New EU in the World

How Brussels becomes a real geopolitical actor

29 March 2022

Martin Ehl

Senior Fellow

After 24 February this year, Europe has changed fundamentally and with it the position of the European Union in the world.

We do not yet know exactly what the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine will be, what will happen beyond the EU’s and NATO’s eastern border. 

But we do know that many Europeans, and especially their leaders, have begun to think differently about defence and security, including energy security than they used to. In the few days since Russia’s incursion into its neighbour, as much has happened in European Union politics as at any other time in decades. 

Unprecedented Help

The Union is riding a wave of emotion and is helping the Ukrainians in a way that is unprecedented: in addition to arms supplies and humanitarian aid from individual members, the Union has set up a special fund to buy weapons for the Ukrainians.

Let us hope that it will later acquire them for itself and will be able to arm itself effectively. The illusion that one can succeed as a geopolitical player in the world only with a strong trade policy centred around a half-billion-people market and rhetorical defence of common values such as freedom and democracy is coming to an end. 

The Ukrainians are now demonstrating to other Europeans that it is also necessary to put one’s own life on the line, not just one’s wallet. The relationship with an unstable Russia in the Union’s neighbourhood will determine European policy more than ever in the years to come.

European Energy Independence

Since last year, public debates by EU citizens in various formats have been taking place across the European Union under the banner of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Their aim is to bring ideas to policymakers in Brussels while engaging citizens in a debate about the future of the wider community in which they live. One of the important themes highlighted is the place of the European Union in the world. 

Last year’s debates focused more on trade policy and other more general issues related to the role of the Union as first and foremost a common market. The defence itself was somewhat in the background and the emphasis on the peripheral and rather hypothetical topic of the European army could not be overlooked.

Interestingly, on the other hand, energy, which is now proving crucial in relation to the war in Ukraine, was completely absent from the EU’s theme in the world. The transformation of the European energy sector due to the apparently faster disconnection from Russian fossil fuels than anyone could have imagined just a few weeks ago will be one of the key parameters by which the Union’s position in the world will be judged. 

How quickly Europeans are able to switch to domestic, preferably renewable, sources and how quickly they can arrange for gas or oil supplies from elsewhere than Russia will largely determine the EU’s future position as a global player — for example, that Europe does not quickly turn its current dependence on Russia (40 per cent of EU gas consumption is dependent on supplies from Rusian Federation) into dependence on someone else.

Problems With Common European Defense

In the same way, the thinking is changing regarding defence companies, which in the European Commission’s working materials have so far proposed social responsibility criteria under the now-familiar acronym ESG, alongside gambling companies or cigarette manufacturers. Europe needs and will arm itself, which is linked to two long-standing problems that many Europeans either do not realise or do not acknowledge.

The first is Europe’s technological dependence on the United States and China. It is impossible to produce sophisticated and less sophisticated weapons without global supply chains. For example, the acute shortage of ballistic vests for the fighting Ukrainians is something that many EU companies would like to fill, but they need to import the basic materials from China first. 

It is even more complicated with more complex products suitable not only for defence. For example, there is a well-known shortage of semiconductors in European industry and a generally weak EU role in chip development and production. 

I have just attended a workshop organised by the Visegrad Insight think tank as part of the debates at the Future of Europe Conference, where the idea was floated that if the EU really wanted to change its position in this sector, which is important for the digital economy of today and especially of the future, it should pour money and its organisational skills into creating a Europe-wide network of universities and other academic institutions that will train a new generation of semiconductor experts.

Investors will then find them, along with EU and national investment incentives. After all, even the world’s leading chipmaker, Taiwan, is already running out of experts in this sector. In this way, the Union could retain its own talent and attract more from neighbouring countries whose prospects of joining the EU are still remote. It is enough to recall that, although the European Commission plans to pour billions of euros into their production, it takes at least five years to build even one factory and costs tens of billions of euros.

The second long-term problem of European defence is related to the fragmentation of the domestic defence industry and the inability of states to agree on joint purchases of weapons and military equipment. Gustav Gressel, an expert of the think tank European Council on Foreign Relations, recently described this aptly in an interview with HN, saying that what European armies needed so far was determined by industry according to what they wanted to produce.

It is clear that individual states will always and in all circumstances support their domestic industry. But the current situation is suitable for radical solutions and incentives from the EU. Is it not better to produce only one tank or combat vehicle across Europe instead of several types, as is the case in the US, thus saving costs and speeding up production considerably? 

This is exactly the concern that a senior European official responsible for the joint development of new weapons and related technologies recently shared with me off the record. In his view, the current euphoria in the EU and the ability to suddenly decide on major issues quickly will quickly fade and the old tug-of-war over words and EU funds will return. And the right moment for radical change to strengthen the EU’s position in the world will be over. 

Trapped in the Old Ways

The debate in the Conference on the Future of Europe showed that many Europeans are trapped in this old way of thinking. Europeans lack strategic thinking and the strategic culture of great powers. The Union simply seems toothless in a new world where geopolitics is combined with the latest technology and the brute force of armies.

However, the example already mentioned of the idea of a Europe-wide programme to support the training of experts in a narrow field of the future might indicate where a new strength of the European Union could be found relatively quickly, building on existing or forthcoming regulations and institutions. 

All that would be needed would be the political will to follow through, and the debates at the Future Conference give hope that this will could be found — the views and proposals in the section on the EU’s position in the world call for a more unified EU external voice, for the use of trade policy instruments, and for a rethink of the unanimity rule in decision-making so that one Member State cannot block the decisions of others. So that Russia, for example, cannot use Hungary as its Trojan horse.

Joint Power In Trade

So, for example, in the case of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it is the European Union, in cooperation with other global players, which is preparing and enforcing sanctions against the Kremlin and its representatives. Similarly, a new trade policy anti-coercion instrument is being prepared in Brussels so that EU Member States cannot be blackmailed by trade measures, as Lithuania is experiencing in its dispute with China over the opening of a Taiwanese office in Vilnius. 

The pandemic has shown that the Union is capable of taking very decisive joint action, such as buying vaccines or creating a recovery fund and therefore a common debt. The response to Russian aggression against Ukraine has pushed European common thinking even further — towards a radical change in dependence on Russian gas and oil, which has been understood by many who had been sceptical of previous plans for a Green Deal and emissions reductions — especially politicians in central Europe.

In a world where hard power reigns again, it is admittedly more difficult to enforce the rules. But at the same time, it is possible to think geopolitically as well as geo-economically.

In this respect, it will be important to see how the sanctions against Russia continue to develop, how long the economies of EU countries themselves can withstand them, and whether they can still gradually tighten them. 

Once again, the debate will return to energy, in addition to the brute force that the EU does not (yet) possess, and, after the experience of the war in Ukraine, to information warfare — that is, how the EU will be able to defend its citizens against targeted influence operations by rivals, against lies and manipulation. 

Sanctions May Lead To a Greener Europe

In the case of energy, the EU will now not only look for a new place as a consumer but will also try to take its new model to the world — for example, a carbon tariff for non-EU producers or rules for due diligence, the ‘Due Diligence Principles’. Under these, the EU can promote human rights, prevent child labour or abuse of minorities — for example, by making it impossible to import goods produced under slave-like conditions by the Uighur minority in Xinjiang into the EU. In this way, the EU can defend its common core values. 

At the same time, it goes without saying that it is in trade and economic policy that the EU’s new relationship with China is already taking shape.

And where is Central Europe’s place in all this? The Visegrad Four states, which are bearing the brunt of the new migration wave while seeking to support a struggling Ukraine, are now paying the price for their own earlier inability to pursue a meaningful policy within the EU based on finding compromises and allies on particular issues. 

They are thus likely to be in tow with what other members of the Union devise and push through. However, it is not impossible that, precisely because of the war in Ukraine and its consequences, the Central Europeans will be listened to more and will have a better chance of getting their voice heard on the EU agenda. 

The new Czech government, for example, wants to pursue a Havel-style human rights policy, while being one of the largest suppliers of arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, while also having a relatively strong export-oriented defence industry and a strong culture of new technology start-ups.

The hackneyed saying goes that a crisis is an opportunity. In the case of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, the war in Ukraine is an opportunity to become stronger and more conscious Europeans, and for Europe, it is a chance to find a stronger place in the world. 

Unfortunately, Hungary is in a different position because of the long-term policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and its path back to Europe would also be difficult even if the united opposition had won the April elections. In principle, the EU will be happy if Budapest does not sabotage efforts to find a new role for the Union in the world.

Co-financed by the European Parliament this article is part of an ongoing project organised by Visegrad Insight, involving Hospodářské novinyRes Publica NowaSME, and HVG, and discussing the Conference on the Future of Europe. The European Parliament was not involved in the preparation of the materials and shall not be liable for information or positions expressed by the authors. To see more articles from this project, click here.

Published also:
in Czech in Hospodářské noviny,
in Polish in

Picture: “The EU flags in Strasbourg” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by European Parliament

Martin Ehl

Senior Fellow

Visegrad Insight Senior Fellow. Martin Ehl is the Chief Analyst at Hospodářské noviny (Economic daily)


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