A Europe that protects in times of geopolitical turmoil

The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is one of the most popular areas of European integration. Polls show that clear majorities of EU citizens have been in favour of closer foreign policy cooperation throughout the past two decades. Approval rates are even higher when it comes to European security and defence cooperation. This stable support, regardless of changing global developments, indicates that citizens consider preserving security and stability as core tasks of the European project.

Since 2014, this task has become more challenging. Russia’s hybrid aggression towards Ukraine brought war back to the European Continent. The Syrian conflict and the resulting refugee wave carried instability from the Southern neighbourhood to the EU’s doorsteps. Polls indicate that, between 2015 and 2018, EU citizens considered immigration and terrorism as the two most important issues facing the EU. Both underlined how intertwined external and internal security and stability are. These developments have strengthened voices calling for “a Europe that protects”.

The increasingly fierce competition between the US and China since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016 further broadened the meaning of this phrase. A poll commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations of 2019 shows that EU citizens want to be shielded from this geopolitical competition and stay neutral in conflicts between the US and China or Russia. The same poll shows that a substantial share of citizens want the EU to do more to protect their country’s economic interests vis-à- vis China. Expectations regarding this Europe that protects have thus become multidimensional, including a stronger geopolitical and geo-economic dimension.

A fresh start with big promises

These expectations were reflected in declarations at the start of the EU’s new institutional cycle in 2019. In its strategic agenda 2019–2024, the European Council declared: “In a world of increasing uncertainty, complexity and change, the EU needs to pursue a strategic course of action and increase its capacity to act autonomously”. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised a “geopolitical Commission” with stronger links between internal and external policies. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell added that he wanted the EU to “learn to use the language of power” and to “position itself in the growing confrontation between the US and China”. However, there were justified doubts whether the EU could deliver.

The EU is a strange and fragmented geopolitical animal. The two sides of its brain are not well- connected: There has long since been a divide between the supranational (Commission and Parliament) and intergovernmental (European Council, Council) side. Silo mentalities make it difficult to link internal and external policies and often entail inter-institutional turf wars. Some member states, for instance, view the Commission’s growing role in security and defence with scepticism. The area is dominated by an intergovernmental logic and unanimous decision-making. There is a risk that the Commission’s expanding activities in defence industrial matters are disconnected from the defence policy decided on the intergovernmental side.

The EU also faces important constraints when it comes to using the language of power. The EU’s power depends on the will of all 27 member states and one veto is enough to mute its voice on the international stage. This makes the EU’s foreign and security policy thus vulnerable to external influence. Member states with important political or economic ties to China such as Greece and Hungary have repeatedly used their veto to block joint EU declarations condemning Chinese human rights violations.

To reduce the EU’s vulnerability to external divide-and-rule tactics, von der Leyen tasked Borrell to make use of the Treaties’ clauses allowing for an extension of qualified majority voting in EU foreign and security policy. However, ironically, the extension of qualified majority voting requires a unanimous vote. A survey with member state officials I conducted in late 2019 showed that merely six EU member states were fully in favour of a passage to qualified majority. Ten were outright opposed and the rest was sitting on the fence, torn between the potential loss of national influence on the one hand, and an increase of collective clout on the other. The EU is thus a strange geopolitical animal whose two sides of the brain are not well-connected, whose members are often uncoordinated, and which, in many cases, can only run if all member states give the go.

Corona: amplifying challenges and rising expectations

The Coronavirus pandemic has amplified the factors that led to the promises of a more assertive and geopolitical EU. The confrontation between the US and China was aggravated by mutual accusations of being at the origin of the pandemic. China used the pandemic to position itself as a force for good through a well-crafted international “mask diplomacy” and targeted disinformation. Meanwhile, pandemic underlined Trump’s retreat from the rules-based multilateral order. Insisting on the label “Chinese” or “Wuhan virus”, the US government initially blocked several multilateral initiatives. It then decided to withdraw the US from the World Health Organization, the central body coordinating the multilateral response.

Transatlantic relations have deteriorated further in the context of Trump’s re-election campaign. It is still hard to tell who will make the race in November. The EU thus has to prepare for the eventuality of a second Trump term, which would likely lead an even more inward-looking US. Trump’s decision to withdraw 9,500 US troops stationed in Germany without prior consultation with NATO partners indicates what this could look like. Regardless of the electoral outcome, the EU must prepare for increased US pressure to choose sides in the confrontation with China and for greater demands on burden-sharing in defence matters.

Internal and external expectations on the EU to display global leadership are thus on the rise. However, structural constraints remain, and the pandemic’s economic fallout puts resources under enormous pressure. It does not help that the United Kingdom, one of the EU’s richest members, is leaving the club. The EU’s current priority is economic recovery and internal solidarity. This is crucial and an important precondition for the ability to act together externally. However, there is a real danger that an EU struggling with the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic turns inward for a while.

The EU’s Security and Defence Policy will likely be among the first victims of a prolonged period of introspection. Substantial cuts to the EU’s collective envelopes for defence are harbingers of the expected national defence budget cuts. Yet, in a world that is becoming increasingly Hobbesian, Europeans cannot pretend that a Kantian logic of forging peace through economic cooperation will always prevail. The health and economic crises could easily feed into a security crisis in an even less stable neighbourhood. Relying solely on civilian power will not be enough when facing threats akin to the so-called Islamic State. Next time round, relying on the US to step in might not be an option.

A Europe that protects – now more than ever

The EU must resist the tendency to turn inwards and double down on its efforts to achieve greater strategic autonomy and sovereignty. In theory, it is well positioned to answer the broadening calls for a Europe that protects. It disposes of an exceptionally vast range of political, economic and military instruments and resources. To leverage this strength, some core weaknesses must be addressed.

First, Europeans need a more common and clear-eyed analysis of threats and challenges. What is it that Europe (rather than the nation state, NATO, the United Nations etc.) should protect us from? The common 360° threat analysis that should be developed until the end of 2020 represents an important opportunity in this regard. The member states should use it to foster mutual understanding of each other’s nightmares and red lines in the minefield of geopolitical competition.

Second, the EU needs to work on strategy and sharpen its tools. In June 2020, the member states agreed to develop a strategic compass for the EU’s Security and Defence Policy. This document should clearly define the EU’s level of ambition and priorities as a security provider. The process is important to keep the member states engaged despite competing financial and political priorities. In addition, the threat analysis should be used to trigger more joined-up strategic thinking. The High Representative should use it to initiate country or regional strategies linking the EU’s various tools. To better link the two parts of the EU’s geopolitical brain, an inter-institutional policy planning and strategy unit could be established between the Commission and the European External Action Service.

A common analysis, clearer strategic outlook, sharper tools and more connected institutions will be worth little if the member states let themselves be divided by external powers. The EU and interested member states should thus continue pushing for the extension of qualified majority voting within the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy. The topic should be put on the EU’s broader reform agenda and could become part of a cross-issue package deal.

To conclude, the pandemic has shown how interconnected European societies are. Insecurity is contagious – not only if it is caused by a virus. The EU has been built on the promise of peace and security through economic cooperation. Europeans must move closer together to defend this Kantian logic globally, protect against Hobbesian dynamics, and develop a much more concrete understanding of the manifestations of European strategic sovereignty in this world marked by systemic rivalry.

Nicole Koenig

Nicole Koenig is Deputy Director of the Jacques Delors Institute Berlin. She leads the Institute’s research on EU foreign and security policy, institutions and democracy, and migration. Beforehand, Nicole worked for various European think-tanks and universities including the Trans European Policy Studies Association in Brussels, the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome, the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam and King’s College in London. Nicole holds Master’s degrees from the University of Constance and the College of Europe as well as a PhD from Edinburgh University and the University of Cologne (co-tutelle).