A Strategy for a Geopolitical European Union

Abstract: The great power competition is increasingly stifling conflicts — from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine to China becoming an assertive global player and strategic rival to the liberal world order. Accordingly, the European Union (EU) is under great pressure to play an active geopolitical role in international affairs and conflicts. Currently, Russia’s war in Ukraine is not only a war in Europe but also an ideological competition between democracies and autocracies. While on the one hand, Russia is presenting a short-term security threat, on the other hand, China poses a long-term security challenge. The latest ‘Global Strategy’ of the EU, published in 2016, mellowed the EU’s global position. However, the Strategic Compass, published in March 2022, emphasizes the need for the EU to play a more assertive role in global geopolitics. Similarly, the Global Gateway, published in December 2021, further highlighted the EU's increased international presence. While the Global Gateway and the Strategic Compass are good ideas, they should intermesh their efforts in order to be optimally implemented.


Problem statement: In the light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and China’s continuous rise as a global player owing to its Wolf Warrior diplomacy, is the European Union prepared to become a more invested geopolitical player and engage in international affairs in a meaningful way?


Bottom-line-up-front: The EU should solidify its strategic objectives in a coherent manner. The 21st century great power competition forces the EU to take a stronger position in the world. Rising threats from Russia and China are here to stay, and the US cannot be omnipresent, ensuring security to all her allies. Individual EU member states are weak, together the EU is strong.


So what?: The US cannot be the sole security provider within the liberal world order. With the onslaught of war in Ukraine and bolder actions taken by non-democracies worldwide, the EU needs to take on a more meaningful geopolitical role. To this end, the Global Gateway can be a useful tool in garnering political support for the EU's governance, democratic values, and legitimacy.


Strategy for a Geopolitical European Union
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EU Strategy Compass
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What is the Global Gateway and the Strategic Compass?


The Global Gateway (GG) is a mega-development plan that seeks to build various types of infrastructure globally, in line with the European Union’s (EU) values and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and promote rules-based world order. In other words, it is the EU’s response and alternative to China’s gigantic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Although not explicitly stated in the EU Commission’s document on the GG, the text and EU’s press releases suggest that democracies are under threat. Specifically, these documents imply that China’s BRI has placed vulnerable countries in delicate situations, compromising their sovereignty, politics, foreign policies, debt distress, and established questionable standards in the realms of human rights, infrastructure, and financing[1]. The Strategic Compass acts as a document that delves into the security and defence of the EU in the 21st century, with an outlook on the EU’s strategic environment, a common purpose in security and defence, and setting defence objectives within a 5-10 year period. The overarching concept of the Strategic Compass is for the EU to refine its positioning when it comes to crisis management, capacity building for partners, and protecting EU and its citizens.


The Global Gateway is a mega-development plan that seeks to build various types of infrastructure globally, in line with the European Union’s values and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and promote rules-based world order. In other words, it is the EU’s response and alternative to China’s gigantic Belt and Road Initiative.

Adopted by the Chinese government in 2013, the BRI is expansive, present in 146 countries worldwide, and complements China’s grand strategy with respect to its political, economic, and military goals[2]. Whereas, although the EU's GG is an innovative idea, it does not fit within the EU’s grand strategy. For this article, grand strategy is defined as “a state’s theory of how it can achieve security-related ends for itself that is intentional, coordinated and implemented across multiple means of statecraft, such as military, economic, and political instruments”[3]. If the EU wants to become a more assertive and global geopolitical player, it needs to further develop the GG within the grand strategic framework to fulfill its economic, political, and military or security objectives. Currently, the GG only fulfills the EU’s political and economic objectives. Harmonizing the Strategic Compass (SC) with the GG would strengthen the EU's objectives.

Context of the Problem


The next few decades will see greater development and political and economic activity in the Indo-Pacific, with China at its helm. Accordingly, the EU must play a bigger geopolitical role on the side of other liberal democracies to stay relevant and maintain a power balance. The SC underscores this statement and proposes several ways the EU can take on a more assertive geopolitical position. Specifically, the SC outlines four ways for the EU to “protect its citizens, values, and interests and contribute to international peace and security”[4].


Moreover, the document calls on the EU “to increase its presence, effectiveness and visibility in its neighborhood and on the global stage through joint efforts and investments”[5]. As the world grows less peaceful, defence capabilities within the EU need to be refined. Staying neutral no longer carries the weight as it use to. In order to protect the liberal world order, the EU should take upon a greater global role in order to protect its values, principles and legitimacy. In addition, the EU’s military capabilities and investment require enhancement. The framework of the EU regarding passing and implementing policies, such as the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) or Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), requires unanimity, which obstructs and retards EU’s foreign policy implementation. This is where the SC highlights the use of ‘constructive abstention’ as provided in EU treaties, allowing “a group of willing and able Member States to plan and conduct a mission or operation within the EU framework and under the political oversight of the Council”[6].


The framework of the EU regarding passing and implementing policies, such as the Common Security and Defence Policy or Common Foreign and Security Policy, requires unanimity, which obstructs and retards EU’s foreign policy implementation.

It is difficult for the EU to develop a cohesive grand strategy with unanimous consensus from all Member States (MS). Nevertheless, the SC and GG indicate that certain actions undertaken by the EU do not require unanimity but rather a “Team Europe Approach”, which, in essence, means that individual willing MS can take actions collectively under the EU umbrella. The formation and underlying concept of GG are well-conceived and intentioned. On the one hand, GG covers the EU's strategic objectives in the political and economic realms. Although GG abstains from military matters, it does cover a small field of security in terms of building infrastructure. On the other hand, the SC emphasizes security issues and threats, investment in defense and technology, and partnerships. Thus, the SC is more defense - and security-oriented than the GG. Nevertheless, both policies have common objectives for investment, partnerships, promoting European values, and maintaining rules-based world order.

Strengthening the Global Gateway


The GG and SC are good starting points as the EU envisions a more significant and global geopolitical role. Nevertheless, if the EU wishes to form a cohesive strategy that serves EU interests within a grand strategic framework, it needs to reconsider the importance and structure of the GG and the SC. The GG and SC should be combined and integrated to fulfill the three grand strategic components: military, economy, and politics. There are three ways in which the EU must reorient the GG and the SC to protect democracy, maintain the liberal world order, and promote European values. First, the objectives of increasing investments and forming partnerships are common to both policies, and thus, they can be combined to form an overarching and encompassing objective that reflects the aims of both policies. Second, security is almost entirely omitted in the GG. Security and defence strategies are valuable in facilitating the EU’s plans to build infrastructure abroad; therefore, the SC’s ambition to prepare EU troops and read the EU Rapid Deployment Capacity should be integrated into the GG framework. Lastly, once the gaps between the SC and the GG are filled, the GG should be treated as an indispensable instrument to advance the EU's grand strategy and, ultimately, its more autonomous geopolitical role.


The BRI is described as one of the most important foreign policy instruments of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This is because the BRI fits impeccably within the Chinese grand strategy. China wishes to achieve economic leadership and advance its military capabilities by 2050. The BRI is an instrument that propels China towards achieving these goals[7]. The BRI was first intended to serve the economic interests and investment capabilities of China. All the roads along the belt and road would lead to China, placing China as a central economic power. However, the concessional loans China would provide to countries have resulted in unfavourable repayment conditions for the receiving investment country. This would place the country in a vulnerable position where China would interfere in the country’s political interests and has been more assertive over the years. Such an example can be provided in 2017 when Greece blocked an EU statement that would condemn China’s human rights violations. Militarily, after heavily investing in infrastructure in Djibouti, China has been able to open its first overseas naval base in the small strategically located country on the Horn of Africa. Therefore, the BRI has been aligning China’s economic, political, and military objectives, and it continues to do so today[8].


The BRI was first intended to serve the economic interests and investment capabilities of China. All the roads along the belt and road would lead to China, placing China as a central economic power.

The EU needs to show that the GG is more than just another investment strategy for countries outside the EU. This can be done by integrating the GG and the SC.


After integrating the overlapping objectives of the GG and SC, the EU should work to complement the strategies and aims of both policies. Security must be guaranteed for the GG to function effectively. In other words, executing large-scale infrastructure projects will be unattractive investments for “Team Europe”, the European Investment Bank, and private EU investors if lapses in defence and security are likely to compromise these investments. Therefore, the SC’s EU Hybrid Toolbox should be used to protect the implementation of the planned projects. The EU Hybrid Toolbox is designed to develop mechanisms to fight various hybrid threats and “bolster our societal and economic resilience, protect critical infrastructure”[9]. The SC further emphasizes maritime security and deploying troops to secure “maritime interests and critical maritime infrastructure”, which can perfectly complement and support the protection and maintenance of GG infrastructure projects[10]. Thus, in addition to the SC’s plans for EU troop deployments in the maritime, land, and air domains as well as crisis response operations, harmonizing the SC and GG would ensure the secure manifestation and implementation of EU’s development ambitions.


The EU Hybrid Toolbox is designed to develop mechanisms to fight various hybrid threats and “bolster our societal and economic resilience, protect critical infrastructure”.

The EU needs to have an instrument within its CSDP and CFSP to propel the EU's grand strategy and enable it to become a significant geopolitical actor in the rules-based liberal world order. The GG can serve to be that instrument, and therefore, it should be prioritized on the EU Commission’s agenda, the budget should be increased from the current amount of 300 billion euros, and the military or security component of the SC must be integrated to form a coherent all-encompassing policy. If the EU wishes for the private sector and individual MS to get involved in the GG projects, the Commission should develop the GG further by ensuring security, assessing risk, and making it attractive to contribute to the development of and connectivity to countries outside of the EU. Given that the GG was vaguely worded and published in late 2021, it can be assumed that the final framework of the policy is still under development. Therefore, there is time to consider integrating both SC and GG, and establishing the new and improved GG as a valuable tool for the EU to advance its geopolitical role and ambitions with respect to international affairs and conflicts.


 

Lana Pedisic is a current M.A. student of Global Security and Strategy at the Brussels School of Governance. She has a BSc in International Business from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Previously, she has published on the Belt and Road Initiative for The Horizon Defence Journal. Her focus is on China studies, Belt and Road Initiative, Asia, and the European Foreign and Security Policy. The views contained in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the Brussels School of Governance.

 

[1] “The Global Gateway,” Brussels: European Commission, December 1, 2021.

[2] Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York, NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[3] Ibid., 16.

[4] General Secretariat of the Council, “A Strategic Compass,” Brussels: Council of the European Union, March 21, 2022, 1.

[5] Ibid., 2.

[6] Ibid., 14.

[7] Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York, NY, NY: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[8] Lana Pedisic, "Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative in Europe," The Defence Horizon Journal, December 16, 2021, https://www.thedefencehorizon.org/post/implications-of-the-belt-and-road-initiative-in-europe.

[9] General Secretariat of the Council, “A Strategic Compass,” Brussels: Council of the

European Union, March 21, 2022, 22.

[10] Ibid., 24.

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