October 21, 2016

Economic Giant or Political Pygmy?

The European Union After Adoption of the New Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy.

An existential crisis—the union is under threat; the European “project” is being questioned; to the east, the European security order has been violated; while terrorism and violence plague North Africa and the Middle East, even reaching Europe itself. This is the grim opening by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, to the new global strategy—the first document of its kind since the 2003 security strategy by Javier Solana. The following is not a summary of the strategy but an explanation of the direction in which the European Union seems to be striving and the objectives it sets.

A Closer, Stronger, Truer Union

The strategy is full of the rhetoric of “a stronger Europe” and “a true union”. These words are in line with the controversial and therefore now excluded mantra of “an ever closer union”, which played a significant part in the Euroscepticism of the British in their recent referendum. If the United Kingdom had voted to remain in the EU, the initial persistence of the illusion could have been presumed: the sea is stormy but the course is correct so far. Now we need to take a look in the mirror. Both in respect of foreign and security policy and in a wider sense, the global strategy falls in line with those who favour a more centralised and institution-centred union. The general dedication to strategic autonomy in Mogherini’s foreword also supports a stronger union.

Enlargement Policy and Spheres of Influence

Although enlargement does not appear as central to the strategy, it is a good starting point because it is related to the Union’s future. Obstacles and setbacks on the EU’s road to integration, as well as problems in the neighbouring regions, have essentially halted the enlargement policy. The strategy notes that the agreements leave everything open but it only talks about existing candidates. Enlargement policy—no matter what the official and unofficial records say—has always been a matter of geopolitics, the classical issue of spheres of influence. While members of an association established only with the aim of forming a union make an equal or significant contribution, then the logic of expanding the sphere of influence incorporates countries which do not benefit the EU directly but through which the EU grows its sphere of influence and limits that of its opponent.
On the one hand, there is the pain of tolerating several new members. On the other, it is objectively clear—without judging or blaming anyone—that two spheres of influence collided in Ukraine. The incident dampened the EU’s previous enthusiasm, and some became scared (even though the sanctions policy could be considered bold) and do not even wish to discuss enlargement, which was inhibited largely because of Turkey. Nevertheless, the strategy talks about clever ways of developing relations with neighbours, approaching each country individually, first and foremost by linking them to the EU in economic terms. Admitting that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work doesn’t mean that the EU is giving up on its aim of including its neighbours, among other reasons to strengthen their powers of resistance so that reforms are implemented—which should be seen as a means of getting closer to the EU, blending into the sphere of influence.
The end of history suffered a setback, and in essence the strategy admits this but does not understand why and does not give up the longer-term goal of arriving at this what might be called “final destination”. In any case it is interesting that the EU is ready to apply flexibility and an individual approach with its neighbours. The absence of anything similar to offer internally led to the Brexit vote. The current wish to simultaneously deepen integration and expand (or retain the enlarged form) has inevitably given rise to growing tensions between and within the member states. A union which was both deeper and wider turned out to be too ambitious. The UK’s decision to leave is a (first) serious step in changing the artificial attempt to keep everyone moving at the same speed.

Value-based Pragmatism

According to the strategy, the EU will be guided by clear principles in pursuing its interests, and these principles stem from, on the one hand, a realistic assessment of the strategic environment and, on the other, an idealistic aspiration to advance a better world, which together require precise navigation in order to chart the way between the Scylla of isolationism and Charybdis of rash interventionism. (This is illustrated by the above example of Ukraine and following examples of terrorism and the root causes of migration.) The union will be guided by principled pragmatism, which is a very bold statement for the EU—thus far, the EU has been an “idealistic” project.
We have, in fact, seen flexibility before—for example in human rights policy, the pure idealism of which is believed only by the naïve. All countries loudly affirm human rights as well as international law. Reality shows that in similar cases some European countries deliver harsh assessments and others lenient ones and vice versa, based on their pragmatic interests. It is also possible to predict the adjustment of lines of power here after the UK leaves.
In essence, the strategy’s claims make sense—interests and values go hand in hand, and it is in the European Union’s interests to promote its values, whereas those fundamental values also perpetuate the same interests. The EU’s real interests, on which the union’s external action should be based, would be: peace and security, prosperity, democracy and a rules-based world order. However, the impression is often given that these are what the EU considers its values, when in fact prosperity, democracy (as the main order) and security are means. The strategy, which talks about unity with suspicious and caution-provoking frequency, seems to forget that something needs to stand behind the unity to unite. Unfortunately, it cannot be presumed that a strategy written by the officials of the current European Union addresses the subject of the European soul. In business terms, Europe has sold its soul. The draft of the failed treaty establishing an EU constitution still mentioned Europe’s Christian heritage, but this was deleted from the final version and was not included in the Treaty of Lisbon.
The West of the soulless homo economicus is on the verge of collapse—a process we can already see unfolding before us and which is driven by the belief in so-called democratic values. Let us recall Nikolay Berdyaev who, as early as 1906, saw the essence of social democracy as a religion. Today this religion encompasses the entire world order led by the West under the common denominator of social or liberal democracy. Berdyaev notes that the social democratic dogma aspires with a religious fervour for a heaven on earth where the superhuman reigns in all his glory. In this project the individual is a tool whose dreams of equality and freedom together with eternal values need to give way to the embodiment of the supreme worldly power. This chain of events implies the great Zusammenbruch, a monumental collapse. Inevitably, this brings to mind the well-known idiom “never let a good crisis go to waste”. This is how the European Union would want to realise the utopia of peace, and it already considers itself to be the embodiment of eternal peace, in the Biblical sense a pseudo-katechon (katehon—Greek for “that which withholds”) without whom the world (read: the project of heaven on earth) would end. This way everything can be justified or excused in the name of peace.
The EU seems to be partly aware of the weakness of its values or, to be more exact, what it values. The new strategy no longer speaks directly about spreading democracy, but rather of the need to strengthen democracy in Europe. But this does not mean that Brussels sees the plank in its eye; rather it is labelling dissidents, including constructive critics. Be it as it was with the Brexit campaign, but it is clear that Brussels once again proved its symptomatic inability to listen to others or take them into consideration. The EU sees that something is wrong but fails to diagnose itself.

The Internal and External Dimensions and Defence (Force)

The topic of values and interests is closely related to internal policies and is not only about the external dimension. In general, the new strategy addresses the internal dimension more than the 2003 one did. It is true that internal and external dimensions are linked and external action cannot be planned separately from internal policies. The principle is set but it conceals the institutions’ attempt to increase their influence and power. Instead of investing in surveillance, monitoring, reconnaissance and analysis of big data, the strategy could have analysed what led to the unprecedented migration flow and wave of terrorism. It is possible that the previous general comment about rash interventionism should be interpreted as an indication of the (at least partial) fault of the West. Nevertheless, the talk of pre-emptive peace (which sounds almost like pre-crime) refers to a tactical rather than a strategic change.
AFP/ScanpixThe relationship between the internal and external dimensions also means that, while the EU previously focused on what was further away, the crises are now closer to home. There is a certain similarity to NATO’s return from its out-of-area course to its core activities. The new strategy talks of full-spectrum defence capabilities and autonomy of decision and action. The strategy never addresses the “elephant in the room”—a European army—because there is no consensus on this, although following the British referendum support for the considerable reinforcement of defence measures, led by Germany and France, increased and the EU is primarily focused on security and defence. The UK has promised to veto what can be considered an army as long as it is a member; meanwhile, existing agreements enable a lot to be done in the form of structured cooperation. But even the objective of strategic autonomy alone sounds ambitious, if not Gaullist, and therefore contradicts the strong transatlantic relationship—the US is the only key partner mentioned in the strategy. Europe has a mass of strategic knowledge and skills to achieve autonomy but this would be difficult and improbable, given how dependent the Europe is on the US in terms of military needs and the defence industry.

A Multilateral, Not a Multipolar World Order

As a strong supporter of multilateralism, the EU continues to prioritise the principle of resolving global issues through international organisations and stays true to that principle. Meanwhile, it seems to be less naïve about the current reality in the world. What strikes one as interesting is the support for cooperative regional orders—as if in recognition of multipolarism. In addition, the strategy describes a world without a centre where regions play an essential part. It also notes that the EU does not intend to export its own model.
But in reality the EU does not favour either a polycentric or a multipolar world order. In the end, it can be assumed that the strategy’s ideal is regional orders that are similar to the European Union. This is evident in the section on free trade areas, which, implicitly, would at some point culminate in global free trade. The strategy supports the 21st-century global governance, based on the United Nations, aiming to perpetuate and even deepen the current world order. Regional orders mean a step towards a more uniform world order, not abandoning one. This is why the EU is not distancing itself from globalisation in the foreseeable future, although French and German voices are becoming louder in this respect as the British prepare to leave, and there is clear opposition to TTIP [Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership]. The EU would, however, like to see certain changes in the global order. It supports reform of the UN Security Council and the international financial institutions, but only so that the EU and the eurozone would gain an independent voice. Considering the present reality, this could only be possible at the expense of individual European countries.
In recent years we have often heard concerns that “the world order is breaking down” and “the European security order has been violated”. The matter is relevant in respect of the two major challengers to the world order dominated by the West. In a way, Russia and China are part of the effective world order but, despite being present at its establishment, they are not westernised, let alone do they support Western hegemony. So the West is facing a dilemma: firmly to oppose Russia’s and China’s self-interested actions and aim for a change of leadership, one way or another, or to keep trying positive inclusion, in the hope that one day they will become “one of us” of their own volition. In any case, the matter comes down to how much the current world order, dominated by the West, can pressure the discontented without them attempting to step out of the global system with their own kind of exit. The global strategy is thin on these issues, partly because of the different tactical preferences within the EU, which only displays unity to the outside world.
Strategic preferences should not change at first. Avoiding the formation of a common Eurasian geopolitical rival has been in the interests of the British and US empires, so the English-speaking world can breathe easy for the time being when reading the global strategy. As mentioned earlier, the aim is to strengthen transatlantic ties and the US is the only named key partner. Nevertheless, no general strategy is completely binding. The Americans are understandably afraid that after the UK leaves the EU voices that are less in favour of the Atlantic relationship will become stronger, in the form of autonomy or even a more Eurasian mindset.


Controversy and building alliances backwards—like the fiscal union before the political—also characterise the foreign policy that the European Union is trying to shape for itself, without even being a state. The aim of this approach is of course to present European countries and societies with a fait accompli: non-functioning partial solutions need to be finalised into a “true union”. The current reality, however, is that on the global scene the EU is an entity that has to deal with the reality created by others, not a creator of reality itself. It is impossible to imagine that the European Union could be characterised by what an unnamed adviser to President George W. Bush said about the US:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality … we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
From the beginning, the aim of the European “project” was a formation as integrated and enlarged as possible but not autonomous or autarchic. So a vague desire and being an economic colossus do not suffice. Moreover, the collectivisation of production assets or a more modern “prosperity” does not measure up to being a soul. The fact that the EU needs to appeal more and more to the size of its economy shows that the image is developing its most noticeable cracks so far. The EU risks becoming a pygmy in both senses of the word. The economic indicators are poor and the prospects are pessimistic; a new banking crisis, if not a wider one, is on our doorstep. If a bigger Zusammenbruch follows, it is as yet unclear which ideas will dominate: returning to the roots or a new leap towards the utopia of a heaven on earth. But we should avoid the trap of considering our era revolutionary—it is possible that not much will change for a long time.

Postscript on Brexit

Norman Davies notes in his book Lost Kingdoms that the foundations of British rule—including the Royal Navy, the pound sterling and the Empire—are fading. Some would say that this is why the UK will not manage on its own, whereas others believe that in order to restore its global power the country needs to cut loose from Brussels. It is, after all, a nuclear power, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a major leader in the Commonwealth. European politicians may at first worry about the future relationship but in the end they need to accept that the Germans will still want to sell BMWs in the UK. It is clear that the UK does not want to de-globalise or dismantle the current world order; it wants to strengthen it and play a more important and autonomous role—just like the European Union.
The views in this article are the author’s own.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.