Pierre Vimont / Apr 2021
Photo: European Union, 2021
In Brussels today, the advent of a geopolitical Union has become the talk of the town. In all quarters, the narrative of a sovereign Europe speaking the language of power and practicing strategic autonomy is rehashed endlessly. Yet the most recent forays into geopolitics have not been particularly successful for EU diplomacy with partners like Russia and Turkey doubting its geopolitical relevance. In addition, the call for more cooperation among European defence industries is stirring divisions that bode ill for the future of EU security policy. As for the promotion of European values, the harsh reaction from Beijing to the EU human rights sanctions has confronted the Europeans to the difficulty of treating China simultaneously as a partner, a competitor and a rival. With so many wake up calls, one may ask whether Europe can ever find its way in the high sea of power politics.
As the Union is learning it the hard way, geopolitics is about power: the power to defend a territory, stand up to aggression and impose its own political priorities. Being a geopolitical player requires strategic vision, an ability to anticipate crises and diplomatic agility. While morphing from an economic market to a more political Union, Europe never really assumed the part of a genuine geopolitical power. It remained far away from the open conflicts of the Cold War. It threw back any thought of a EU sphere of influence for fear of confrontation with its neighbours. On the international stage, the EU preferred to paint itself as a benevolent partner, a champion of multilateralism, at most a normative power. Early on, the Union decided to stay out of History, refusing to fix definitely its borders and accepting instead an unending enlargement cycle and a permanent integration process with no clear endgame.
This reality does not make the natural fabric of a geopolitical power. As dramatic events hit Europe hard in recent years with the 2008 financial crisis, Brexit, the migration turmoil, Ukraine and now the pandemic, the EU rediscovered the sense of tragedy. With history back on their soil, Europeans were under pressure to take significant decisions and shape a more assertive Union. But the addition of these individual actions has not triggered an EU Hamiltonian moment nor transformed the EU into a global power. Member states still today wobble at the prospect of a more independent Europe. For most of them, the social contract that came with the Union membership did not foresee that quality of international ambition.
Is Europe therefore doomed to the grey zone where it stands currently, being more than a simple market but less than a global power? Not yet, but reaching the relevant geopolitical threshold will not only require from Europe the mobilisation of all the resources of any traditional EU reform process but, more importantly, it will also need to go through a profound change of mentality and political culture. And this change of paradigm must not be underestimated. It means from now on that Europe must live up to geopolitical realities where power matters and might can overcome right, where allies must be recognised and foes named, interests clearly defended and values more smartly promoted.
The practical consequences of this conceptual revolution will have to percolate through all levels of the Union, from Council working groups to EU delegations. This new political philosophy also means that EU strategies cannot aim anymore at the lowest common agreement among member states but will have to trigger vibrant debates and uneasy decisions. Further down the road, Europeans will need to position themselves amid the confrontation between Russia, China and the United States and stand up for their own interests. Statements and sanction measures will not be enough to answer the pressure of crises; more in-depth action, strategic thinking and pro-active diplomacy will be necessary. To become geopolitical, Europe will be forced to move from the world of norms and expertise to the territory of hard politics.
Needless to say this cultural transformation will not come in a day. But the urgency of the matter calls on EU institutions and member states alike to endorse the vision of a global Europe. Today such a commitment is far from being the case and this lack of consensus may well be the most difficult challenge ahead. Were Europeans to wait for too long, history will slowly sideline Europe with the risk of an irreversible decline.