The European Union – a world power with hardly any geopolitical DNA

Article by Paul Dobrescu

When talking about the EU, we tend to overlook a fact: all things considered, the European Union is still the second world power (stepping down from the first position it used to occupy before the crisis). Some figures still entitle it to the first position. Great powers strive to have the edge in three fields: military power, economic power and soft power. The unique circumstances of the Union’s birth forced it to focus on economy. It needed high economic results to convince others – and itself – about the value of its development model. Soft/ cultural power is also part of the EU’s inheritance, long before the Union itself came into existence. What has been left untouched is military power. The Union – no matter how it was been called over time – has always been part of NATO. But the financial burden related to NATO expenses lies solely with the US. And he who pays the piper calls the tune … This does not mean that strategic thinking can only develop close to military power; still, the two are intertwined, and maintaining a superpower status requires some major strategic positioning.

In time, Europe has become increasingly dependent on Washington for its security needs, despite its amazing economic achievements. There may be various reasons accounting for this dependency: its secondary role, next to the US, in strategic undertakings, some lost capacity for independent decision-making, especially when it comes to its security. What becomes beyond doubt right now is that, with every subsequent crisis, the European Union appears to be overwhelmed, taken aback by how things evolve within and outside its borders.

Many examples support this view. Geopolitically speaking, Africa is Europe’s “backyard”; this region is important to Europe not only due to its proximity, but also to the fact that it is a rich source of raw materials. At a time when there is much talk about an imminent crisis of raw materials, Africa’s geopolitical weight increases especially to Europe, which is quite poor in this respect. Who dominates Africa at the moment? China and partially the US. What was Europe doing while Africa – its “backyard” – was taken over by other powers? Europe’s access to Africa’s raw materials has become increasingly difficult, while the waves of migrants coming from Africa are hitting its shores with increased force. How can one make sense of this paradox?

The refugees’ crisis has confirmed once more that the Union suffers from geopolitical short-sightedness. The main priority of a super power is to provide for a healthy and stable neighborhood; because instability at the borders is the second greatest risk after that of internal instability.

When dealing with internal instability, a government has the formal prerogatives to step in and deal with this problem in a legitimate and direct manner. Instead, instability at the borders cannot be dealt with in the same way; the formal prerogatives are limited, and the problem has to be addressed far in advance, taking precautionary and long-sighted actions. Providing for a stable neighborhood takes a lot of vision, long-term thinking and anticipation, capacity to shape the evolution of things. A closer look at Europe shows that it is surrounded by a ring of fire. From Ukraine to Libya, spanning Iraq, Syria, Egypt, an arc of instability is engulfing Europe.   

Recently, Christine Lagarde pointed to the fact that a third of the Middle East population in 15-29 years old. No wonder, she added, that many of these young people feel that they have no other choice than to search for jobs elsewhere. “Elsewhere” means basically Europe. Such a large number of youth creates the conditions for social turmoil. When this is coupled with a shortage in employment opportunities, the potential for an explosive situation is there. And this potential unfolds right in the neighborhood of the European Union. It was short-sighted enough that the old continent failed to invest in that neighboring region, to do its best in order to stabilize it and diminish the demographic pressure. The EU did not stop short of this; instead, it did nothing to prevent the powder keg in the Middle East from exploding and fueled the already explosive situation. What is even more stunning is that it did all these with some sort of satisfaction and expecting some world recognition for its stand.   

In such contexts as the one we are talking about, one could not avoid tackling the complex relationship between freedom and political stability. It is true, freedom is the supreme and desirable value, to which everybody aspires and is committed. Yet, when this supreme value clashes with that political stability, more caution is required. There are geopolitical contexts when stability may be the greater value; at least for a limited period of time. Let us take the example of Libya, where Europe was directly involved. The former Libyan leader was, beyond doubt, a fierce dictator. But under his rule, Libya represented a buffer zone between Europe and the populations south of Maghreb, wanting to migrate to Europe. Gaddafi had also vowed to fight against terrorism. A change in Libya was needed, to be sure. Yet, a gradual change might have been preferred to one inviting chaos in. The situation in Iraq and even Syria are strikingly similar. Who takes advantage of this situation? Would a significant power have allowed this to happen in its neighborhood?

For some time a cliché has been circulating with some vexing frequency: Europe develops through crises. It is true that a crisis can have an important role in forging breakthroughs. But, with Europe, crises have become the rule, rather than the exception; we are getting close to a critical point, especially since these are not “regular” crises, but existential ones, that “redraw” Europe’s map with every occurrence. Inside its borders, the EU still feels the consequences of the unsolved Euro crisis. Taking the perspective provided by this crisis, the “real” Europe is the eurozone. Taking the perspective of the crisis, the “real” Europe is the Schengen area. But the map of a superpower cannot change with every season. One cannot expect others to take the EU seriously as a superpower when that super power plays around with its political borders and political map every time a crisis sets in.

Of all the crises besieging the EU right now, the refugee crisis has the greatest potential to shatter trust. A family quarrel brings out the worst in the family members. Who established “the mandatory refugee quotas”? The big players in the Union; that is, the big states. But when the same players allowed the developments in Libya and other countries in the region – which actually set off the refugee waves – did they establish “mandatory quotas” for consequences, as well? Imagine that this “family quarrel” will resume with each and every refugee wave; most likely, effects will be dealt with, whereas root causes will be largely ignored. The refugee crisis exposes Europe to a very severe political tomography. What one sees in this tomography is that the geopolitical chromosomes are absent from the European DNA. This is one way to explain the Union’s geopolitical clumsiness, not to say downright blunders.    


About the Author

Paul Dobrescu

Paul Dobrescu este profesor universitar la SNSPA, fondatorul Facultății de Comunicare și Relații Publice (FCRP), rector SNSPA în perioada 2008 – 2012; în prezent, conduce editura și Centrul de Cercetare în Comunicare din cadrul FCRP; printre cărțile publicate se numără: La ruse de la mondialisation. L’assaut contre la puissance américaine (2015, Paris, L’Harmattan), Un deceniu cât un secol. Secolul lumii emergente (2014), Lumea cu două viteze. Puterile emergente şi ţările dezvoltate (2013), Viclenia globalizării. Asaltul asupra puterii americane (2010), Geopolitica (2008), Mass media și societatea (2003), Iliescu contra Iliescu (1997), America Americii – California (1993), Computere şi trandafiri sau paradoxurile progresului (1986); a îngrijit și prefațat traducerea în limba română a lucrărilor: R. Kaplan, Răzbunarea geografiei (2014), D. Cohn-Bendit şi G. Verhofstadt, Trezeşte-te, Europa! Manifest pentru o revoluţie postnaţională în Europa (2013), G. Verhofstadt, Ieşirea din criză. Cum poate Europa salva lumea (2012), H. Kissinger, Despre China (2012), W. Lippmann, Opinia Publică (2009).