Written by Antonio Rastović
In today’s world, we can observe numerous challenges facing the European Union and the wider democratic world. These challenges come in several forms, but one of the most tangible is that posed by rival powers seeking to reshape the world order at the expense of individual liberty and global security. Russian revanchism and Chinese ambition are creating a dangerous global environment and this threat needs to be mitigated by proactive measures on the part of the EU, be it by locking Russia out of places to expand its influence (such as the Western Balkans), or by countering Chinese infrastructure investments (such as those in port facilities) in the EU and neighbouring countries with European ones. Along with these pragmatic considerations, Europe also bears a historical moral responsibility towards the developing world due to its history of colonialism. In order to assist developing countries in attaining greater prosperity and security, the EU needs to be able to exert a greater role in international affairs. To achieve this, the individual member states need to go beyond viewing the EU as mainly an economic bloc with a modest international role. Instead, they need to understand that their sovereignty is best protected within the framework of a future European superpower, one able to assert itself internationally in defence of its interests and the rules-based world order.
The European Union finds itself in possibly the most tumultuous period in its history. It could be argued that even during the days of the Cold War, the world was more predictable than it is today. Unlike the old Soviet Union, the challenges posed by a revanchist Russia and an ascendant China are two-pronged. They threaten the international rules-based world order along axes the old USSR never could or wanted to, whether due to a lack of economic power (the soviet ruble was not freely convertible, limiting them to international barter trade) or because its leadership accepted the international status quo (for example by signing the Helsinki Accords). Russia with its increasingly aggressive foreign policy goals and China with its economic influence thus represent a new threat to the international order. Given these challenges, it is not enough for the European Union to put its trust in its existing mechanisms to ensure its security and that of the wider world. Rather, what is necessary is an increased focus on unity and an effort to turn the European Union into a serious actor on a global level, one with the ability to productively work towards establishing world peace and ensuring the security of sovereign states. The Council of the European Union has historically served as a significant veto actor in terms of efforts to further centralise the European Union. This stance is understandable, given the Council’s nature as a representative institution of member state governments. But what is needed now is an understanding that the European Union is not a threat to member state’s sovereignty but rather a guarantor of it.
The problem of European disunity in spite of the existence of the EU has plagued the joint continent-spanning project for decades. With the expansion of the European Union came a wide array of differing regional, political, and even ideological differences among the various member states. This article does not seek to address those as the chief problem, but rather the approach to them. Thus far, it has been common practice for various member states to use their veto power to abort any effort at increased unity that they perceived as a threat to their national interest, such as the Polish and Hungarian veto of the EU budget plan in 2020. The United Kingdom’s obstinate refusal to participate in greater unity led to it leaving the Union, and the same danger also exists for other member states as well. Even with the UK now gone, other countries have threatened to use the veto in various internal and external policy disputes. Examples include the French attitude towards any talk of agricultural reform or the Hungarian use of the veto as leverage to avoid criticism of its internal policies. What is necessary is a fundamental re-imagining of the relationship between member state sovereignty and the wider European Union.
It is a fact, be it in terms of geography or statistics, that individual member states alone cannot compete in the future geopolitical alignments to come. Increased reliance on the United States and the Trans-Atlantic partnership in the energy and security spheres may protect individual European states from rival powers, but it cannot turn them into relevant actors. The recent Russian war of aggression in Ukraine highlights the fact that realpolitik, a political approach some had considered history, is still very relevant. There are numerous examples of Russia and China pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy devoid of regard for international law or democratic values. We can see this in the Russian support of the authoritarian Assad regime in Syria, or in the Chinese predatory ‘debt-trap’ investment schemes targeting developing countries.
Such challenges need to be faced with the appropriate tools. In terms of an educated and skilled population, resources and economic potential, the European Union has all the tools it needs to be a superpower, even one capable of containing the malicious projects of other superpowers. What the European Union is lacking is the political will and consensus to utilise these tools. By utilising the veto to abort new legislation instead of productively striving towards making the European Union into a tangible power in the world, the individual member states are risking rendering themselves irrelevant in the near future. Outside of the aforementioned challenges posed by Russia and China, there is also the less malicious competition posed by rising middle-income countries such as India and Nigeria whose economic development is eroding the global lead which many in Europe take for granted. Size matters. While the EU collectively has the economic potential to compete with these countries, that potential is at risk of being crippled if all the member states cannot agree on a common course on a global level. If such disunity cannot be overcome, then the EU could find itself being outmanoeuvred and outcompeted by these single nation states.
There are three options to address the problem of wider European disunity. The first and simplest is to continue the course. In this scenario the European Union tries to ride out the tides of uncertainty by trusting in its own inertia. This, however, is a dangerous game to play given the examples in recent history. It could be argued that this sort of complacency led to various crises that the EU is currently facing, from the economic turmoil to the migrant crisis to Brexit and finally to the threat that Russian and Chinese influence poses along the European periphery. Clearly a more active approach is necessary.
Thus, we arrive at the second option which is increased reliance on the United States and the deepening of the Trans-Atlantic partnership through implementing abandoned initiatives like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This approach addresses the chief problem of a lack of active measures to pre-empt rising challenges. But even this approach has its limits. A disjointed European Union is bound to continue being a junior partner in this partnership, one perpetually following the lead of the United States. While in certain areas, such as mutually beneficial scientific endeavours, this is not a problem, in the greater global context, it robs the European Union of its potential to be a meaningful power in its own right while subordinating its own interests to those of the United States. This could have its pitfalls in the long term as, historically, there have been significant divergences in opinion between America and Europe on historical episodes such as the Iraq War. Such conflicts have the potential to destabilise Europe via increasing illegal immigration flows and terrorism. Another problem that cannot be overlooked is that in times of economic crisis, each state, regardless of how democratic or benevolent its policies, will be obliged to look after the interests of its own citizens, even to the detriment of foreigners.
Thus, the European Union cannot expect the United States to cripple its own economic well-being for the sake of Europe and vice versa. This rational self-interest has been displayed in other spheres in the past as well, as was the case in the early days of the COVID pandemic and the behaviour of various states seeking to ensure their own citizens’ safety at the expense of wider cooperation. More recently, the American Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its negative impact upon EU businesses once again demonstrated that in times of crisis, states tend to put their own interests before those of their supposed international partners.
Thus, we come to the last realistic option, namely, increased European unity and pursuing the dream of a self-sufficient European superpower. One which could be a serious partner to other democratic forces in the world, but one which would not be fully reliant on others to ensure its own well-being. The European Union has all the material prerequisites to achieve this goal. In terms of an educated and skilled population, affluence, and economic as well as potential military might, the European Union is an as of yet unrealised superpower. Collectively, the various European nations together also wield immense soft power potential, be it through Europe being a beacon of freedom and hope for millions who seek to enter it legally or illegally, or through cultural influence. European languages dominate several continents containing numerous emerging powers. There is no part of the world that has not been touched by European influence in its history. While that history is controversial, it is nonetheless there. American interventions in the Middle East have demonstrated the dangers inherent in not understanding the historical, cultural and political background of developing countries. A new European superpower could, through understanding these nuances, tangibly work with developing countries to mend the scars of the past and provide a future of unprecedented prosperity and security for the world.
Of the presented policy options, the third one, that of a European superpower, is the one that provides the European Union and its member states with the most security in future geopolitical circumstances. It has to be stated that no political project is ever perfect, and neither would the greater unification of Europe be. There are numerous challenges to address, from larger, more powerful member states marginalising smaller ones, to questions of how much autonomy individual member states should maintain. But these challenges have to be understood within the context of a changing world where member states’ individual sovereignty and global relevance is already threatened.
Individual member states pursuing their own goals with disregard for the interests of their neighbours has led to numerous serious problems which have threatened the continent as a whole. Examples include the over-reliance on Russian fossil fuels, the mismanaged interventions in the Middle East which fuelled illegal immigration, or the internal economic problems stemming from member states mismanaging their own economies. Faced with the competition of individual nation states that have as many citizens as the entire European Union put together, such a disjointed and self-defeating trend cannot be permitted to continue.
In more tangible terms, progress can be achieved through expanding joint European forces such as FRONTEX and the EU Battlegroups. Greater consensus must also be attained among member states in terms of foreign policy. This could even take the form of richer member states subsidising poorer ones to pre-empt Chinese efforts to invest in them. While this is already taking place in a basic fashion, the current model is not enough to fully eliminate the temptation of poorer member states to turn to Chinese investments, even when it comes to important infrastructure projects that could have strategic significance for the continent as a whole. Finally, the European backyard must be consolidated as soon as possible, to rob Russia of opportunities to meddle in European affairs through exploiting unsolved issues in regions such as the Balkans.