In a memorable scene from Brian De Palma’s 1987 gangster movie The Untouchables, Chicago police officer Jim Malone, played by Sean Connery, makes fun of an Italian mafia goon who tries to threaten him with a stiletto knife. Malone points his shotgun at the mafioso and remarks drily: “Isn’t that just like a wop? Brings a knife to a gun fight.”
Take out the racial slur of “wop,” a derogatory term for an Italian immigrant in the United States, and you have a pretty good description of the EU’s policy in its Eastern neighborhood. Involuntarily, the EU has entered into a geopolitical contest with Russia for which it is ill-equipped. It was a courageous decision to accept the fight instead of dodging it, but now doubts prevail over whether the EU can continue to compete in this contest over the long term.
Where do these doubts come from? Why can’t the EU play foreign policy hardball, just like any other big power?
First of all, the EU was not originally built to deal with political crises outside its borders, but to mediate in conflicts and avoid hegemony inside its borders. That is why, to this day, foreign policy often feels like an alien element in the EU setup, uncomfortably tacked on to the rest of the machine. That is also why the EU’s foreign policy rarely amounts to more than what it does at home: small-scale process instead of global strategy.
The very essence of the EU is to avoid the kinds of standoffs that often mark international crisis management. Its political culture is the opposite of controlled escalation: it is about controlled deescalation. The EU is structurally incapable of playing hardball, which makes its unusually brave stand against Russian intrusion in Ukraine so much more admirable—but perhaps also doomed to fail.
Second, blackmail is not really in the EU’s arsenal. True, the EU can be quite tough about the conditions that need to be met by countries seeking political agreements with the EU or admission into the single market. And soft coercion is not beyond the EU whenever it has the leverage to apply it. But essentially, the EU’s foreign dealings are based on voluntary agreements and good faith. The EU can make offers, and if countries reject them, then that’s regrettable, but so be it. What the EU can’t do is make an offer and then threaten to punish those that are unwilling to accept it.
In the end, of course, that’s a very sympathetic character trait of the EU. But it also means that the EU has one less tool in its arsenal than some other players who prefer to play the game based not on goodwill but on sheer force.
What is more, Europeans simply do not have the military power to back up their diplomatic efforts. In a situation of political hardball, that’s precisely what could come in handy. It is often forgotten that military power today is not primarily about the capacity to invade and conquer. Its primary purpose is the ability to issue security guarantees to partners and allies, so they can make policy choices free from the risk of being politically blackmailed by other, less well-intentioned players. That is what the United States still provides for Europe, but it is something that Europe, in turn, is unable to provide for others.
Another reason for the EU’s lack of hardball capability is that it is either unable or unwilling to invest large amounts of money in the regions where it has interests. That doesn’t mean just a few hundred million euros of aid spread over a decade, but real money, spent to create results.
The EU did not make such an investment after the Arab Spring, when merely opening up access to EU markets for locally produced goods could have stabilized the region’s moribund economies. Nor did the EU invest in its Eastern neighborhood, where large sums of money could perhaps have swayed political leaders more toward the West.
Of course, it would not be entirely ladylike to conduct business this way, but it is a harsh world out there. Other players find such behavior less objectionable.
That leads to the final factor in the EU’s hardball haplessness: the EU can’t easily discard its values and simply embrace cold-blooded realpolitik. More so than most nation-states, which have a wider array of sources for identity building, the EU really needs its values to maintain a basic level of unity.
Every liberal, open society needs the poetry of values to retain a healthy narrative of self. The EU, built on shakier, more artificial foundations, needs it twice as much. If the EU gives up too much of its values-based self, it may easily suffer irreparable damage. No wonder that it is often easier for the EU to stay on the sidelines than to get knee-deep in the geopolitical struggles in its wider neighborhood.
In sum, there are structural constraints that make the EU such an inept geopolitical player. And yet it would be deeply desirable if Europe could overcome some of these factors. Member states are too small to make a difference alone. Occasionally, when it really counts, Europe will need to stick together and play foreign policy hardball. Because in the long run, that’s not only better for the EU’s interests. It is better for its values, too.