Cornelius AdebahrNonresident fellow at Carnegie Europe
Carnegie’s Strategic Europe blog uses chess pieces as a backdrop, a clear reference to the geopolitical image of player or pawn. But can one really expect the EU to be a chess player that defines victory as a goal, plans ample combinations ahead, and counters its opponent’s every move with a thought-through response? Just try to imagine a team of 28 members agreeing on the next step.
Instead, the strengths of this particular player should be its internal cohesion and its endurance. Figuratively speaking, the EU can entertain a number of games at the same time and persevere in the long run. Add to this the way the union conducts its external relations: not through power play, but through mutual (ideally, binding) agreements that serve the interests of both parties.
For this kind of novel foreign policy actor, strategy in the classical sense doesn’t hold. Instead, the resilience touted by the EU’s 2016 global strategy is a much better concept to grasp the EU’s precondition. As Europe is likely to remain more of a reactive than a proactive actor, it should strengthen its internal systems—social, economic, and technological—while continuing to seek win-win solutions for the challenges in its neighborhood as well as globally.
Rosa BalfourSenior fellow and acting director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and member of the Steering Committee of Women in International Security (WIIS) Brussels
Despite a habit of producing lots of strategies, strategy is not really in the EU’s DNA. The word comes from military planning; attributing it to the EU conjures up an image of Roman legionnaires retreating in the face of Asterix rather than the neat formations through which the Romans built their empire.
It is hard to be strategic with a cacophonous lot who struggle to toe the common line, are reluctant to invest in what they have agreed to, and pay more attention to domestic constraints than to external priorities. Even if the EU makes an effort to improve its international performance, it is hard to imagine the union pursuing goals like a military general. Being strategic would require a unity of action and determination of intent that the EU does not possess.
What is in the EU’s DNA is the ability to pacify international relations through the invention and pursuit of rules and to make smart and inclusive use of its power. Rather than make the EU more of a unitary state better able to be strategic, the aim should be to shape the international environment to make the world less of a chessboard that requires hard-nosed strategy. Today, this seems a lofty and unrealistic ambition, but that does not make it less desirable. Whatever its crises, the EU remains the most successful invention for international peace.
Kris BledowskiCouncil director and senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
Under the present division of power, the weight of national sovereignty hobbles strategic thinking in the European Union. The EU could become strategic if the three branches of a new (con)federate administration were independent of national capitals in matters of public finance, military doctrine, and legal remit. Such far-reaching reform is not likely, however.
Take trade. The EU executive enjoys nominal autonomy over trade. Yet some national capitals were able to place their narrow interests ahead of the strategic value of the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), slowing down its early stages of negotiation. Or consider energy. Securing reliable supplies of energy is of strategic importance for the EU, but some countries cut delivery deals that run counter to the interests of the EU as a whole.
Foreign affairs is yet another matter. It is difficult for a polity to act strategically if it does not possess the legal capacity to recognize states diplomatically. This is the case with the EU. Some EU member states have recognized Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, and others have not; but the EU simply does not have the power to.
The one strategic asset the EU does possess is goodwill. As the sum total of the union’s wealth, development purse, and enviable record on law and order, EU goodwill shines brightly and far.
Steven BlockmansSenior research fellow and head of EU foreign policy at the Centre for European Policy Studies
In the face of global trends and challenges, Europeans are coming round to realizing that the strategic postures of individual EU member states will continue to decline, and that it is only by acting together that Europeans will be able to protect their common interests. The most pertinent of these common interests is the preservation or restoration of peace and stability in the union’s periphery. Other strategic interests lie in the economic, environmental, and diplomatic fields.
The general definition of these interests in the 2016 EU global strategy is a starting point. But to turn theory into practice, the EU should be allowed to make good on them. Member states should resist the temptation to pursue quick wins in their (enlightened) self-interest. Collectively, member states have to own up to their shared interests, define them more precisely, and find ways to operationalize them for the long-term common good. This requires a strategic socialization process in which all actors are involved, starting from the highest level down. It is only by using the EU hub in a continuous inclusive process that the union can overcome differences in national strategic visions and threat perceptions and muster the necessary solidarity to forge a more strategic EU foreign policy.
Fraser CameronDirector of the EU-Russia Centre
Very unlikely. The word “strategy” is spread like confetti through EU documents and thus has little meaning. Take the EU’s so-called strategic partnerships—how many really deserve that title? The one with Russia? India? Brazil?
The EU can have a strategy, but foreign policy is mainly about reacting to events—think of the war in Syria, the conflict in Ukraine, or the Arab Spring uprisings. The United States was clearly Europe’s number one partner, but everything has changed under President Donald Trump. It is not even clear that he supports the existence of the EU.
It is useful from time to time to outline a strategy, as former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana did in 2003 and his successor but one, Federica Mogherini, did in 2016. But getting 28 member states to agree on major issues such as dealing with China is as difficult as herding cats. The UK is now touting its strategy of global Britain—good luck! But other member states, such as Finland, France, and Poland, still put forward their own national strategies that do not always dovetail with EU positions, especially when identifying threats. How long have Europeans been trying to resolve the division of Cyprus, agree on the name of Macedonia, or even settle on recognizing Kosovo?
The EU needs to adopt a more modest approach. For Europeans, putting their own house in order is the best strategy for now.
Thanos DokosDirector general of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)
The question should be reversed: Can the EU have any kind of meaningful role without being strategic? The EU has not fared very well in comparison with its main competitors in terms of protecting its members and its citizens’ interests. Nor has the EU risen to the challenge of stabilizing its neighborhood. Furthermore, various crises have exposed a lack of geopolitical reflexes. And the EU is paying a price for those failures. Britain’s vote to leave the bloc has dealt a heavy blow to the EU’s unity and its capabilities in the spheres of foreign policy and defense.
Ironically, however, and in combination with the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, Brexit has also created a brief window of opportunity for the EU to reconsider its options and launch a new effort in various sectors of European politics, including defense and security. Acting collectively, the EU has the necessary economic weight but lacks the diplomatic and military weight to be a global actor. Both problems can be addressed, as the human, technological, and financial capabilities do exist. What is seriously questioned is the necessary political will—given that individually, no member state is sufficiently strong to flourish in this brave new world. The last wake-up call for Europe, perhaps.
Björn FägerstenSenior researcher and director of the Europe Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs
Yes, but the EU won’t be strategic as we know it.
To compensate for some of the EU’s weaknesses (it is not a state), but more importantly, to benefit from its strengths (again, it is not a state), European strategic action would have to be based on other goals and enablers than those of states. The overarching goal must be to reach a healthy mix of European autonomy and well-managed international interdependence, rather than traditional sovereignty. Instead of nationalism, the EU needs other emotional forces to win hearts and minds and fight defeatism—if anything, perhaps U.S. President Donald Trump can help in this regard. As a collective decisionmaking system, the EU will need more joint intelligence and common assessments to build a sufficiently coherent strategic outlook from the bottom up. The union needs capacities, but not necessarily to produce or own them.
On all of these factors, there has been considerable development in the last year. Still missing is leadership that can transform emotion, coherence, and capacity into strategic outcomes. If EU leaders would like to offer the union something for its sixtieth birthday later in March, leadership would be a much-needed gift. That would allow the EU to be strategic—in its own way.
Kristina KauschSenior resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Of course it could. Being strategic is about aligning means and ends. The EU’s ability to act strategically therefore depends on the ambition of its goals and the appropriateness of the means employed to achieve them. In fact, when advancing a specific pressing interest, such as stopping migration flows, the bloc can be pretty effective. This kind of targeted, pragmatic pursuit of interests is the way Russia operates—and quite successfully.
Efficiency alone does not equal strategy, however. Being strategic also implies that tactical steps lead up to an overarching goal of lasting benefit. But the EU’s record is rather poor when it comes to implementing tactical moves along a path toward that spot on the horizon called strategic interest. Here, lofty goals clash with ridiculously inappropriate means, such as the union’s lack of money, influence, military power, or political consensus.
To be a strategic global player, the EU must keep its eye on the horizon. It must become somewhat less ambitious in its ends and far more ambitious in its means. Until this debate reaches a breakthrough, the bloc will remain in a limbo of erratic overstrain.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president have dealt a major blow to European strategic thinking.
As General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s former deputy supreme commander for Europe, said, “the great fear is . . . the decoupling of America from European security. . . . You’re beginning to see the collapse of institutions built to insure our security. And if that happens you will see the re-nationalizing of Europe as a whole.”
The rise of populist and nationalist politics, which triumphed in the June 2016 Brexit vote, can be seen across Europe. This is making it harder than ever to think and act strategically.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is now moving into the Western Balkans, where he supports Serbian revanchism in Kosovo and Slav supremacism in Macedonia and where Russians were allegedly involved in a plot to kill Montenegro’s political leadership.
Perhaps when a new president of France arrives in May and the German parliamentary election is over in September, Paris and Berlin can lead a strategic Europe. But with an erratic Washington and an isolated London, it is hard to see this amounting to much.
Artis PabriksMember of the European Parliament
This question reminds me of the movie Around the World in 80 Days, in which the protagonist, Phileas Fogg, is asked if he has a plan for his tour of the globe. The EU’s problem up to now has been a wild discrepancy between grand ideas, such as a proposed EU army, and struggles with daily issues that are sometimes of a dubious nature.
National leaders in the EU lack the political will to appoint real reformers with strategic vision. Today’s political leadership in Brussels and Europeans capitals is not reminiscent of the best days in Europe’s history.
The EU has to mitigate rising concerns about European identity, daily challenges, and comparative socioeconomic decline. In these circumstances, it might be impossible to implement grand strategies, but the EU could show efficiency by solving many pressing short- and medium-term issues on which political agreement is possible. Then, citizens’ trust in the EU’s governance might return—and with it, the union’s ability to act strategically. But in politics, one can carry only as much power as one can lift.
Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe
The short answer is “Yes, but . . .” The EU can and will be strategic, but it will eventually become so out of necessity, not out of political will.
Historical evidence supports this view. The EU was born out of the ashes of World War II at a time when devastation and scarcity of coal and steel justified former enemies teaming up for the purposes of reconstruction and pacification. Much later, starting in 1989, EU leaders reacted to the dismantling of the Soviet Union and offered accession to countries in Central Europe. In 1995, they agreed with their North African and Middle Eastern counterparts on the ambitious Barcelona Process, which sought to promote economic integration across the Mediterranean.
A new EU strategy is warranted by current events on the international scene. Confronted with the uncertainties of Arab revolutions, Russia’s hostile posture toward the EU and NATO, a U.S. president openly dismissive of European realities, and the negative impact of Brexit, 27 EU leaders are gradually taking the measure of their new responsibilities. Their choice is now “become strategic or die.”
The optimistic approach is to seize an opportunity for deeper joint action by the 27 remaining states on core issues—currency and budget, foreign policy, defense coordination—while dealing with the Brexit negotiations swiftly. The UK’s departure from the table might remove serious obstacles for those states willing to engage more decisively on solid EU policies in a limited number of fields.
Gianni RiottaMember of the Council on Foreign Relations
Donald Trump’s United States is tactical to the bone, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is a master tactician incapable of a rational strategy, and China’s Xi Jinping works tirelessly at a coherent grand strategy yet tactics constantly doom his dreams to enact reforms and combat corruption. Why would Europe be the exception in a world of short attention spans?
Actually, many European leaders think they are better at strategizing than diplomats Talleyrand, Metternich, and George F. Kennan. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker believes his master plan for investment is the New Deal II and will single-handedly stem imminent populist waves. Some Brexiteers delude themselves with Churchillian grand alliances.
Even if Emmanuel Macron becomes French president in May, Martin Schulz becomes (or Angela Merkel remains) German chancellor in September, a reasonable cabinet emerges after the Netherlands’ parliamentary election on March 15, and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni keeps a steady hand on the tiller, Europe will not have a comprehensive strategy. Such a strategy would include a growth and debt pact for North and South; full defense integration, including an EU army with a common command; a research and education project to jump-start European science and technology; a roaring cultural effort to promote, defend, and revamp European values; and a common, rational, generous, yet realistic transnational immigration policy.
Alas, none of the above will fly in this scared and petty age.
Daniela SchwarzerDirector of the Research Institute at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP)
The EU has proved its capacity to act strategically, for instance with its enlargement strategy after the end of the Cold War or its sanctions against Russia following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. On other challenges, however, the EU has failed to define goals and put means behind them. Given rapidly evolving international challenges and internal tensions, acting strategically today is twice as hard and three times as necessary.
To act more strategically, EU member states need to reduce the number of players in the game, for example by working in smaller groups. They should also engage in more serious strategic conversations to define clear political goals that inform actions. And they must be able to cope consciously with very different strategic cultures by making differences explicit and continuously searching for common ground.
Luis SimónResearch professor at the Institute for European Studies at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and director of the Brussels Office of the Elcano Royal Institute
It depends what is meant by “strategic.” The word “strategy” has been stretched to such a point that it seems to have lost its original meaning. As I see it, military power is a precondition for strategy. So, there are two main problems. The first is the military- and risk-averse culture that pervades much of Europe today. The second is the fact that European countries seem reluctant to channel their dwindling military energies through the EU.
For all the enthusiasm and political theatrics about EU strategic autonomy and European defense, divisions between member states continue to hamper the notion of a strategic EU. The differences between France and Germany are key. France looks at military force not only through the lens of defense and deterrence but also as a means of advancing its foreign policy interests. And it makes proactive use of force. For Germany, the military is a defensive instrument of last resort.
These are deeply ingrained differences of strategic culture. Britain’s vote to leave the EU and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump are just as unlikely to make those differences go away as the Iraq War was.
Constanze StelzenmüllerRobert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
The EU doesn’t have a choice in the matter. With a revisionist threat from Russia, North Africa and the Middle East in turmoil, and a new U.S. administration with reservations about its allies, the EU and its member states need to understand that this is an existential moment for the European project.
Europe, unlike the United States, does not have the luxury of selective engagement, strategic inattention, or the option of pulling up the drawbridge. Europe’s demographics demand immigration. Its prosperity was built on—and depends on—trade and economic integration. Its borders—again, unlike America’s—are so extenuated as to be militarily indefensible. All this means Europe must engage with its neighborhood and beyond—ideally, to shape it in ways conducive to managed immigration, free trade, and the minimization of strategic risk.
To do so, the EU must use all the tools at its disposal, from development aid to diplomacy to commerce to military instruments. Europe’s limited resources and degraded capabilities, as well as the enormous power differentials between member states, put a premium on intangible assets: empathy, trust, and flexibility. And, yes, strategic thinking. It saves time and resources, and improves outcomes. The opportunity costs of not thinking strategically are unacceptable.
Nathalie TocciDeputy director of the Italian Institute of International Affairs
In international relations, the debate about strategy has tended to focus on what states do, particularly in the military realm. When measured against this benchmark, it becomes a no-brainer to write off the EU because of its genetic impediment to being strategic: the EU is neither a state nor a military alliance.
But not only is this a reductive definition of strategy, it is also one that matches poorly with the needs arising from the current international predicament. If being strategic means having the ability to scan the horizon, articulate coherent goals, and develop the means to achieve them, then the EU has little choice but to be strategic.
Since June 2016, the EU has had a global strategy, which for the first time articulates the EU’s interests and principles and selects five broad objectives to pursue. The union is now purposely working on implementing its strategy, cognizant of the fact that the emphasis is on becoming more capable and therefore more responsible on security and defense. This was true before Britain’s June 2016 referendum on EU membership and the November 2016 election of U.S. President Donald Trump. It becomes even more vital today.
Time will tell whether this will be another false dawn for European defense. The good news is that the stakes have never been higher, and most Europeans seem aware of it.
Ben TonraProfessor of international relations at the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin
Yes, but it requires a more adroit understand of being strategic. The EU suffers from strategic dependence, limited military capabilities, and a nonhierarchical decisionmaking structure with almost no capacity for executive action. This doesn’t make the strategic impossible, but it does make it much tougher. At the same time, a strategic culture in which objectives are matched to resources plays to the union’s strengths in hard economic power and soft security power, with perhaps a soupçon of well-defined military capacity. Such a direction opens the door to strategic behaviors and action that potentially give real purchase to the idea of a comprehensive approach that was reaffirmed in the 2016 EU global strategy.
However, the union also needs to work in a different way, to turn against the mirage of high-intensity military deployments and focus instead on a new strategic model. Such a model would encompass the development of an integrated civilian-military capacity based on unified command structures and well-defined deployable standing resources. The EU and its member states would then have to develop processes capable of rapid deployment and short- to medium-term strategic planning. This requires imaginative thinking, but it works with the grain of the union’s nature, rather than trying to reshape the bloc to fit an ill-suited nation-state model.
Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe
The EU’s problem is that it has the capacity but lacks the will to be strategic.
The EU is undoubtedly a major economic and political actor, one that can shape meaningful relations with other partners in the world, thanks to its trade power, its significant capitalist drive, its development and humanitarian assistance, and its role in many international and regional organizations. The union possesses the relevant leverage to be seen as a major player on the international scene.
Why, then, does the EU all too often give the impression of being persistently behind the curve when it comes to delivering a strategic vision? Probably because being strategic requires both a deep and solid understanding of what such a role implies and a strong political will to fill the part. From that dual perspective, the EU still very much lags behind, as its member states are highly divided on what type of hard, soft, or smart power Europe should be, and the Brussels-based institutions are too weak to bridge that division.
Will this reality persist forever? Not necessarily, but moving toward a more geopolitical Europe will require a clear commitment from all European partners to a more assertively integrated EU foreign policy. To say the least, Europe is not there yet.