The birth of the EU as a geopolitical actor, however, also comes with its challenges. Chief among these challenges is the fact that it forces the EU to engage with controversial questions and choices that it has preferred to avoid for decades. In fact, the EU’s strategy of expressing concern and focusing on diplomacy in its external action is a result of a deep unease in the EU and its member states about the use and language of power, a commitment to avoid military action, and a reluctance to engage in global conflicts. A geopolitically astute EU can no longer afford this position, which brings back existential questions whose answers are political dynamite and have the potential to create large division between member states and citizens.
The first of such questions relates to the militarisation of the EU. Chancellor Scholz’ commitment of €100 billion for the German army, the use of EU funds to distribute lethal weapons in military conflict, and the calls for military autonomy, including a possible European army that combines member state resources makes geopolitical sense: it strengthens the leverage of the EU externally and – in case necessary – its potential to defend itself.
But this also brings with it deeply problematic questions of the appropriate context for use of force, the conditions of army deployment, the mutual obligations between the member states, and, fundamentally, presumes a willingness to kill
– literally – for the strategic interests of the EU. It brings the EU, in one fell swoop, into global dynamics that are volatile, unpredictable and will foster
political conflict – both externally, but, perhaps more problematically, internal to the EU. The militarisation of the EU, in other words, is a vital component of its geopolitical stance but might undermine its internal cohesion.
The second difficult question that the EU must face relates to its energy transition. The political momentum appears to take us to a place that requires a fast and complete detox from Russian gas and oil, which will presumably (and hopefully) carry over into a detox from other countries with questionable domestic politics. While the Green Deal foresees a massive investment in sustainable and renewable energy, this does not appear a strategy that can sustain the EU’s transition in the short and medium-term.
Instead, what is likely to happen is a growing reliance on the EU’s own resources, including polluting coal plants, shale gas, and nuclear energy. Already commentators have highlighted that lobby groups are calling for a reversal of the EU’s rules on biodiversity and emission targets
in return for ‘strategic autonomy’ in energy and food production. A geopolitical EU – which wants to be as independent from outside actors as possible to protect its scope for manoeuvre – will likely come, at least in the short and medium term, at a cost for its climate ambitions. This is but one example of a wider trade-off, wherein geopolitical strategy will tend to clash with internal objectives of the EU, potentially leading to difficult and intractable conflict within the EU.
A third problematic question that emerges from the EU’s geopolitical move is more existential. It is difficult to have an external strategy without first understanding what the EU’s internal
identity is: what are its challenges, objectives, needs and aspirations? What is the EU strategically protecting
? As highlighted by Loïc Azoulai
, we can trace a tension between two very different visions of what the EU is trying to protect through its geopolitical role.
One vision is parochial and exclusionary, focusing on an elusive ‘European way of life’, an imagery and language increasingly used to excuse or mask xenophobic and provincial intuitions, often a product of the rapid changes – in economic, social, cultural terms – that European integration has contributed to. This almost autarkic view of the EU’s identity sees its geopolitical emergence as a defensive instrument: something that will allow it to more forcefully patrol the border between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
A second vision of the EU’s identity is more cosmopolitan, and sees the EU’s geopolitics as an instrument that defends certain democratic values, a certain outlook on what constitutes a decent society, to be protected where possible in cooperation with like-minded partners. While this second vision of the EU is clearly in Zelenskyy’s mind when calling upon the EU to step up efforts to assist Ukraine, and on von der Leyen’s lips when she argues that ‘the force of law will trump the force of weapons’, it is a tension that will inevitably resurface in the coming years. Especially, of course, once the external challenge facing the EU is not as barbaric as Putin’s actions, which neither leave space for internal member state polarisation nor for a fracturing of the public support for decisive action.
This existential question about what
the EU is protecting, after all, reveals the emergence on the European level of a tension that has dominated domestic politics throughout the EU (and indeed the world) for a number of years, whose settlement and resolution requires strong and democratic institutions as well as a support cast consisting of an engaged civil society and a sophisticated public sphere, all of which are – at the moment – incipient at best on the European level. The EU’s geopolitical turn, then, risks inflaming existing and existential tensions within European societies.
Arguably, we will look back at the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a turning point in the EU’s story: the moment in which it has turned itself outwards, and transformed itself into an actor that can effectively protect its strategic interests in different domains, with the use of a wide arsenal of regulatory, political, economic and military means. This represents a shift in the EU’s nature that cannot be underestimated, and brings with it many opportunities, necessitating a range of important institutional reconfigurations, but also, inevitably, bringing to the fore controversial questions that the EU has (perhaps wisely) taken care to avoid in the past.