A Europe That Protects in Times of Geopolitical Turmoil


The EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is one of the most popular areas of European integration. Eurobarometer polls from the past two decades show that clear majorities of EU citizens have consistently been in favour of closer foreign policy cooperation. Approval rates have been even higher when it comes to European security and defence cooperation. This stable support, regardless of changing global developments, indicates that citizens consider preserving security and stability as core tasks of the European project. 

Since 2014, this task has become more challenging. Russia’s hybrid aggression towards Ukraine brought war back to the European Continent. The Syrian conflict and the resulting refugee wave carried instability from the Southern neighbourhood to the EU’s doorsteps. Polls indicate that, between 2015 and 2018, EU citizens considered immigration and terrorism as the two most important issues facing the EU. Both underlined how intertwined external and internal security and stability are. These developments have strengthened voices calling for “a Europe that protects”.

The increasingly fierce competition between the US and China further broadened the meaning of this phrase. A poll commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations of 2019 shows that EU citizens want to be shielded from this geopolitical competition and stay neutral in conflicts between the US and China or Russia.[1] The same poll shows that a substantial share of citizens want the EU to do more to protect their country’s economic interests vis-à-vis China. Expectations regarding this Europe that protects have thus become multidimensional, including a stronger geopolitical and geo-economic dimension. 

The promise of a more geopolitical EU 

These expectations were reflected in declarations at the start of the EU’s new institutional cycle in 2019. In its strategic agenda 2019–2024, the European Council declared: “In a world of increasing uncertainty, complexity and change, the EU needs to pursue a strategic course of action and increase its capacity to act autonomously”.[2] Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised a “geopolitical Commission” with stronger links between internal and external policies. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell added that he wanted the EU to “learn to use the language of power” and to “position itself in the growing confrontation between the US and China”.[3] However, there were justified doubts whether the EU could deliver. 

The EU is a strange geopolitical animal.[4] There has long since been a divide between the supranational (Commission and Parliament) and intergovernmental (European Council, Council) side. These two sides of its brain are not well-connected. Silo mentalities make it difficult to link internal and external policies and often entail inter-institutional turf wars. Some member states, for instance, view the Commission’s growing role in security and defence with scepticism. The area is dominated by an intergovernmental logic and unanimous decision-making. Member states thus see a risk that the Commission’s expanding activities in defence industrial matters are disconnected from the defence policy decided on the intergovernmental side. 

The EU also faces important constraints when it comes to using the “language of power”. The EU’s power depends on the will of all 27 member states and one veto is enough to mute its voice on the international stage. This makes EU foreign and security policy vulnerable to external influence. Member states with important political or economic ties to China such as Greece and Hungary have repeatedly used their veto to block joint EU declarations condemning Chinese human rights violations. 

To reduce the EU’s vulnerability to external divide-and-rule tactics, von der Leyen tasked Borrell to make use of the Treaties’ clauses allowing for an extension of qualified majority voting in EU foreign and security policy. However, ironically, the extension of qualified majority voting requires a unanimous vote. A survey with member state officials I conducted in late 2019 showed that merely six EU member states were fully in favour of a passage to qualified majority.[5] Ten were outright opposed and the rest was sitting on the fence, torn between the potential loss of national influence on the one hand, and an increase of collective clout on the other. The EU is thus a strange geopolitical animal whose two sides of the brain are not well-connected, whose members are often uncoordinated, and which, in many cases, can only run if all member states give the go. 

The winding debate on strategic autonomy 

The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the factors that led to the promises of a more assertive and geopolitical EU. The confrontation between the US and China was aggravated by mutual accusations of being at the origin of the pandemic.[6] China used the pandemic to position itself as a force for good through a well-crafted international “mask diplomacy” and targeted disinformation. The pandemic thus fuelled the systemic and economic great power rivalry and enhanced the pressure on Europeans to pick sides. 

The election of US President Joe Biden in 2020 made picking sides easier. During his first months in office, Biden kept emphasising that America was back. He re-joined multilateral institutions such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), re-entered multilateral agreements such as the Paris climate agreement and reversed decisions such as the withdrawal of US troops from Germany. Europe’s loud sigh of relief was soon followed by a controversial debate on European strategic autonomy. While some member states argued that Europe needed to pursue its efforts and bolster its security and defence policy, others warned that this was a costly illusion.[7] 

The summer of 2021 showed that, while Biden brought a clear change in style, there was some continuity in terms of substance. The chaotic withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan underlined that it is no longer willing to play the role of the global policeman. It also illustrated the practical limitations of European strategic autonomy. Without the US, Europeans were not even able to secure the airport in Kabul and evacuate their own citizens and local staff. A few weeks later, the US, Australia and the UK agreed on a Security Pact for the Indo-Pacific. The Pact also foresaw the export of US nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which led to the cancellation of a corresponding Franco-Australian deal worth over €50 billion. The lesson for Europeans was twofold: First, the US is not willing to wait for EU partners when it comes to its tough stance on China. Second, Biden pursues a forceful ‘Buy American’ policy with little consideration for its European allies. These developments were widely regarded as the last boarding call for European strategic autonomy.

High expectations - structural constraints 

Expectations regarding Europe’s capacity to act thus grow, but structural constraints remain, and the pandemic’s economic fallout puts resources under enormous pressure. It does not help that the United Kingdom, one of the EU’s richest members, has left the club. The EU’s current priority is economic recovery. This is crucial and an important precondition for the ability to act together externally. Even so, there is a danger that an EU struggling with the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic turns inward for a while. 

The EU’s Security and Defence Policy could easily be among the first victims of a prolonged period of introspection. In 2020, the European Defence Agency warned that national defence spending outlooks put European strategic autonomy at risk and that there was still far too little defence industrial cooperation among member states.[8] Moreover, the Afghan experience could lead European decision-makers to question the value of EU crisis management more broadly, especially when it has a military dimension. Yet, in a world that is becoming increasingly Hobbesian, Europeans cannot pretend that a Kantian logic of forging peace through economic cooperation will always prevail. Relying solely on civilian power will not be enough when facing threats akin to the so-called Islamic State. If Europe does not act as a security provider in its broader neighbourhood, others such as Russia and China will step in. And next time round, relying on the US to step in might simply not be an option. 

Moving from concept to action 

The EU should thus resist the tendency to turn inwards and double down on its efforts to achieve greater strategic autonomy. Member states must move beyond conceptual debates and focus on implementation. They have already taken important steps in this direction by working on a Strategic Compass for EU Security and Defence Policy.[9] A first milestone was a joint threat analysis prepared by national and EU intelligence services in late 2020. Based on this analysis and intense negotiations and deliberations, the member states should agree on the final strategic document by March 2022. The Strategic Compass is supposed to present the vision for the EU’s role in security and defence for the next 5 to 10 years. 

By concretising the EU’s level of ambition, setting clearer priorities, and forging a joint strategic culture, the Compass could address some of the key deficits of EU foreign and security policy. Yet, there are doubts whether it can deliver. This will crucially depend on the member states willingness to make tough choices. Considering strained resources, they will have to agree on geographic and functional priorities. EU and NATO members should use their dual membership to push for a clearer division of labour between the two in some areas. This will be particularly important as the EU Strategic Compass will be followed by a new NATO Strategic Concept later in 2022. Finally, implementation will depend on the member states’ willingness to invest resources in the EU’s foreign and security policy. This does not necessarily mean spending more, but it certainly means pooling more resources and aligning them with collective priorities.

[1] https://ecfr.eu/publication/popular_demand_for_strong_european_foreign_policy_what_people_want/
[2] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/eu-strategic-agenda-2019-2024/
[3] https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20190926IPR62260/hearing-with-high-representative-vice-president-designate-josep-borrell 
[4] On this see, Koenig, N. 2019. ‘The ‘geopolitical’ European Commission and its pitfalls’ https://www.europesfutures.eu/archive/the-geopolitical-european-commission-and-its-pitfalls
[5] https://hertieschool-f4e6.kxcdn.com/fileadmin/user_upload/20200210_Policy_Brief_QMV_Koenig.pdf
[6] On this see https://hertieschool-f4e6.kxcdn.com/fileadmin/20200424_EU_Solidarity_Koenig_Stahl.pdf
[7] https://www.delorscentre.eu/en/publications/detail/publication/default-f0d46889ce
[8] https://eda.europa.eu/docs/default-source/reports/card-2020-executive-summary-report.pdf
[9] https://hertieschool-f4e6.kxcdn.com/fileadmin/.../Publications/20200710_Strategic_Compass_Koenig.pdf

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).