international analysis and commentary

Geopolitics, European style


Ursula von der Leyen wants the new European Commission to be a “geopolitical” Commission. It will be interesting to see how new High Representative for Foreign Policy Josep Borrell, from Spain, interprets that mandate.

It is not going to be easy to make consistent choices. On the one hand, the rivalry among the great powers is being abundantly offloaded onto Europe. On the other, Europe’s citizens claim that Europe needs to be stronger also on the global level yet they do not appear to have a very clear idea of just what is at stake. Take, for example, the results of an opinion poll recently published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, which – on a general level – reveals the expectation that the EU should become an independent and influential international player.

When asked “with whom should your country side in a conflict between the United States and Russia?,” an overwhelming majority of respondents, with the notable exception of the Poles, opted for neutrality: Some 65% of Italians, 70% of Germans, 63% of French, and 85% of Austrians answered “neither”. Those who did choose sides opted chiefly for the United States, but they were still in a minority. The instinctive vocation of Europe’s citizens suggests that they see an internationally stronger and more independent Europe as some kind of “Greater Switzerland.”

Writing in Aspenia some months ago, former Ambassador Sergio Romano argued that a position of that kind – i. e. Europe as “Greater Switzerland” – would, in effect, be the best geopolitical choice for the EU. I am not so sure that I agree. The point is that a potential conflict between the United States and Russia would not be played out elsewhere, it would inevitably involve Europe on the front line. Neutrality, in the Old Continent, is a recurring temptation, yet history has shown us just what a precarious choice it is.

Europe as seen from Russia


Can Europe really place the United States and Russia on the same level?  We have gotten used to assigning the US President the role of “wrecker” of the old liberal world order (the conventional name that we have devised for the ground rules and institutions set up after World War II), a process that includes NATO’s identity crisis.  And it is true that the Trump presidency has sparked serious doubts in Europe (doubts reflected in the above-mentioned opinion poll) regarding the security guarantee offered by the United States; but average European grassroots opinion is equally responsible, at this juncture, for the uncertainty surrounding the Atlantic alliance’s credibility.

Thus Borrell’s task is not going to be easy, and the Spanish EU High Representative is aware of that:  National governments are going to create further difficulties.  In the course of a meeting at the European Council of Foreign Relations in May, Federica Mogherini’s successor compared the EU Foreign Affairs Council to a “vale of tears”: The member states’ various foreign ministers bemoan the multiple crises around the world, yet they remain incapable of collective action. In the meantime, their citizens consider that the EU should become an independent geopolitical player; but as we have just seen, for a majority of them independent means capable of not taking sides in the context of a clash between the United States and Russia.

And albeit with different percentages, neutrality as a preferential geopolitical option also prevailed in responses to the question: “With whom should your country side in a conflict between the United States and China?”, where not only security-related concerns but also concerns of an economic and trade nature come into the picture.

A cartoon appeared in the Financial Times


If Europe’s strategic sovereignty ends up meaning not only a more than legitimate defense of the EU’s global economic interests but also a neutral stance in potential clashes between the major international powers, that will have very important geopolitical repercussions: the end of the Western alliance is only a matter of time, while the importance of the direct competition between liberal democracies and authoritarian powers is fading in the European people’s perception.

But if that is so, then “Greater Switzerland” is going to need an independent defense capability, including in the nuclear sphere. That is unlikely to be the case any time soon, while Brexit is disorientating one of the Old World’s two main military powers and defense (a central issue in the letter of engagement issued to Josep Borrell and in the new Directorate General for Industrial Policy assigned to Sylvie Goulard, the French Internal Market Commissioner) is not exactly at the top of the list of investment priorities. In its attempt to steer the EU closer to its citizens’ preferences, Ursula von der Leyen’s geopolitical Commission is going to have to very clearly explain the costs and the risks involved in Europe being a “power” only in theory while remaining devoid of the tools needed for it to become one.

The new Commission’s President is apparently well aware of the problem. She has recently declared that “NATO will remain the collective defense” of Europe and that a transformation of the EU into a military alliance in its right is simply not in the cards. Any realistic assessment of European defense capabilities confirms this view, as I argued earlier.

The dilemma will rather shift to the field of industrial competition: the new Brussels Commission will need to combine a strengthened European industrial and technological base – thanks to the ad hoc Fund that has just been set up and the joint programs that are being defined – with the evolution of NATO toward a more balanced alliance structure in terms of American and  European efforts. But it will not be an easy goal to pursue, partly because the White House has already expressed deep concerns over the possible exclusion of US companies from full access to the European defense market. A president like Donald Trump, who tends to subordinate alliance ties to economic-commercial relations, will not sit idly. A relevant factor will be the evolution of Brexit: given the important role played by British capabilities, Europe will have to negotiate with London, in a post-Brexit setup, preferential relations in the security and defense sectors.

Between external challenges, divisions among national governments, and unrealistic preferences of many of its citizens on the costs and benefits of the EU’s international position, the geopolitical Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen will then face serious obstacles before it becomes geopolitically credible.



Italian version



This text is the English version of an article published in La Stampa on September 13.