The 2nd Brussels Forum was jointly organized by think tanks diaNEOSis and ELIAMEP with the aim of facilitating the exchange of views between Greek officials working in European institutions and in the wider European public policy production system and of fostering the ongoing dialogue on the role of Europe in its neighborhood and in the international system, always in context of synthesizing EU goals with national interests. The event took place on 7 November 2022, with the participation of over forty officials and its theme was the major and multi-faceted challenges the EU faces now, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its implications for energy and food security, to the geopolitical revisionism underway in the wider Mediterranean area. The discussions proceeded along two thematic axes: (a) Deepening the EU’s Common Foreign, Security and Defense Policy, and (b) A Secure and Competitive Europe in a Changing World*.
The starting point of the participants’ deliberation and the first main conclusion was that the European Union finds itself in a “perfect storm” of a series of challenges on major security issues. The Russian invasion brought back to the fore the traditional form of warfare, with extended war fronts, razing of urban and non-urban areas, and massive loss of life, including civilians. The return of large-scale military operations is added to the modern hybrid forms of security threats – that range from cyberspace and critical infrastructure vulnerabilities to food and energy security.
Beyond the war in Ukraine, the element of confrontation dominates the wider international environment. The US pivot to Asia and the prospect of a prolonged confrontation with China has created new geopolitical realities, which the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not expected to dramatically change. In the short term, the US is indeed active again in Europe, reacting to Russian revisionism, but it is clear that the field of American economic and political focus is shifting to the Pacific Ocean. In any case, although the November 2022 mid-term elections did not confirm the ominous predictions for the Democrats, the next presidential election may not rule out a new political leadership that will put Euro-Atlantic relations on the back burner.
Within this international context, there is no room for complacency in the European Union. The positive evaluation of the immediate reaction to the Russian invasion, with the full support of the Ukrainian resistance by military and non-military means and the imposition of extensive sanctions on the Putin regime, does not mean that there are no internal contradictions and significant heterogeneity of preferences among the member states. Also, a fruitful self-criticism of the EU regarding its handling of Russia after the end of the Cold War and especially during the last decade should not be discouraged. The increase in the EU’s energy dependence on Russia after the first round of conflicts in 2014 and the unilateral annexation of Crimea to the Russian Federation demonstrate the EU’s lack of response to what we now see as a prelude to this major conflict.
This observation points to the need for a new mix of European Ostpolitik, of engagement and containment in relation to Russia, which will feed into the EU’s strategic planning for new security architecture in Europe. The commitment part refers to the necessity of avoiding a permanent and total rupture with Russia. Without overlooking President Putin’s flagrant violation of international law and with an obvious need to further support the Ukrainian resistance, the EU must recognize that the day after the crisis will find Russia sharing borders with a number of its member states and therefore, a new symbiotic relationship must be formed, which will strengthen any remaining liberal forces inside Russia and allow for relative normality over time. At the same time, the EU must work on the issue of containing Russia and limiting its revisionism in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The European reaction to the new circumstances resulting from global geopolitical developments can be summarized in four axes:
1. Firstly, there is an increased mobility in matters of military cooperation and armaments, both at national and European level. The Russian invasion acted as a catalyst to highlight significant military deficiencies in many member states and to initiate or accelerate extensive national armament processes, culminating in the German government’s decision to make an unprecedented investment in this area. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 and the invasion of Ukraine prompted EU member states to take immediate action. This action included, in the first phase, the systematic and extensive supply of weapon systems to Ukraine as well as the training of soldiers to strengthen the Ukrainian resistance. The first phase was supported and utilized to a very large extent the new instrument of the European Peace Facility.
In a second phase, member states agreed at Versailles in March 2022 to substantially increase their defense spending in a collective and coordinated manner, investing in the acquisition of the necessary military assets and stimulating cooperative investment in joint armament actions and joint procurement of defense capabilities. These moves will advance and hopefully realize the EU’s strategic autonomy, which is at the heart of the “Strategic Compass“, that new EU security doctrine announced in the wake of the Russian invasion. Key tools in this direction are the creation of the European Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC) and the strengthening of the European defense industry. This force, which will have a size of up to 5,000 soldiers, will be aimed at the EU’s immediate reaction to security crises around the world, based on specific operational scenarios. Obviously, there is no question of a “Euro Army”, as neither the size nor the existing operational dynamics of this force indicate any such a development.
It could be argued that the increase in defense spending and the declared intention to cooperate in matters of the defense industry are necessary but not sufficient conditions for a “Europe of Defence” (l’ Europe de la Défense), which as a concept remains quite nebulous. The launched projects within the framework of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO projects) and the European Defense Fund (European Defense Fund – EDF) cannot respond to security challenges of a range corresponding to the Russian invasion. The ongoing crisis broke the taboo subject of the EU’s geopolitical role and character, bringing to the fore and necessitating the “normalization” of European foreign policy in parallel with the due importance to be attached to “hard power”. Thus, it has opened a window of opportunity for substantive European military cooperation and defense integration. However, this window of opportunity will not remain open forever.
The Versailles declaration was rightly hailed as a potentially major milestone in the process of defense integration, but the implementation of what was agreed has a long-term horizon, especially since an entire high-tech, research-intensive and demanding industry is involved. The supporters of this project and those who see its long-term necessity consider that the intra-European defense deepening process is not yet “locked in effect”, and therefore the possibility of its derailment cannot be ruled out. In this case, the high expectations that have been cultivated will be disproved once again, confirming the difficulty of a leap into an area that pertains to the hard core of state sovereignty.
2. The second – very relevant to the first – axis of actions focuses on EU-NATO relations and on strengthening their complementarity rather than competition. Realistically assessing its current capabilities, the EU has a long way to go to implement a strategy of autonomy; therefore, strengthening the cooperation with NATO is a necessary condition for a stable security system in Europe. This cooperation has advanced quite a bit despite the upheavals of the Trump era. However, this cooperation has not achieved the necessary political depth and is limited to direct interactions between officials of the two parties (staff to staff) without the involvement of the political bodies of the two organizations. Therefore, cooperation has certain limits.
In any case, an enhanced cooperation is mutually beneficial, as the EU is perhaps better suited than NATO to manage certain aspects of security, due to deep expertise in, for example, counter-terrorism policy or hybrid threats. Also, geographical diversification makes the need for a militarily stronger Europe imperative, taking into account its existing interest in the Sahel region and wider Sub-Saharan Africa, areas that are not of NATO interest. So, then, this dimension of reciprocity through the specialization and complementarity of each organization’s actions must at the forefront if case US isolationism returns to the transatlantic agenda in the coming years. To this end, the European efforts for armament and defense cooperation at the national level but especially at the EU level should evolve with the aim of avoiding tensions and misunderstandings about their true intentions. This is possible by explicitly and permanently affirming NATO’s primary role in the European security system, which is already systematically done in all EU official documents and policy texts.
3. The third axis of activity in the EU is the renewed dynamism but also a growing reflection on the enlargement process. Is a new round of enlargement it in the EU’s interest and which countries will be invited to join it? The Ukrainian government’s application for EU membership reminded us of the great value of the enlargement policy as a driver of internal transformation in the candidate countries and a factor of regional stabilization. These two invaluable contributions, of the structural transformation and stabilization, which were exploited to the maximum extent in the great enlargement of 2004 (and 2007) with the new members from Central and Eastern Europe, were shelved in the EU’s political arsenal in case of the Western Balkans. The prospect of the enlargement of the region has turned into a protracted process with no visible completion, bringing about the gradual disillusionment of both governments and citizens in the candidate countries. The Russian invasion, combined with new rounds of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and the risk tensions could spill to other parts of the Western Balkans is bringing the region back into the spotlight.
In this context, the prospect of enlargement is again presented as a panacea to the existing problems, accompanied, however, by a strong counterargument and a broad concern about EU´s functional limits and the ability to smoothly absorb new members. The evolution of the Ukrainian crisis will affect the dynamics of enlargement and the final choice between the above “consolidation of security – cohesion” dilemma, as it will affect the corresponding mobility in the field of defense and security, as discussed above. A settlement of the crisis will alter the urgent nature of the accession perspective of the Western Balkan countries. This fact has been realized by the states of the Western Balkans who are strongly mobilizing, adopting and promoting a more realistic but suboptimal perspective of “staged accession”.
The debate on enlargement inevitably brings to the fore the accession perspective of Turkey, which at the present stage is essentially non-existent. In the last two relevant Commission texts, the 2021 and 2022 progress reports, the existing impasse is clearly highlighted. However, it is clear that the complete rupture of relations is not beneficial neither for Europe nor for Greece. Even recognizing that the current regime of relations is not functional and in fact these relations are frozen, it is appropriate not to completely discredit the prospect of closer cooperation. In other words, the EU must first study and formulate an alternative proposal for the framework of cooperation with Turkey, in the form of a revised Customs Union that could form the basis of the next day of EU-Turkey relations.
4. The fourth axis concerns the activity of the EU in the rest of the world and especially in the Indo-Pacific region. Even this particular geographical neologism of Indo-Pacific was not widely used by the EU until three years ago, which shows the impossibility of an earlier conceptual conception of the region in a unitary way. Reacting, however, to the growing competition and rivalry of the US with China in the wider region, the EU has formulated – with great speed for its standards – a fairly coherent policy. Key features of this policy are equality and partnership in the relations that the EU builds with the countries of the region, in contrast to previous approaches.
What is encouraging about the prospect of European activity in the Indo-Pacific region is that Europe still has footholds in this wider geographical area. EU’s appeal rests on its function as a guiding model on a range of issues. Of particular importance are issues of ocean governance on the basis of international law, by reason of the importance the EU attaches to the implementation of current international treaties such as United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The EU is also recognized as a pioneer in less obvious subject areas, such as the issue of personal data security. In other words, the EU has significant “soft power” in the region that it can and should use.
In conclusion, these four axes summarize the European response to the ongoing geopolitical realignment. This is a highly dynamic process, possibly marking the “end of innocence” for the EU in terms of its refusal or inability to invest in power. The EU can no longer afford to ignore geopolitical and geoeconomic developments and the growing power asymmetry that has emerged in its relations with the new poles of the international system. The problem is that member states continue to adopt an ethnocentric approach to these challenges, which raises major concerns about whether the EU can finally proceed with a substantial political transformation in order to strengthen or even maintain its position in the new global security architecture.
The pursuit of unity, often on the basis of the lowest common denominator, undermines the EU’s degree of ambition, beyond any difficulties and delays that the search for consensus may bring. This “unity-ambition gap” governs all discussions on a reform of the European modus operandi that would allow EU´s more active role within the new geopolitical environment. The debate on a reform of the treaty of Lisbon lacks political practicality and feasibility. As has been repeatedly confirmed, any attempt to reform the Treaties is an extremely long-term, divisive and polarizing process with unpredictable results. Therefore, it does not qualify as a realistic alternative. After all, the existing EU legal framework contains de facto and de jure options for substantial reform, such as, for example, the “passerelle clause“.
The two key issues that can help address this “unity-ambition” gap are the issue of flexibility in decision-making and the perspective of differentiated integration. Something like this is already happening with the Eurozone, the Schengen Zone and the PESCO projects. To the extent that such schemes are open to participation in all EU member states and the membership criteria are well-defined and transparent, they allow for the promotion of a unitary vision even in a fragmented, politically and institutionally, version. Obviously, this method of integration is not a panacea for divergent views among EU members, but at least it offers a political alternative for groups “willing and able” to advance deeper and faster. The success of such schemes will enhance their appeal, and in the end, they can form the hard core of a substantial federalization of the EU.
* The article is a transated and summarized version of the report on 2nd Brussels Forum on the Dianeos website. Tranlsation and summary: Ioulia Livaditi