A Geopolitical EU to What End?

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Axel Ruppert of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation reflects on the EU’s geopolitical ambitions, examines what has changed in the EU’s geopolitical orientation since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, criticises the increasing militarisation of the EU and provides an impulse for a different understanding of security.

“We have now arguably gone further down that path in the past weeks than we did in the previous decade,” said Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy one month after Russia started its unprovoked and unjustifiable war in Ukraine. Borrell was pointing to the progress that, in his eyes, the EU and its Member States have made in acting in unity and advancing their capabilities to act more decisively on the world stage. The leap forward to which Borrell was alluding has since been widely debated and referred to as the EU’s geopolitical awakening. While there has been a great deal of discussion on what a geopolitical (or more geopolitical) EU should look like and whether the Union’s arms build-up is bold enough to meet its geopolitical ambitions, there has been less focus on the question of whether the proclaimed geopolitical awakening is ultimately leading to a more secure future. This article argues that the EU’s geopolitical ambitions are focusing on expanding military power to the detriment of the security of the majority of people inside and outside the EU.

Geopolitical awakening?

The concept of a geopolitical EU is disputed as much as the term geopolitics itself is. Since the President of the EU Commission Ursula Von der Leyen unveiled the “Geopolitical Commission” in 2019, there have been doubts and questions about the EU’s geopolitical goals and leverage.

Arguably, the EU’s proclaimed geopolitical awakening is not about Russia or the war in Ukraine but continues the long-standing endeavour to make the EU a stronger actor in the great power competition. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is more a catalyst of existing processes than a trigger of substantial change.

Factors that are however new include deliveries of lethal weapons into a war zone via the European Peace Facility, a military training mission for 15,000 Ukrainian soldiers, a far-reaching sanctions package against Russia and the offer to Ukraine of EU member candidate status. In addition, EU Member States have undertaken significant measures, such as Germany with its 100 billion euros special fund to upgrade its armed forces – changing the constitution to this end – and the increase of its defence spending to the 2% NATO goal, referred to as the “Zeitenwende” (turning point in history). This, however, will not affect the course of the war in Ukraine. It will take many years until the money has been spent and the new and upgraded weapon systems have arrived.

The 2016 “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy” already insisted on the need for Member States to increase defence spending and to say farewell to prioritising soft power if the EU wanted to become a stronger global actor. Especially since Brexit, the EU has focused on expanding military power, while other levers of exerting geopolitical influence have remained stagnant or decreased in importance: there has been no notable progress in the EU’s neighbourhood and enlargement policies, EU development cooperation remains without major initiatives and the “Global Gateway” project (the EU’s response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative) is not capable of keeping China at bay regarding influence in the global south. The concluding of comprehensive trade deals is a thing of the recent past, EU foreign direct investment outflows have diminished and the transatlantic bond has been shaken. At the same time, the EU (the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner) has taken unprecedented steps to shift resources and attention away from civilian to military priorities.

EU militarisation to equip the EU with hard power for the great power competition

The latest building block of the EU’s growing militarisation is the Strategic Compass. Adopted at the EU summit on 25 March 2022, it is intended to set the direction of future European military policy and bring together the 2016 Global Strategy with the mechanisms created since then of PESCO, EDF and EPF. The strategic assessment of the Compass draft describes an EU surrounded by instability and conflict within a conflictual multipolar world. Power politics have returned to the global stage, and access to space, sea routes and critical resources are increasingly contested. In this “highly confrontational system, the EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor. […] a lot remains to be done for the EU to raise its geopolitical posture. This is why we need a quantum leap forward to develop a stronger and more capable European Union that acts as a security provider […].”

The centrepiece of the Strategic Compass is the concept of strategic autonomy that the EU is supposed to achieve to realise such a quantum leap forward. Championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, strategic autonomy, though a common definition is lacking, is supposed to enable the EU to autonomously decide and conduct wars and military operations with weapons and capabilities developed and produced in the EU.

However, the prospects for the EU’s envisioned strategic autonomy intended to enable a stronger geopolitical EU have been greatly weakened since the war has begun. The failure of the Normandy Format under which France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia were negotiating before the war also constitutes a failure for the Europeans to take security on the continent in their own hands. While Emmanuel Macron declared NATO braindead in 2017, the alliance has, with Sweden and Finland, gained two new European members and is now even more of an uncontested cornerstone of European defence. When it comes to energy imports, the EU is now more dependent on fracking gas from the US. The reliance on NATO and US energy imports are the most effective levers to demand the EU’s allegiance to the United States’ geopolitical ambitions.

In an analysis for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office, Jürgen Wagner concludes on the Strategic Compass: “The really problematic issue in all of this is the full commitment to the expansion of the military apparatus as the only proven means of responding to the increasing conflicts between great powers. Other aspects are reduced to add-ons within these power conflicts – confidence-building measures, disarmament initiatives or arms control, which would be suitable for reducing the ever-increasing tensions, but unfortunately only lead a shadowy existence in the Compass.”

The Strategic Compass leaves no doubt that the current EU leadership regards achieving strategic autonomy through expanding military power as the key to strengthen the EU’s geopolitical influence.

Rethinking security

Not only is the EU’s military build-up diverting much-needed funds from addressing climate, social and health emergencies to the arms industry, but it is also posing a real threat to those caught up in the EU’s security-first approaches in the global south. The EU is now set on continuing this paradigm shift towards hard power, which began well before the war in Ukraine, with even more ambition.

Instead of reacting with a deepening of its militarisation path, the EU should focus its global ambitions on addressing the three biggest threats that humanity is facing: destruction through nuclear war, the loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis. None of these security risks will be solved with more weapons. An even more militarised EU will not strengthen its role as a diplomatic power to build a new European security order based on shared rules, diplomacy and cooperation. The EU will have a hard time being a military actor in the global arms race and a trusted negotiator at the same time. De-escalation, civil conflict-prevention measures and multilateral disarmament efforts, as opposed to ever-growing defence budgets, are needed more than ever.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered an unambiguous speech during the opening of COP 27 in Egypt. He warned the global community that “We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. […] We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.” In short, we cannot afford to shift resources and attention away from addressing the climate crisis to fuelling a global arms race and a new block confrontation. The consequences of climate breakdown already affect and will affect the very material security of the majority of people on this planet. Providing this security means ensuring access to quality food, water, housing, healthcare, education and energy and enabling prospects for a common liveable future.

It is high time to rethink our understanding of security. We cannot afford to maintain a system of security that safeguards the privileged few at the cost of the marginalised many, pushing the latter into a state of constant insecurity and the planet further down the spiral of collapse. A convincing and holistic approach to security derives from social struggles and serves the need for safety of all, by linking questions of class, climate, migration, militarism, peace, state repression, sexism and racism. To secure a liveable future, we require collective security approaches to oppose the current antagonistic security policies and structures. While antagonistic security policies seek to provide security from the other, collective security seeks to generate security with the other. Collective security means arguing for a form of security that makes us safe, because the others are safe. Demanding safety in all aspects of life for all is not a utopian goal, but rather a realistic response that takes the material interdependence of the world seriously. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe.

Originally published on the website of Metapolis Magazine.