There is almost unanimous agreement that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has catapulted the European Union toward greater geopolitical assertiveness and unity. The war seems to have unlocked more progress on EU foreign and security policy in a few months than was achieved in previous decades. High Representative Josep Borrell has boldly declared “the awakening of geopolitical Europe.”
However, the EU’s steps are only geopolitical if an extremely loose notion of that concept is used, and while unity has tightened between member states on some issues it has splintered on others. Despite the step-change in the EU’s external action, there is limited evidence so far it will project a stronger or different form of power internationally—that is, as an emergent geopolitical actor—than it did before the war. For now, there is no dramatic birth of any radically new European geostrategy.
In fact, the war invites a less comfortable debate about the EU’s global role and identity. Notwithstanding the upbeat rhetoric, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine represents a crushing policy failure for the EU, with tens of thousands of Ukrainians having died. The way the EU’s external action is analyzed needs to change because the conflict has brought to the fore conceptual questions that are the very inverse of the ones that are usually asked in this regard.
Unpacking the Response
The tone of internal EU debates has been positive. EU member states have pulled together in a united front against Russian actions. They have moved beyond hesitancy and provided weapons to Ukraine. They have agreed on severe sanctions against Russia. They have welcomed Ukrainian refugees and invoked a long-dormant protection mechanism to do so. Most member states have promised to increase defense spending up to the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP.
But there are clear limitations to the EU’s response. Member states have declined to engage militarily to save a sovereign, broadly democratic European country from being occupied. They have refused to supply certain types of weapons like jet fighters. They are moving only very slowly and partially toward phasing out Russian energy imports. Several European companies have pulled out of Russia, of their own accord rather than due to official sanctions, but many remain there. And European leaders and commentators’ somewhat self-satisfied celebration of the new unity and determination jars with events in Ukraine, where tens of thousands have perished. With the situation on the ground fluctuating in uneasy balance, there is growing frustration among Ukrainians with the limits of what their country has received from EU states in terms of weapons and other support.
Geopolitics is an endlessly disputed term, but if its core meaning is competition over the geographical configuration of power—or “territoriality”—then it hasn’t factored much into the EU’s responses. And, if the projection of hard power is part of geopolitical leverage, this has been evidently lacking from EU reactions to the invasion. In itself, the EU increasing its defense spending is not an act of geopolitical power—even if the EU had spent more on defense prior to the invasion, it is unlikely that this would have led member states to intervene in Ukraine. Neither is stating a long-term aim to reduce dependency on Russian gas necessarily an act of geopolitical power. In this regard, whether the EU acts geopolitically will depend on how it uses the maneuverability it gains from energy autonomy.
The EU’s offer of candidate status to Ukraine is a crucial geopolitical move, and yet many leaders continue to put their emphasis on the fact that Ukrainian membership is not guaranteed and even unlikely still. The EU has imposed severe sanctions on Russia, but elsewhere it remains cautious in using sanctions as a tool of statecraft. The abrupt change of policy toward Russia may not spill over into major shifts in strategy toward other countries. The Ukraine war may prove to be more an exception than an emergent rule.
The crisis has galvanized European coordination in defense capability, but it has also reinforced the United States’ military lead in European security matters. If strategic autonomy is partly about the EU needing to act when the United States refuses to do so, it is difficult to see how this concept fits the context of the invasion or its aftermath. The EU’s restraint comes from strategic calculation and absence of political will, more than a lack of autonomy.
For many years, the EU’s geopolitical discourse has run ahead of its actions in its eastern neighborhood. Rather than the war provoking a radical shift in EU geostrategy, there is much continuity on display. There are echoes of how the EU responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine from 2014. The larger member states remain reluctant to provide direct security guarantees to Ukraine and would prefer some kind of negotiated deal with Russia.
A New Framing
There is today not so much a geopolitical turn by the EU as another step in the evolution of its preexisting strategic frameworks. Beyond the individual measures adopted since the invasion of Ukraine, there are only modest indications that the EU is embarking on a new direction in the way it approaches international challenges.
A curious dissonance has been growing for some years within debates about EU foreign and security policy. Almost every official policy document, ministerial speech, op-ed, think tank publication, or journal article repeats the line that the EU must raise its level of ambition in foreign policy. A remarkably uniform position predominates that the EU must commit itself to exerting more power and influence in the world. For some, the EU needs to harness the geopolitical opening that comes with the war in Ukraine to advance a long-standing menu of options to boost its institutional capacities and processes. EU and member states’ formal policy aspirations all point toward the same aim of heightened international presence and voice. In all this, though, the debates are mostly about how far the EU falls short of that broadly agreed goal, not the goal itself.
At the same time, many elements of the EU’s external action have been on an opposite trajectory toward downgraded ambition and truncated commitment. Notwithstanding the ubiquitous rhetoric to the contrary, most EU external action for some time has been not about external power-projection but about repelling or mitigating other powers’ influences. The EU has increasingly understood liberal foreign policy as retrenchment and prudence, and while France’s President Emmanuel Macron promised to reverse this trend he soon backed away from a more “offensive” liberalism. The trend is driven by multiple factors including constraints on domestic politics, a squeeze on financial resources, and a focus on strategic caution.
Events in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, and elsewhere all speak to a move away from ambitious forms of EU conflict intervention. While talking up its response to the war in Ukraine, the EU has been completing the drawing down of its security mission in Mali. The EU has for several years been beefing up defense capacities through the Permanent Structured Cooperation and the European Defence Fund, but these efforts are oriented more toward protecting European territory than the outward projection of hard power. Germany’s recent Zeitenwende (the supposed turning point in its foreign policy) has so far been framed in the relatively narrow sense of improving the country’s defensive military capacities.
EU development aid is relatively stable but is a low and declining share of recipient states’ GDPs, while non-Western donors ratchet up their external funding more decisively. The EU has now clearly been displaced by China in Africa and Latin America, and it does not have especially ambitious strategies in either region to reverse this. In parts of the Middle East, Russia has pushed European states aside, despite its limited economic strength.
Foreign investment flows from the EU peaked some years ago, and the union’s trade policy is now morphing into internal industrial policy. The pace of signing new trade agreements has slowed, and many years-long free-trade talks have effectively been abandoned. While the “Brussels effect” is commonly celebrated, its most institutionalized forms have been receding for a decade: the EU has moved away from external action centered on the wholesale export of its rules toward lighter forms of diplomatic dialogue. (Detail on all these trends can be found here.)
The EU response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine not only fits this trend—it magnifies the dissonance between its rhetoric and actions. The rhetoric centered on the EU now moving up several gears in its foreign policy ambition and projection of power has verged on the ebullient despite the tragic events in Ukraine. Yet, as indicated above, the EU’s main policy decisions have been guided by a desire not to get directly involved, not to have the responsibility of quickly integrating Ukraine, and not to have to manage deeply entwined international interdependencies.
The debates about EU external action would benefit from being more grounded in assessing and explaining these defensive trends. Such a shift in analytical focus would help move beyond ritualistic calls for more of everything in the EU’s foreign policy—more power, more autonomy, more sovereignty, more unity, more leadership, more presence, more voice—that belie its usual pursuit of less.
It would also be useful to ask more searching questions about the relationship between all the habitually listed strands of heightened EU ambition. Is pushing for more European sovereignty synonymous with more power? When leaders stress the risks of interdependence, are they serious when they then promise new EU partnerships and trade accords around the world? Does a genuinely green transition require a diminution in some aspects of the EU’s global footprint, despite sweeping assertions to the contrary? Does the EU’s focus on geo-economics risk overshadowing its geopolitical claim? Would a greater use of power and European sovereignty sometimes clash with building genuinely co-shaped, mutually beneficial partnerships with other societies?
The answers to such questions may reveal that the EU needs to be more selective in where and how it raises its international ambition. Delving into this prospect might be more conceptually appropriate than defaulting to one-dimensional refrains about the need for a more global Europe. The risk that needs analyzing may be of the EU getting stuck in a strategic no-man’s land: losing its conviction in liberal concepts of security without replacing these with a full mobilization of geopolitical power.
EU diplomats would likely question this critique and reply by listing all the new policies that are in the pipeline to enhance the union’s power since the invasion of Ukraine and to ensure it has a heavier global footprint. But this would confirm that the debate tends to move in just one direction, crowding out more varied reflections. There seems to be almost too much easy agreement among those involved in examining EU foreign policies on ideas that recede over the horizon year after year. This generates a tone of unreality with endless calls for more engagement or power coexisting with member states’ priorities that are more about finding protective cushions against the world. Even as leaders ritually insist the aim is or should be to strengthen and widen the EU’s global influence and power, they move toward strategies of eschewing heavy involvement in risky and costly external initiatives.
A paradigm shift is needed in the terms of debate about the EU’s international presence. Rather than simply proclaiming and celebrating its new unity and purpose, a more helpful debate would focus on the intricate balances between different kinds of self-interests and priorities. It would recognize that the EU will struggle to be simultaneously an agenda-setter and risk-avoider. It would investigate more rigorously how far—or even if—the EU can have more global power and at the same time less exposure to the risks this entails. And it would more carefully compare the costs of getting involved or not in crisis situations.
The ultimate point is that, even though the EU is upgrading its external action in some areas, its aspiration also needs to be rooted within what is politically realistic. A more variegated set of strategic ideas would help generate more grounded debate about Europe’s role in global affairs. The war in Ukraine calls for this more than for celebrations of illusory geopolitical awakenings.