s original definition—according to which soft power refers to persuasion and hard power to coercion, and not only to military coercion, as is generally believed—it fits GE very well.

What the EU has been doing in relation to Russia since the beginning of its war against Ukraine is precisely the extensive use of hard power. Of course, this is not the first time the EU has used the weapon of sanctions. However, their scale   and the size of the sanctioned country make them unprecedented.

The freezing of the assets of the Russian Central Bank, for example, has led to the weakening of Russia’s macroeconomic policy since it can no longer use the huge foreign exchange reserves that it has accumulated in the hope of protecting itself against possible sanctions. $300 billion was located in Western countries and has been frozen, most of it in the EU. But the remaining $300 billion, held in Russia, is in reality not usable because a good part of it is in the form of gold reserves that Russia can only sell for US dollars.

In dealing with Russia in such a way, the EU is accepting the idea of taking risks. Taking risks means accepting the idea of a potential confrontation with the state you are sanctioning. This is also Geopolitical Europe.

Still, a lot of tasks remain in front of us. The first will be to maintain our political unity until Ukraine’s victory. By victory we mean the recovery by this country of its full sovereignty over its territory. And this will not be easy.

Then we will have to think about the conditions for restoring lasting peace in the region. The war has created a whole series of new problems that did not exist before February 24, such as war crimes, forced population transfers, and the question of reparations, not to mention security guarantees and the path for Ukraine’s accession to the European Union.

It will also be necessary to think about the nature of the relations that we will maintain with Russia, which will not disappear but which will not be able to find a durable accommodation with Europe unless it gives up its imperial identity.

Russia’s war against Ukraine will not solve, as if by magic, all the strategic questions that Europe is facing. But it forces it to ask itself about updating its relations: those with the United States—which is its best ally but which may also have other priorities in the future; those with Russia—which will remain our adversary but which will remain our neighbor; those with China—whose rise will continue and toward which we must be both open and demanding; and finally the Global South.

Beyond their divisions and heterogeneity, the countries of the southern hemisphere have clearly shown, in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine, that they want to play an independent role between the West and Russia, but also between the United States and China.

GE is no longer an option but a condition for Europe’s survival.

NB. This article was updated with a new ending on January 31, 2023.

Zaki Laïdi, professor at Sciences Po, is currently senior adviser to the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Vice President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell. He is writing in a strictly personal capacity.