‘Geopolitical Europe’ is yet to take off

By David Criekemans, who teaches international politics, foreign policy and geopolitics at the University of Antwerp, University College Roosevelt in Middelburg and the Geneva Institute of Geopolitical Studies. He is also book series editor ‘Geopolitics and International Relations’ at Brill De Gruyter, see: https://www.brill.com/geop .

The past European policy period has been one of major external shocks. It started with the Covid crisis and the historic task of protecting European citizens in a period of pandemic. One of the major transformative events was the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine, on 24 February 2022. At the same time, doubts arose about China’s intentions (Taiwan, South China Sea, Russia relations). In the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the EU itself became hopelessly divided. Amid all these events, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council permanent president Charles Michel used terms like ‘geopolitical’ Europe, strategic autonomy and the need for a European war economy. According to David Criekemans, today these concepts are little more than empty phrases. They require to be more developed in the coming policy period.

Strategic autonomy

The term ‘strategic autonomy’ was initially coined during the Covid pandemic by French President Macron in the context of medical goods such as mouth caps, but quickly expanded in its application to the revaluation of the ‘just-in-time’ economy and dependencies vis-à-vis China, among others, in the long maritime supply routes by sea. In recent years, however, this concept has been applied to so many cases that one might question the extent to which it can be translated as an operational concept in the European context, especially when some of its applications smell of covert protectionism. Nevertheless, it is indeed important to revisit some of the EU’s material, technological and knowledge dependencies. Priority should be given to a reassessment of the ‘energy transition’, both in terms of raw materials and technology needed.

The EU should therefore reflect further on an operationalisation of ‘strategic autonomy’. Pursuing an active diversification strategy in terms of goods and energy to be supplied can already go a long way, whereby all European ‘eggs’ should not be placed geographically nor functionally (technologies) in the same basket (China). Here, growth countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, India and Indonesia stand out. In terms of high-performance chips, the situation may be even more dire.

A ‘war economy’

For the past 75 years, (Western) European countries enjoyed US military protection through the Washington Treaty. Later, a US nuclear ‘umbrella’ emerged, although it was somewhat questioned by some during the Cold War. De facto Western European leaders ceded global leadership to Washington after 1945. In exchange, they could spend one or two per cent less of their GDP on defence. It was a sweet deal. For a long time, Geopolitics as a discipline was taboo in Europe. [1] Newer generations of European leaders also forgot to think geopolitically. The European integration project developed de facto as a substitute scheme for the failed (imperial) politics of expansion. An economic and military symbiosis between Western Europe and the US underpinned the new era. But so did a growing technological divide. The easy solution for European politicians was to invest that money elsewhere, “because the US would always be there anyway”. This caused growing frustration among US presidents since Bush junior. For Trump, ‘transactionalism’ applies; spend billions on (US) military equipment, or we withdraw military aid.

The war in Ukraine also created a ‘willingness-capability gap’. Most European leaders proclaimed in the years after the Russian invasion that Ukraine had to “win”, but were slow to provide material military support. Moreover, since the 1990s, they themselves had come to believe that defence should focus on peacekeeping missions, not territorial defence. The industrial base needed to underpin a defence of its own was neglected in an era when morality and the market prevailed. There is much ‘willingness’ today, but Europe today does not have the capabilities to underpin such political desires.

This is why the term ‘war economy’ is misplaced. It is mainly used by the Commission and European policymakers to signify an urgency via a ‘securitisation’ [2] , and propose emergency measures. But in the case of the EU, it rather refers to a return to a more ‘normal’ situation where all countries in the world are forced to invest a part of their GDP in security – in the broadest sense such as also ‘social resilience’. Of course there is an urgency in Ukraine regarding ammunition, artillery and air support, but the European problem goes further.

‘Geopolitical’ Europe

In short, ‘geopolitical Europe’ is yet to take off. Too often, the term was used by policymakers and academics without knowing the geopolitical literature. For Commission President von der Leyen, it was mostly synonymous with ‘the flight ahead’, without a reasoned strategy via material levers or support. Some choices were not sufficiently explicit or balanced (Azerbaijan vs Armenia, Israel vs Gaza), or there was no consensus internally. Generalised qualified majority in EU decisionmaking on foreign policy matters would be a step, but without material capacities, the Union has little leverage. However, ‘geopolitical Europe’ worthy of the name is needed more than ever.



An earlier version in Dutch was published by the Clingendael Spectator in The Netherlands: https://spectator.clingendael.org/nl/publicatie/het-geopolitieke-europa-moet-nog-starten

Disclaimer: www.BrusselsReport.eu will under no circumstance be held legally responsible or liable for the content of any article appearing on the website, as only the author of an article is legally responsible for that, also in accordance with the terms of use.




[1] For more on the taboo created as a result of Karl Haushofer’s German school of geopolitics in the 1930s and 1940s, read: Criekemans, David (2007) Geopolitiek, ‘geografisch geweten’ van de buitenlandse politiek? Apeldoorn/Maklu: Garant Publishing; Criekemans, David (2022) Geopolitics and International Relations. Grounding World Politics Anew. Leiden/Boston: Brill Nijhoff.

[2] Securitisation was developed by the Copenhagen School of Barry Buzan, Ole Wœver, Jaap de Wilde, and others. It originated at the Conflict and Peace Research Institute (COPRI) in Copenhagen in the 1990s. The concept of ‘securitisation’ was elaborated in Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1998), which builds on earlier reflections by Ole Waever in Securitization and Desecuritization (1995), Concepts of Security (1997). The process of ‘securitisation’ is intersubjective, meaning that it is not a matter of an objective threat or a subjective perception of a threat. Instead, ‘securitisation’ refers to the alarmist language used by a politician or analyst in the public domain, and the extent to which they succeed in getting the issue accepted by the public as one requiring emergency measures. Examples can be found in the fight against terrorism, the climate challenge and others. This is not to say that there would be no material threat, but this approach aims to provide a critical constructivist perspective on the policy process and public debate on such security challenges, including through discourse analysis.