The geopolitical chessboard is back. Following a post-1989 interlude in which the direction of history seemed to tilt toward a peaceful liberal international order, we now witness mounting great-power competition, quests for hegemony, and quasi-imperial expansion.
Russia is brazenly breaking international law and asserting its regional influence. China is engaging in strategic competition across the board and promoting an alternative international model. And the United States has chosen to defend its interests with unilateral action and pressure.
Faced with this violent geopolitical awakening, Europe must take its future into its own hands. If we do not stand up to voice and defend our interests and values, the European Union and its member states will become others’ prey in the new global (dis)order. The time has come for Europeans collectively to build their sovereignty in all areas where they want to be actors, rather than spectators: foreign policy and defense, economy and trade, digital technology, and environmental sustainability.
Under the leadership of European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU has taken significant steps in this regard. We have sharpened our trade policy in response to the prospect of trade wars and made our economy less vulnerable to foreign takeovers of strategic assets. In addition, we have invested in resilience to protect critical networks and infrastructure against cyber attacks.
Perhaps most surprisingly, we have taken big strides in pooling our defence efforts. Once a taboo, defense has become a political priority for the Commission. The €13 billion ($14.6 billion) European Defense Fund, for example, will break new ground in joint planning and the procurement of common equipment.
But Europe can, and must, do more in this area. Outsourcing Europe’s security is no longer an option. And although increased expenditures will make us stronger, they are not enough on their own. Europe needs a plan – a political compass – and our citizens expect one, too.
The EU’s Global Strategy – spearheaded by Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the Commission – set a new collective level of ambition for external European action back in 2016. But now, with other global powers racing ahead, and cross-border threats, from Riga to Nicosia, becoming increasingly common, this strategy needs to be updated and translated into foreign policy and defence planning.
The time is therefore ripe for a Strategic Defense Review, consisting of the joint assessment of the core threats Europe will face between now and 2030; strategic guidance about common priorities for the EU and its member states; and the translation of this into joint equipment and institutional structures.
While reaffirming NATO’s core role in collective defence, this Strategic Defense Review must develop Europe’s capabilities and enhance our readiness for common external action. We need unified capabilities to face new asymmetric challenges such as terrorism; cybercrime; disinformation campaigns; and chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear threats. Cyber, in particular, is an area where our civil and military capacities must be scaled up to match future challenges. In addition, such a review should provide guidance to the European defence industry as a core component of our security.
To sustain these efforts and deliver on a renewed level of ambition, we must also build our Foreign Policy and Defense Union. EU institutions and member states form one team. The aim is not to erode the sovereignty of member states, but rather to make all – and each – of us stronger.
A common foreign and defence policy takes advantage of the diversity of intelligence services, armed forces, equipment, and combat experience, together with the different regional outlooks – toward Africa, the Middle East, the Western Balkans, and Europe’s Eastern flank – bequeathed to them by history and geography.
Within this framework, willing and capable member states should also act as ambassadors or lead countries in different areas. This would permit flexibility and consistency in regional formats or initiatives, and would also enable member states to use their influence to support both national and European interests.
In parallel, the defence should be properly institutionalized at the EU level: a Defense Council to provide a platform for coordination among defence ministers, an Operations Headquarters to plan and conduct the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy, a responsive and efficient chain of command, and a full-fledged defence academy.
These practical steps will help foster a common European strategic culture and make European defence an operational reality. They will also better equip the EU to engage with strategic partners – first and foremost the United Kingdom, which will remain a key ally and strong partner after it leaves the bloc.
For too long, however, internal matters such as Brexit have monopolized European leaders’ agenda at the expense of pressing security challenges. Stability in Africa, the peace process in Syria, the crisis in Libya, the Western Balkans, the Eastern Neighborhood, and the Arctic also deserve more of our attention, in addition to our capacity to engage with strategic partners.
Common security challenges should be on the European Council’s agenda every three or six months. Through regular, structured discussions, leaders would address strategic trends and define a common course of action, using the EU’s full foreign-policy toolbox.
At the same time, the EU must wield its foreign-policy tools – diplomacy, trade, development aid, and defence – in a more coherent manner. To meet the coming challenges of a world in which Africa and Asia will play an ever-larger role, Europe must break out of its silos and align its external instruments. In March, for example, Tusk initiated a discussion among EU leaders about the EU-China relationship. This should be a top priority for the coming years.
But the key to a successful foreign policy is the power to back it up. Europe still wields significant soft power, but we remain a hard-power minnow. The return of great-power politics means this imbalance is no longer sustainable. Europe needs a second leg to stand on – and our citizens expect a union that protects, that is more capable, and that is sovereign. We can achieve this only if member states and EU institutions join forces.