Written by Thomas Klein Wolterink
Over the last decade, the European Union (EU) has been geopolitically challenged like never before. After Brexit and the election of United States (US) President Donald Trump, the Union had to deal with increased protectionism and nationalism. Simultaneously, the relationship with China took a hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and as if there were not enough challenges, the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 permanently changed the world order. Ever since, the European Union is trying to find its place in this new global order.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine showed that Europe is not yet capable of defending itself. Years of budget cuts and neglecting European military capabilities have resulted in an even stronger dependence on the United States when it comes to security issues (Carpenter, 2020). Ultimately, this has led to the realisation that it is time for Europe to be able to defend itself, anywhere and at any moment. However, at the same time, this does pose new problems for the European bloc. At the start of the war, German chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a 100 billion euro budget raise for the German military (Chazan, 2022). Internationally, this was seen as the start of a new European era. Nevertheless, when Germany announced that it would buy American fighter jets, the French were not pleased (Barbero, 2020). This underpins the tensions within the EU that have thus far held back attempts to act swiftly and position Europe in the middle of the newly formed world order.
In October 2022, the United States imposed strict sanctions on China regarding high-tech technology, introducing export restrictions for equipment that produce advanced computer chips, thus involving both the EU and Japan in its trade war with China (Allen & Benson, 2023). This they did without consulting Europe first, again leading to tensions between the United States and the European Union (Whitelaw, 2022). While the Commission has the ambition for Europe to become strategically autonomous, the EU is simply not capable of being so right now. In a time when countries such as China and the United States can quickly respond to crises and impose their will on third countries via their technological advantage, Europe thus far is only able to follow and sometimes use their normative power to be included in the decision-making process. The main question is whether Europe will be able to transform itself into a world power in this new order, and more importantly, how they can manage to do so.
To keep up with the fast-changing world order, Europe needs to improve in three main areas: the shift from autonomy to sovereignty, promoting values and defending its interests, and creating an alliance of democracies to sustain its position in the world.
From autonomy to sovereignty
The European Commission has labelled European strategic autonomy as the “main goal of our generation” (Michel, 2020). President of the European Council Charles Michel has repeatedly emphasised the importance of European autonomy and stability, disseminating European standards, and promoting European values (Michel, 2020). For Europe, this means increasing its international ambitions and capabilities. The EU has been able to set global standards and enforce human rights wherever possible, but they need to change their way of thinking.
Firstly, it is recommended to stop thinking about ‘autonomy’ per se. It is impossible for Europe to become completely autonomous without decoupling from its allies, therefore, the EU has to start thinking about European sovereignty instead. The reality is that it is impossible to decouple from third countries, as the economy is globalised to an extent that supply chains cannot be shifted towards one continent alone. The production of the aforementioned computer chips takes place in a wide range of countries and it would be nearly impossible to recreate these supply chains in Europe (Timmers, 2022). It is also not necessary as long as the EU has strong allies. The Commission has introduced the so-called European Chips Act to stimulate investments in Europe, a good example of strategic sovereignty (Cota, 2022). Enabling production in Europe ensures a steady production process in times of crisis elsewhere in the world, but again, it still needs its allies for this.
Another case where sovereignty prevails over autonomy is in the military domain. Despite the vast investments after the Ukrainian invasion, Europe still relies mostly on the United States for its security. European investments are highly necessary and will change the balance, but it is unrealistic to think that Europe will have similar capabilities as the United States on short notice (Kostarakos, 2016). When aiming for autonomy, this could provide vast problems in the coming years. However, when aiming for sovereignty, Europe would be able to strengthen its capabilities while it is still working together with NATO allies and partner countries.
In conclusion, the EU can further establish itself as a global power by developing a strong and effective foreign policy that can address the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. This includes improving the EU’s capacity to respond to crises, strengthening its partnerships with other countries, and promoting its values and interests on the global stage. The EU can also invest in its defence and security capabilities, and work with NATO and other partners to address security challenges and promote regional stability.
Values and interests
The EU is well known for promoting its values around the world, already being one of the largest global economic powers. However, it can further enhance its economic and political influence by promoting economic integration and cooperation within the EU and with its trading partners.
The problem, however, is that the European voice in the world is losing its meaning. The core of this problem is that the EU more often than not fails to speak with one voice. This can be seen, for example, with the implementation of sanctions against Russia, where Hungary does not agree with other member states. One of the key strengths of the Union is its ability to act as a single entity on the international stage. By strengthening its internal cohesion and unity, the EU can present a united front and speak with a single voice on issues of global concern. Therefore the EU needs to learn to speak with one voice.
Nonetheless, the European Union can still use its regulatory capacity and strong policymaking to promote its values and simultaneously defend its interests. The EU is very strong in promoting its values with the help of trade agreements, seen in the Mercosur trade agreement where strong climate-related clauses are embedded (Zerk and Beacock, 2021). The EU has a strong commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, which it can use to its advantage by promoting these values both within the EU and globally. It is, however, recommended that the European Union does more in order to promote its values. As one of the world’s largest economies, the EU can use its economic strength to promote stability and prosperity around the world through trade, investment, and development assistance.
Alliance of democracies
The European Union represents roughly 6% of the world’s population. In a strongly divided international order, it will need allies to obtain a place on the world stage. The world has become increasingly driven by geopolitical decision-making, therefore, the Union needs to focus strongly on increasing multilateralism. This can be accomplished in various ways discussed below.
One way in which the EU could strengthen its position in the world is to expand and include other candidates. This could be done through the process of enlargement, which allows countries that meet the criteria—such as respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic principles—to join the EU. Currently, seven countries are granted candidate status. Enlargement has been an important use of soft power by the EU in the past, as it has helped to spread stability and prosperity throughout Europe (Malmström, 2022). Another way in which the EU could strengthen its position would be to deepen its cooperation with other democratic countries, both within and outside of continental Europe. This could involve working more closely with countries such as the United States and Canada on issues of mutual concern, such as trade, security, and the environment. It could also involve strengthening ties with other democratic countries in other regions of the world, such as Asia and Latin America.
Finally, the EU should enhance its role in international organisations. The Union is already a member of several international organisations, such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. By enhancing its role in these organisations, the EU can help to shape the rules and norms that govern the global system (Tokhi, 2022). Furthermore, the EU should seek to build strong partnerships with other democratic countries and regional organisations, such as the United Nations, the African Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to address global challenges and promote shared values.
To summarise, the expansion of the EU, increased involvement in international organisations, and cooperation with democratic countries outside of the Union will lead to an alliance of democracies and ultimately to a stronger position for the European Union.
Whereas the EU has been acting as an economic power for years, recent events have forced the bloc to rethink its position in the global order. According to Council President Michel, it is time for Europe to move towards a strategically autonomous Europe where it can make its own decisions. To find its position as a world power, the EU needs to implement several changes.
Firstly, it should shift its aim from being strategically autonomous, to being strategically sovereign. This will result in the ability for the EU to act on its own behalf, but still take into account the trusted relationship with its allies. Becoming autonomous necessitates moving whole supply chains and decision-making to Europe, whereas sovereignty provides the ability to strengthen them in Europe, but still work together with allies.
Secondly, the EU should do what it is good at: promoting its values around the world. As a normative power, the EU has been able to provoke change with the help of trade agreements, enabling it to enforce strict adherence to human rights in third countries. It is important to note that in order to achieve this, the EU should focus on strengthening its internal relations and ability to speak with one voice. Finally, the EU should aim to establish an alliance of democracies. It can do this via its most powerful tool: enlargement.. Furthermore, it is also important to find allies outside Europe. Involvement in international organisations is critical and it will help the EU to strongly position itself as a normative power on the world stage.
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This article was submitted as part of the European Policy Prize (EPP) 2023