Written by Magdalena Landa Fabián, edited by Jonas Balkus and Stefana Vizman
This article argues that changes in the international landscape have inevitably shifted the European Union’s priorities and reflects on how the security crisis driven by the war being waged in Europe can be a competitive advantage if its threats are exploited by turning them into opportunities and, consequently, into positive change. The paper is divided into six sections: a brief introduction, the three new EU priorities, a synthesis of these and a final conclusion about the future of the Union and its approach to strategic goals.
Between change and crisis: how the international scene has changed EU priorities
The world is changing. The word Krisis, which originates from ancient Greek, refers to the sudden shift that occurs in a disease which may result in the patient getting better, worse, recovering, or dying (James, 1746). Over time, the concept of Krisis expanded from being solely used in the medical field to being applied in other areas: astrology, politics, social sciences or economics. It is currently defined as an extremely difficult or dangerous point in a certain situation (Cambridge English Dictionary, n.d.).
While all crises involve a change, not all changes necessarily signify a crisis. However, the world is currently undergoing a number of changes that are indeed translating into the development of various crises: the growing military and economic rivalries between great powers, the development of artificial intelligence (AI) and the proliferation of nuclear weapons are some examples that illustrate this. In this regard, it is worth mentioning the term “polycrisis”, which has come to define the joint occurrence of multiple crises (Tozze, 2023). Among them, the one concerning international security, especially in the European Union, stands out.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is one of the main causes of this security crisis, as the return of high-intensity conflict to European soil has altered the EU’s strategic priorities. As a major actor on the global stage, the European Union plays a part in the maintenance of peace and security. The EU’s strategic agenda for the period until 2024, which includes priorities such as protecting citizens and freedoms, building a strong and dynamic economic base, and promoting European interests and values in the world, reflects this commitment (European Council, 2019). Nevertheless, it is debatable whether these are the elements that have required the most time, investment and work to date. In addition to the high level of vulnerability of states to the power of a single individual (as demonstrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example), the pandemic and war have shown that one turn in the course of events is enough to turn priorities into secondary issues and previously non-existent challenges into matters of the utmost urgency and importance.
The NATO Summit held in Madrid in June 2022 is a clear example of the change in direction of the political, economic, and social actions that Europe and the world must take to restore order. What was originally organised to deal with China, cyberspace, and climate issues turned out to be a crucial meeting whose thematic target was the strategy that member states would adopt around Russia’s war in Ukraine. The recent strengthening of the EU´s ties with organisations such as NATO (as an example, the signing of the third Joint Declaration on Cooperation to Strengthen Collective European Defence in January 2023) directly influences the design of the EU’s portfolio. So much so that the aforementioned priorities set for 2019 faded into the background in light of the challenges that emerged on February 24th, 2022. Rising gas prices, the continuing threat of war in Europe, and Russia’s insistence on Ukrainian territory have required and require greater investment in energy policy, security and defence, and international cooperation – the three vectors of transformation that the EU must hold on to in the face of disaster.
First priority – Energy self-sufficiency
The measures that the European Commission has proposed in response to the unprecedented energy crisis caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine include the REPowerEU Plan. REPowerEU aims to make Europe self-sufficient by making it independent of Russian fossil fuels through diversification (partnerships with alternative energy suppliers), savings (social responsibility and gas storage), and the acceleration of clean energy (mainly through solar, wind and renewable hydrogen production projects) (European Commission, 2022). The seriousness of the situation led to the introduction of further measures such as the mandatory reduction of electricity consumption by at least 5% during selected peak price hours, the 10% reduction in overall electricity demand or the temporary solidarity contribution on windfall profits generated by activities in the coal, gas, or oil sectors (European Council, 2022).
Second priority – security and defence
As for the second priority issue in the reconfiguration of the European agenda, European governments have significantly increased their defence and security budgets in order to counter the Russian threat (European Union General Report, 2022). This fact, rather than being a voluntary choice, has been an unavoidable precept for the protection of each state. In this regard, March 2022 saw the publication of the first strategic document, formally known as the Strategic Compass 2022, approved by the European Council (that is, by the voice of EU national governments), aimed at strengthening the EU’s defence over the next decade (European Union External Action, 2022). This project is an attempt to reinforce the EU’s image as a global security actor (Benaglia & Macchiarini, 2022). Its objectives for 2030 include increasing the EU’s military intervention capacity, regulating and enhancing cyber defence and strengthening multilateral relations with states and international organisations (Strategic Compass, 2022).
The Strategic Compass aims to bring greater rigour to the EU’s actions by establishing precise timescales and objectives; however, some plans and desires, such as the capacity for rapid deployment (of up to 5,000 military personnel in a crisis), contain a certain degree of déjà vu. More specifically, EU plans prior to the Compass already included “battle groups”, an initiative within the framework of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) that establishes the creation of emergency response units in situations close to a war scenario (EU External Action, 2013). Likewise, former High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, Ms. Federica Mogherini, already launched various security and defence plans in 2016, such as the Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union and the European Defence Action Plan, which her successor, Mr. Josep Borrell, strengthened from the beginning of his mandate in 2019. In any case, all of this has served as the basis and support for the current Strategic Compass and as a political-strategic direction that strengthens the EU in the area of security and defence.
However, more defence spending does not automatically translate into greater European capacity to act (Besch & Quencez, 2022). In spite of the strengthening of the European Defence Fund, among other investment efforts, the EU is currently more of a defence provider than a defence power (Besch, 2022). An example of this role as supplier and coordinating centre is the additional billion euros that the EU has recently earmarked for the purchase of ammunition for Ukraine (European Commission, 2023). Nevertheless, the EU’s responsibility to position itself as an inexorable defence power on the international scene and to restore the global climate of security raised at the beginning is a commitment that is being carried out with a high degree of determination. Examples of this are the European Commission’s efforts to engage in collective defence procurement or the support given to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility (European Council, 2022). However, the current landscape of geopolitical tensions at the international level may force the EU to abandon its paternalistic and coordinating role in order to establish itself as an operational defence force in the face of worsening circumstances.
Third priority – international cooperation
Deepening strategic international cooperation is the third priority in the EU’s portfolio today. The Russia-Ukraine war, apart from disrupting the Euro-Atlantic security order, has illustrated the need for global allies beyond Europe’s borders. The EU must make a diplomatic effort to strengthen its foreign policy relations not only to lend greater legitimacy to its actions, but also to reduce the risk of members and neighbours cooperating with powers willing to undermine European values (Bond & Scazzieri, 2021). While the EU’s existing efforts to establish interdependent relations with new allies throughout its history have been key to Europe’s international positioning, it may now be necessary to go even further in terms of external action.
In this respect, a high-profile problem is the difficulties the EU has in fitting trade policy into its external action strategies. The EU’s interests are not intrinsically commercial; it is also vital to maintain its model of multilevel democratic governance and its status as a geopolitically normative power in the world. This global respect for the Union will only be possible through the provision of instruments that enhance the principles that govern it and the unwavering protection of its members, which cannot be negotiable in the face of the demands of any power. The United States and China are useful models for considering the development of external activities, as their approaches are comprehensive and take into account a variety of environmental, industrial, energy, regulatory, and security considerations. To make the EU’s foreign policy more successful and to navigate an increasingly competitive geopolitical landscape, all relevant aspects must be integrated into the architecture of its external relations. In other words, it is vital for the EU to develop a broad Comprehensive Approach based on the whole understanding described above in order to enable compliance with the objectives of its external action, which implies gathering all relevant parts of the EU to work jointly with a common strategy towards an external object (Woollard, 2017). Thus, all policies with an external dimension must be included within the Union´s foreign policy; for which integration, coordination, cooperation and communication with international actors based on a holistic understanding of the EU’s priorities in all fields are absolutely necessary.
Although it may seem complicated to limit the influence of external states and build a political space based on cooperation and understanding beyond the EU’s borders, October 2022 saw the first summit of the European Political Community (EPC). This initiative proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron is aimed at pursuing this goal, as well as the strengthening of security and stability on the European continent. Combining political dialogue with the implementation of policies endowed with flexibility and immediacy could turn the EPC, together with the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), into a driving force for countries in the queue to join the EU, and as a permanent framework for sustained structured cooperation between the EU and external states (Mayer, Pisani-Ferry, Schwarzer, Vallée, 2022). Likewise, the strengthening of cooperation instruments with non-neighbouring countries should not be underestimated, as there are examples, such as the alignment of Japan and Australia with the EU and US reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that shed light on the possibility of sustained coordination over time on foreign, security and defence policy among all powers (Benaglia & Macchiarini, 2022).
The three vectors (self-sufficiency, security and cooperation) as necessary strategic objectives for the EU
The different initiatives and actions discussed at the beginning of this article are not only solidarity actions aimed at guaranteeing peace in the world, but also strategic decisions that position the EU as a relevant actor in the geopolitical sphere. Being a reliable security partner is inextricably linked to knowing how to ‘speak the language of power’ (Borrell, 2022), two issues on which the EU must work more ambitiously to achieve its long-term security goals. Although Japan has been comfortable to adopt a stance close to that of the G7 on the war, a clear example of the need to improve this capability is India’s greater interest in purchasing defence equipment from Russia, which is why it has abstained on condemning the invasion in UN votes, rather than in maintaining and strengthening its external relations with the EU (Benaglia & Macchiarini, 2022). Besides, a factor that further underlines the desirability of intensifying cooperation with Japan in the interests of safeguarding peace and security in the region is the growing Sino-US rivalry (Benaglia & Macchiarini, 2022). In brief, operational cooperation with the Indo-Pacific is key to the EU’s consolidation as a strategic partner.
The EU is currently in a period of transition and in the midst of a security crisis, albeit having learned lessons from previous ones such as the global financial crisis, the migration crisis, and the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the EU has recognised the need to strengthen its management capabilities by implementing crisis response mechanisms such as the Single Market Emergency Instrument (SMEI), which aims to create a flexible and transparent way to quickly address emergencies and crises that threaten the single market’s functioning (European Commission, 2022). This shows that the EU is using crises to grow stronger.
As Jean Monnet wrote in his memoirs, “I have always believed that Europe would be built through crises, and that it would be the sum of their solutions”’ (Monnet, 1978). This thesis is supported by the fact that the financial crisis inspired improvements to the Union’s financial architecture, the massive influx of refugees translated into the strengthening of external borders, the pandemic resulted in increased solidarity and a collective vaccination programme, and the war on European soil in a joint arms mobilisation effort in support of Ukraine and severe sanctions against Russia (Lehne, 2022).
In short, it has become clear that the world is changing, along with the EU’s priorities. As tensions between countries put international cooperation in the spotlight, what is undeniable is that the unity among EU members will be the decisive factor in determining the success of the Union in its fundamental objective of acting as a global player in the establishment of peace and security in the world. Only this, together with a balance between morality and power will make possible the geopolitical awakening of Europe.
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