The EU searches for the path to become a geopolitical power

The 27 member states have lately taken significant steps on military and economic security matters, but the nature of the organization and internal discrepancies continue to slow down the push for a more ambitious union

helicópteros NH-90 del ejército alemán
Paratroopers from the German Armed Forces and other NATO partners stand next to German Army NH-90 helicopters during military exercises. Kay Nietfeld (dpa/picture alliance via Getty)
Andrea Rizzi

In October 2019, when he was preparing to assume the position of High Representative for EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell said that the Union must “learn to speak the language of power.” Shortly afterwards, at her inaugural speech, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen pledged that hers would be a “geopolitical Commission.” In the following years, spurred by the Covid pandemic and the large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the 27 members of the EU have taken significant steps in that direction. However, the path to turning the EU into a geopolitical power is long, uncertain, and full of obstacles.

The EU was not born to be a geopolitical power. It is not a structured military power and its action in foreign policy is hindered by the need for unanimity. It therefore suffers from limitations that lead some experts to conceptually question its nature as a geopolitical actor. However, despite the fact that member states have been defending their own control over these crucial competences for decades, the common project is now in a state of profound metamorphosis. There is no doubt that greater common capabilities are being provided, and that the political will to use them is growing within the logic of stark power impulses into which the world is entering.

In the legislative term that is now ending, the 27 have taken unprecedented steps in the field of defense, such as the use of an EU instrument to facilitate a large shipment of weapons to Ukraine, or the implementation of defense industry coordination mechanisms. Beyond Ukraine, it is worth noting that in this last five-year period, seven joint military operations have been launched — including one of high strategic value in the Red Sea — compared to only one in the previous term. In the background, there has been a general increase in military spending throughout the EU.

But the advances are not exclusive to the defense field. Experts consulted for this story all underscored the EU’s evolution in terms of economic security and strategic autonomy. This includes action on economic, energy and technology issues, such as encouraging the development of a European microchip industry, reviewing trade relations with China — to reduce dependencies and avoid delivering advanced sensitive technologies — and the reconfiguration of the energy supply, cutting ties with Russia.

Ilke Toygür, director of the Global Policy Center and professor of European geopolitics at IE University, believes that we are facing “a change in logic.” “I think that in recent years, what were once big red lines have been crossed, such as issuing collective debt during the pandemic or the shipment of weapons to Ukraine. But even more importantly than any specific significant progress, there has been a shift in thinking regarding what the EU can and cannot do. The DNA of the EU project is changing.”

It is significant in this context that the leaders of Germany and France penned a column this week, published by the Financial Times, that advocates strengthening “European sovereignty,” a strong concept that has been defended by Paris for some time, but which Berlin showed some reluctance to, preferring more nuanced and open messages. Not anymore. Almost everyone is now convinced of the need for change faced with an increasingly brutal world, with Russia’s violent challenge to the international order, the uncertain future of the alliance with the United States, a China that dominates key technologies and is also a disturbing competitor, and a worrying arc of instability in the Middle East and Africa.

Richard Youngs, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Europe think tank, believes that “in recent years the first steps have been taken in what will be a long process of adapting the EU to the evolution of the world.” This analyst believes that “a fundamental aspect of this change is the issue of economic security, of international economic policy that takes more into account geopolitical interests. It is in that area of confluence between the economic and the geopolitical where there is a significant evolution.”

Youngs has just published a book titled Geoliberal Europe and the Test of War. This expert believes that the concept of “geoliberal” better adapts to the characteristics of the EU. “The EU does not act as a geopolitical power in its most traditional definition. What it is doing is adapting its liberal characteristics and values to execute more strategic or geopolitical actions.”

Luis Simón, director of the Elcano Royal Institute’s Office in Brussels and Senior Analyst, agrees in highlighting the advances in economic security strategy and in the field of defense, both with the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and with the growing industrial coordination in the sector. In this area, new mechanisms for joint purchases of military equipment stand out. It is a symbol of how the EU can move forward in defense, not with the configuration of a structured military force, but with an improvement in coordination that increases effectiveness while reducing fragmentation, duplication and incompatibilities.

Another significant movement on the geopolitical path is the reactivation of the EU enlargement agenda towards Eastern Europe. Although this is still undefined and major reforms will be required not only of the candidates, but also of the 27 themselves, the mere reactivation of the process is undoubtedly relevant.

But these important steps do not mean that the EU is getting close to the capacity to act as an effective geopolitical power in competition with giants like the United States and China, which combine the greatest agility of action of a single State and considerable advantages in strategic capabilities, cutting-edge technologies and innovation. To try to alleviate these delays, the EU has commissioned reports from prominent Italian figures: Enrico Letta for the reform of the single market (already presented), and Mario Draghi to spur the EU’s competitiveness.

“Naturally, there remain serious problems to continue moving forward, and they are the usual ones: the divergences between Member States,” says Simón. The requirement for political consensus is obviously a brake. “The fundamental relationship is the Franco-German one. There has been a certain rapprochement between the two, but substantial differences remain. Among them, I would highlight the conception they have of the military instrument, which Paris conceives as a tool at the service of foreign policy and strategic objectives, while for Berlin it is exclusively a defense mechanism, making Germany much more reluctant to use it.”

In connection with this argument, Youngs points out that the increase in military spending is not in itself an increase in geopolitical power, because that will depend on the conditions and the use of those capabilities.

In general, Youngs considers that “the power of veto is obviously a strong factor. A change in the decision-making mechanism would be useful and important. But even that wouldn’t be a magic solution. There is great conceptual uncertainty about how the Union should deal with emerging problems. We are in a moment of redefinition of the relationship between the European Union and the international system that raises fundamental problems.”

Drawing up the roadmap for an organization as complex as the EU is an enormous challenge and nothing suggests that a change in decision-making mechanisms is near. The convergence of wills is the crucial element along this path. There are no certainties in this regard and the upcoming European elections will be an important defining moment for Europe’s political forces, divided between supporters of greater integration and defenders of a Europe of nations.

Toygür points to the reform of the internal market and the stimulation of competitiveness as two areas in which progress is possible and which could provide a strong boost. Being a geopolitical power requires having economic vigor and the capacity for innovation. “It’s not just a question of defense. It is important to advance on this matter, and to do so while defending citizen cohesion and the position of the EU as a global economic power.” To this end, some member states including France advocate issuing new common debt, while others including Germany are reticent. Here too, then, divergences must be overcome, but it is undoubtedly the most favorable terrain for the EU’s next steps on the path to becoming a geopolitical power.

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