The world is currently undergoing rapid geopolitical changes. In this contribution, some thoughts are offered on these developments and how they affect the EU’s external action. What can Geopolitics teach us about the moment in which we live, and the kind of a European foreign policy one would need? Several major developments are addressed: Europe’s Anglo-Saxon allies are (temporarily) out of service, the need to review the relationship with Russia, the inevitable rise of China, structural instability in the Middle East and Northern Africa & internal instability as a means to bring the EU together.
Author: Dr. David Criekemans – University of Antwerp (Belgium), University College Roosevelt (part of Utrecht University, the Netherlands) and the Geneva Institute of Geopolitical Studies (GIGS) (Switzerland)
The world is currently undergoing rapid geopolitical changes. The European Union is being confronted with both internal and external shocks. For the EU to be effective, it needs a coherent and integrated European foreign policy to address today’s and tomorrow’s geopolitical challenges. In this contribution, some thoughts are offered on these developments and how they affect the EU’s external action.
The EU is a strange superpower. It concentrates certain powers at the supranational level, but the member states keep having the main say in foreign policy matters. Integration in the foreign policy domain is done based upon the sharing of sovereignty. The EU tries to be a ‘normative actor’ and presses for ‘effective multilateralism’. The EU negotiates as one in international trade negotiations, it leads in climate change policies, it has a neighbourhood policy, it integrates on energy matters, it promotes human rights, its external action stretches to areas such as justice and police matters, it leads globally in terms of development subsidies, it tries to develop an integrated political foreign policy, etc.
Most of the challenges with which our European societies currently are being confronted are multidimensional: 
- First, the flip side of the energy crisis has an environmental dimension. The choices which European countries make with regard to their respective energy mixes has an impact on the environmental degradation or pollution of certain regions. We are moving towards a concept of ‘energy security’ which not only focuses on traditional concerns such as foreign policy and defence or economic affordability, but also now includes environmental concerns. As a result of the Paris Agreement on climate change, this will become even more important in the future. The question is thus how to maintain developed societies in which energy is available and affordable, yet does not worsen the already precarious situation with regard to the warming of the planet, environmental degradation and the loss of biodiversity.
- Second, our traditional approach to security used to be to external threats whereas recent challenges in terms of terrorism show that there is also an internal dimension (for instance, the radicalisation of young people) – the bulk heads between internal and external security thus seem to be evaporating. Whereas in the past security could be labelled an external problem, to be dealt with by a Ministry of Defence, the recent changes with regard to terrorism have opened our eyes. The rise of IS / Daesh was not limited to the Middle East. Radicalisation amongst young people of foreign origin, a domestic issue, became intermingled with external affairs. The attacks in cities such as Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, Berlin and many others have proven the European countries need more integrated approaches to security that defy the traditional distinction between ‘internal’ and ‘external’ security.
- Third, the Ukraine crisis showed that attempts to create a geo-economic partnership with countries of the former Soviet Union could also re-awaken important new geostrategic challenges and threats. The EU’s strategy to pursue an Association Agreement with the Ukraine in 2013 did not take into account the potential geostrategic consequences in the relations between the EU and the Russian federation. The EU tends to think of these domains as separate dimensions, whereas geo-economics, geopolitics and geostrategy are clearly interlinked.
- Fourth, the rise of IS / Daesh raises challenges how to balance ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ approaches to security; whether we should rather use hard military freedom from fear-policies or a more political freedom from want-approach which favours a global governance setting. If European countries only focus on hard security to battle against radicalisation and terrorism, they will not be able to eradicate the causes of these. In the past year and a half, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini has focused on developing also a more medium to long term strategy to stabilise the border regions of the European Union. Bringing more governance to this region will take more than a generation, but it will be necessary to really tackle the basic security challenges with which the EU is being confronted.
- Fifth, “Brexit” challenges the geo-economic and geo-political relations of the United Kingdom and the continent at the same time. It is at the time of the writing of this article still unclear what the future relationship will be between the United Kingdom after Brexit and the EU-27. This will however rewrite the geopolitics of the region, and will also create new geopolitical dynamics within the EU which are still somewhat unclear.
Hence, current European geopolitics cannot be seen separate from the latest developments in the triangle between energy – environment – economy.
During the past year, the European Union has nevertheless taken some interesting steps from an institutional point of view. “Brexit” and the election of the French president Macron created an impetus for an enhanced European defence policy, PESCO – Permanent Structured Cooperation. The aim is to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations. In addition to the existing Berlin + agreement between NATO and the EU, there was an EU-NATO joint declaration in 2016,  where both organizations agreed to step up their cooperation in areas including hybrid threats, capacity building, cyber defence and maritime security. The EU now starts with a Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD) and launches a European Defence Fund (EDF) to foster research into developing new capabilities. 
In October 2016, EU Foreign ministers decided on the most important strategic priorities for implementing the New EU Global Strategy.  These are:
- First, Security and Defence, so as to improve the protection of the EU and its citizens;
- Second, Building Resilience and taking an Integrated Approach to conflicts and crises. A priority are the EU’s surrounding regions to the South and East, but also for instance Central Africa is mentioned. Important will be “early warning” and more attention will be given to the post-conflict phase;
- Third, Addressing the Internal/External Nexus. Providing external security can only be done if also the internal dimension is addressed in EU-policies, for instance counter-terrorism, counter-violent extremism, migration, sustainable development and cybersecurity;
- Fourth, Updating existing strategies and preparing news ones. Traditional diplomacy and security & defence policy will need to be combined with an effective climate diplomacy, energy diplomacy, economic diplomacy and cultural diplomacy.
- And finally, Enhancing Public Diplomacy. The educational exchange “Erasmus+” programme and the academic research programme “Horizon 2020” are mentioned in this regard as tools to project a vision of what the EU stands for.
These can all be seen as fruitful and necessary steps in further enhancing the role of the European Union in a changing world order. According to the EU High Representative on Foreign Policy Federica Mogherini, the EU Global Strategy Process has been a reminder of the European Union’s strategic interest in a cooperative world order: “It has helped us to swim against the tide, keeping our unity and building strong alliances around our key priorities”.
However, next to an institutionalist approach we also need a geopolitical analysis of today’s and tomorrow’s geopolitical challenges. What can Geopolitics teach us about the moment in which we live, and the kind of a European foreign policy one would need? Hereafter we address several major developments that will become increasingly difficult to ignore:
1. EUROPE’s ANGLO-SAXON ALLIES ARE (TEMPORARILY) OUT OF SERVICE:
The Brexit Referendum in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump as American president in November 2016 have a clear impact upon the European Union. Since the end of the Second World War, these Anglo-Saxon powers were the traditional allies of what later became the European Union. The US still seems to be committed to NATO, but this partnership has come under strain. Trump interprets the relationship in a mercantilist way, namely: the EU should buy more American weapons. At the same time, the biggest defence spender in Europe – the UK – will leave the Union by April 2019. This means a new balance will have to be struck in geostrategic affairs. European defence cooperation will gain relatively compared to the trans-Atlantic strategic relationship. There is now also an opportunity to invest part of Europe’s defence spending in our own know-how and expertise, from which also a future business model could be derived. The EU could follow Estonia’s example in cyber security for instance. The EU will still depend for many years on the defence capabilities of both the UK and the US, but in key domains such as air transport, the maritime dimension and logistical planning, the EU will gradually be able to stand by itself. With the UK out as “geostrategic bridge” between America and Europe, one may expect this will also affect the geostrategic priorities of each of these actors. The day may come when one would realize that the American geostrategic agenda for Eurasia does not always completely match with the continental European one.
2. THE NEED TO REVIEW THE RELATIONSHIP WITH RUSSIA
Since the Ukraine crisis of 2014, the relationship between the European Union and the Russian federation has severely deteriorated. EU officials in 2013 failed to realise that the negotiations for a geo-economic Association Agreement with the Ukraine could also have geostrategic consequences for the EU’s relations with Russia. Did Moscow respond in an offensive or rather in a defensive way? There are several schools out there. The situation in the Crimea, in Donetsk and Lugansk, will not be reversed soon, quite to the contrary. Several EU countries pursued a sanction policy vis-à-vis Moscow, following the American administration of Barack Obama. This has not solved but rather worsened the relations between the European Union and the Russian federation. But on paper, both actors need one another. Natural gas in exchange for foreign income is crucial in this regard. In Russia, the Stabilisation Fund has been largely depleted as a result of Western sanctions (and the lowering of the oil and gas prices during the same period). What remains is the Welfare Fund of about 75 billion euros, give or take. If that would deplete by the end of 2019, major political instabilities in Russia could take hold. This would not be in favour of the European Union. In a worst case scenario, Putin would be replaced by a hard liner. The question can thus be raised how the relations between the EU and Russia could be reinvigorated. Restarting that relationship through academic, cultural and economic diplomacy could be a way to stabilise the current misbalance.
3. THE INEVITABLE RISE OF CHINA
At the same time, we are witnessing after the 19th Party Congress in Beijing a China that finds itself in its next phase of development. From a geo-economic point of view, China will retake its global place which it enjoyed before the 1820s. Beijing is using its excess capital to invest in new initiates such as the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road. In time, many countries in Europe could benefit from these investments. Today already several European countries are non-regional members to the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB). Hungary is among them, next to Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Sweden. As China’s geo-economic weight will further increase, this will be translated into geopolitical power. It is fine for the European Union to also try to get “a piece of the action” in this regard.
However, as a result of the more global geopolitical changes, the EU will increasingly need to adopt a “balance of power” approach both in geo-economic and geopolitical terms. Such a balancing act will also demand a more integrated foreign policy for the EU, but one in which the centre and the member states still closely work together. Instead of looking at trade in purely bureaucratic terms, the geostrategic dimension will also have to be included in the analysis. Multiple external powers will vie for influence in Europe and its neighbourhood.
4. STRUCTURAL INSTABILITY IN THE MIDDLE EAST & NORTHERN AFRICA
The period since the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011 has shown how unstable many of the countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa are. Quite rightly, the current High Representative for EU Foreign Policy, Mrs. Mogherini, states that “their problems are also our problems”. The French-British intervention in Libya in 2011 on the basis of the principle “Responsibility to Protect” may well have been a mistake, at least in terms of how the post-conflict phase was handled. The Western stance in the Syrian crisis de facto supported the agenda of the rivals Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. Today we see a clear power struggle in the Middle East between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Whereas the relations between some EU-countries and Saudi Arabia have worsened because of allegations individuals from these countries financed jihadi terrorism in the past, most EU-countries still stand by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action which was struck between the international community and Iran with regard to their nuclear enrichment. There are clear tensions between the EU and the US on these issues. Europe’s geo-economic interests clash here with those of Washington.
The Syrian crisis, the Libyan crisis and the crisis in Yemen of the past years have produced major regional instability in which jihadi terrorism could flourish. In addition a migration crisis was triggered, which still is only in its “containment phase”. After emergency measures such as the erecting of borders by individual EU members such as Hungary and the so-called “Turkey-deal” between the EU and Ankara, new policies will need to be developed.
The second phase of stabilisation of Northern Africa and the Middle East will take more than a generation. The EU will need to refocus a large part of its development cooperation geographically to this region. After bringing stability back, it will need to make these countries economically stable and give them access to the internal market. Many of these countries have a young population. If they are unable to provide in their own livelihoods, they will resort to other means. At the same time the effects of climate change are each year clearly biting harder in the Mediterranean. Integrated policy solutions will be needed to soften the hardest blows.
If the EU is unable to “stabilise” this so-called “ring of fire” in its own neighbourhood, the Union will have failed at providing one of its core missions; providing security.
5. INTERNAL STABILITY AS A MEANS TO BRING THE EU TOGETHER
There are currently several misbalances within the EU itself:
- First, in the Eurozone the tensions between the richer North and the poorer South sparked a debate about responsibility versus solidarity which is still unresolved. It is sometimes forgotten that countries such as Germany and the Netherlands are benefiting substantially from a weaker Euro compared to their former stronger national currencies. This is due to the weaker economies of the south of Europe. As a result, Berlin can produce budget surpluses. Chancellor Merkel has however not re-invested these surpluses in southern Europe. In the financial economic crisis, southern European countries such as Greece, Spain and Italy were forced into austerity policies under the flag of ‘responsibility’. Now that these economies have implemented harsh policies for years, the question remains whether northern Europe should not convey more solidarity beyond rescuing their own banks. Only when it is realised that the fate of all Euro countries is linked to one another can the political tensions between the richer North and the poorer South be managed more. Added to this dimension, one should also take into account that the poorer South is and will also be confronted with some geopolitical challenges that need to be addressed in a more balanced way and shouldered by the whole of the European Union. One is climate change, the other is migration as a result of growing instability in the border regions of the EU.
- Second, the European project has mostly been an economic one so far, with the internal market at its core. This neoliberal Europe has however failed to produce a Social Union. It is not a coincidence that forms of populism gain political weight in such an atmosphere. The current European Union is mostly an economic project. In the wake of the 1989 revolution, the internal economic borders have been demolished. This has produced a lot of investment in Central- and Eastern Europe and has brought the EU together as a whole. The increased competition has however put downward pressures on wages and social protection. Although there is a European Commissioner on Social Policy, the Belgian Marianne Thyssen, the results are still rather limited. Only with regard to social dumping some progress has been made the last couple of years. Globalisation has also created a lot of structural changes within many different economic sectors in Europe. This process seems to be accelerating even more. It has sparked resentment in certain regions that cannot catch up. This in itself produces populism, as voters feel that they are threatened in their own livelihoods. As a result of Brexit, the EU did its own introspective analysis. One of the conclusions was that European citizens wanted more protection, also in social terms. The challenge for the coming years will be how to build a more Social Europe to compensate for the neoliberal paradigm, which perhaps has grown too far. This exercise will not be easy as the economic variables of north, east, west and south in the Union are quite different.
- Third, we are currently experiencing a Third Industrial Revolution in which products will be more tailor made, based upon cradle-to-cradle solutions and more sustainable business models. This offers a major promise for a European renewal if governments invest wisely. The new technologies which are currently being developed offer promises for a more sustainable future in which waste is recycled, energy is being produced and consumed in a more renewable way and future economic growth will be driven by innovative technological challenges. Ambition in this regard through academic research projects such as Horizon 2020 and public-private cooperation can create a renewal in Europe’s economic superstructure. The EU’s population is one of the most educated in the world, potentially able to seize the opportunities linked to these economic challenges. If the European Union countries invest systematically and in a coherent way in such technologies, this could spearhead the EU geo-economically as an innovative economy. Already now a race is going on between China and the United States of America in this domain. The EU will also need to develop a strategy to protect the intellectual property it has developed in such domains as renewable energy technology, so as to be able to market it maximally in the global economy. Geo-economically, the EU is in need of a new business model. At the same time, this will again put strains on the internal workforce as some sectors could produce structural unemployment as a result of the latest technologies such as self driving cars and the application of machine learning and, even in the future, aspects of artificial intelligence. If the EU invests wisely in converting its workforce, it can produce a new “geo-technical ensemble” via which Europe can compensate its demographic decline through spearhead technologies, and thus still remain relevant on a global scene. This can only be done if a concerted action is created between the European, national and subnational level in this regard. Internally it could also create new challenges and opportunities for regions within the EU.
There exist many other problems of internal stability in the EU. But at the same time they offer opportunities for the European Union to re-invent itself. Through such a process of renewal, the EU could one again become a beacon in a New World Order that is more fluid and unpredictable.
Author: Dr. David Criekemans – University of Antwerp (Belgium), University College Roosevelt (part of Utrecht University, the Netherlands) and the Geneva Institute of Geopolitical Studies (GIGS) (Switzerland)
CRIEKEMANS, David: “Geopolitics and European grand strategy”, in/ KOVAC, Igor (ed.). Ljubljana, Slovensko panevropsko gibanje, 2014, p. 32-41.
EUROPEAN EXTERNAL ACTION SERVICE: “Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – Factsheet, 16/11/2017.” Brussels: European Union: 3 p., https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-Homepage/34226/permanent-structured-cooperation-pesco-factsheet_en
EUROPEAN EXTERNAL ACTION SERVICE: “A Global Strategy for the European Union, 2017.” Brussels: European Union: 2 p., https://europa.eu/globalstrategy/en/global-strategy-foreign-and-security-policy-european-union
MOGHERINI, Federica: “From Shared Vision to Common Action: Implementing the EU Global Strategy: Year 1. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy. Brussels: European Union: 35 p.
TIILIKAINEN, Teija: “United We Stand. The EU’s new security and defence agenda has gained support among member states”. Brussels: Friends of Europe: 3 p., http://www.friendsofeurope.org/publication/united-we-stand
 See also: CRIEKEMANS, David: “Geopolitics and European grand strategy”, in: KOVAC, Igor (ed.). Ljubljana, Slovensko panevropsko gibanje, 2014, p. 32-41.
 TIILIKAINEN, Teija: “United We Stand. The EU’s new security and defence agenda has gained support among member states”. Brussels: Friends of Europe: 3 p., http://www.friendsofeurope.org/publication/united-we-stand
 EUROPEAN EXTERNAL ACTION SERVICE: “Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) – Factsheet, 16/11/2017.” Brussels: European Union: 3 p., https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-Homepage/34226/permanent-structured-cooperation-pesco-factsheet_en
 EUROPEAN EXTERNAL ACTION SERVICE: “A Global Strategy for the European Union, 2017.” Brussels: European Union: 2 p., https://europa.eu/globalstrategy/en/global-strategy-foreign-and-security-policy-european-union
 MOGHERINI, Federica: “From Shared Vision to Common Action: Implementing the EU Global Strategy: Year 1. A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy. Brussels: European Union: p 6.