EU Geopolitics 101
Geopolitics of the EU n.1
In her first press conference as President of the European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen stated that she will lead a “geopolitical Commission”. But what does geopolitics actually mean for an entity like the EU? Geopolitics is a complex matter, most people confuse it with the much simpler concepts of foreign policy and international relations, but these constitute only a microscopic part of it. Behind geopolitics lie all of the elements at the basis of a national state’s true identity, among these its history, its culture, its geographical arrangement and numerous other variables that shape a country’s needs, its goals and the way it relates with third parties. In the end, we could define geopolitics as the strategy a country must necessarily adopt to achieve hegemony, prosperity or simply survival. Leaders have almost no say at all on it, their range of action is strictly limited to policy, which is simply a matter of how governments decide to pursue a given strategy.
Therefore, it is straightforward to understand why the EU represents a very particular case. If I assumed the EU to be a national state, which it’s not, I could simply talk about its geopolitical approach to external actors, certainly a matter of great importance but not the only noteworthy one. The EU is a peculiar organism: 27 different states (officially 28 until 2021) shape the Union’s identity, and it would be foolish to ignore their differences and the way they relate with each other, whether it’s through cooperation or conflict. Each article of this rubric will address both matters in order to provide different points of view. If I managed not to lose your attention, then let me explain further into details what this rubric is about.
In varietate Concordia
The treaty of Rome (1957) brought about the creation of the European Economic Community (ECC), the ancestor of the EU.
Although the EU should have an extremely busy geopolitical agenda given its huge potential in the international arena, we rarely see the Union addressing other international actors with one single voice and even in those few cases, the divergent interests of the Member States are decisive (I will dig deeper into it in the next section).
The two most recent European Council summits provide us with suitable examples of the EU’s approach towards the outside world (Conclusions of the summits of 1st-2nd of October and of 15th-16th of the same month). The Belarusian crisis gave the Member States an excellent chance to show unity of action, they all stood firm in condemning Lukashenko’s regime. Although the sanctions enacted will not be enough to pursue a strategic plan of action, it’s impressive how the EU, for once, made the first move and took a stand against an authoritarian government before the Americans, who have so far showed little interest in the matter. We’ve seen a similar development when one of Putin’s most stubborn opponents, Alexei Navalny, was mysteriously poisoned and received treatment in a German hospital; European leaders rushed to condemn the assassination attempt while the White House left this responsibility in the hands of the Department of State. Contrary to most people’s belief, the behavior of the White House is mainly due to America’s focus on China, at the expense of the attention paid to Russia, rather than to Trump’s personal affinity with Putin. In fact, the US urged the EU to take a tougher stance towards China, so far with little success: while Europeans keep asking for more reciprocity in investment relations and timorously condemn the violations of human rights, China turns a deaf ear. Similarly weak is the EU’s response to Turkish expansionism in the Eastern Mediterranean, a few rebukes won’t prevent Turkey from pursuing its geopolitical goals. Brexit, on the contrary, is probably the EU’s greatest demonstration of its power: while the UK still struggles to stay united, Europe has stood its ground and it always had clear in mind its own interests. Even if the outcome of Brexit is still uncertain, one thing’s for sure: Britain went through hell when facing the EU at its finest.
“It's not you, I just need more space”
The peace of Westphalia (1648) is recognized as the origin of the principle of national sovereignty.
As I already pointed out multiple times, the EU is extremely heterogeneous, its member states are very different from each other and their interests are often contrasting rather than convergent. The divisions within the European Union shape its character more than the unity occasionally exhibited by the Member States. To address this point I will resort to the same examples I illustrated in the previous section.
Although the condemnation of the Belarusian government was unanimous and almost instantaneous, the decision- making progress behind the enactment of sanctions wasn’t particularly smooth. Cyprus refused to support any actions against Minsk unless the rest of the Union assured its support against Turkey’s aggressive maneuvers in the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, the member states are addressing the crisis with different magnitudes: while France has tried to tone itself down not to further antagonize Russia, Poland and Lithuania have developed a clear strategy with the unexpressed idea of a regime-change aimed to leave Moscow with no allies in Europe. Both in the case of Belarus and in the one of Navalny we observe very similar positions, since the matter seems to be always about Russia, and the attitude of Germany is particularly surprising: instead of pursuing a more French-like approach, it went all out against the Russian Bear in an attempt to assert its influence over Eastern Europe, not recognizing Lukashenko’s authority and putting on hold the almost finished project of North Stream 2. With Turkey we see a very different situation, those directly affected by Erdogan’s geopolitical agenda, Greece and Cyprus, together with France, interested in curbing Ankara’s ambitions, are engaged in a fierce strategic battle against the Eurasian nation. Berlin, on the other hand, is not willing to engage in any dispute with Turkey, scared by the 4 million Turks living on German soil (which represent 5% of Germany’s population) and keeping well in mind their economic ties.
But out of all of these examples, none of them is more representative of the European internal divisions than the dramatic European Council summit of 17th-21st of July 2020 (Conclusions of the Council) concerning the EU long-term budget and, most importantly, the special economic instrument Next Generation EU (also known as Recovery Fund) financed by common European debt. The debate over the amount of money to be borrowed from the market and the prerequisites to respect in order to access the fund was ruthless, the hawkish Frugal Five (Austria, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands and Sweden), strong of their fiscal rigorism, harshly opposed the P.I.G.S.’ (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) request for more money at more favorable conditions, condemning them for their poor management of public finances. It’s astonishing to observe the egoistic lack of flexibility from the Frugal Five mixed with the P.I.G.S.’ scarce humility. On top of all of that, there are Poland and Hungary, whose governments have been choosing authoritarianism over liberal democracy for quite some time, who concentrated their efforts in keeping the access to EU’s money completely unrelated from respect for the rule of law, one of the Union’s most sacred principles. This episode, like many others, shows how the EU is still far from being a true geopolitical power; in the meanwhile, we can hear the distant satisfied laughter of Europe’s opponents.