“We have now arguably gone further down that path in the past weeks than we did in the previous decade”, remarked Josep Borrell, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy one month after Russia launched its unprovoked and unjustifiable war in Ukraine. Borrell was pointing to the progress that, in his eyes, the EU and its member states had made in acting in unity and advancing their capabilities to act more decisively on the world stage. This “leap forward” to which Borrell alluded has since been widely debated and referred to as the EU’s “geopolitical awakening”.
Axel Ruppert is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Brussels Office, where he works on the topics of peace, security, and disarmament as well as EU militarization and the European arms industry.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Metapolís.
While there has been a great deal of discussion on what a geopolitical (or more geopolitical) EU should look like and whether the Union’s arms build-up is bold enough to meet its geopolitical ambitions, there has been less focus on the question of whether the proclaimed geopolitical awakening will ultimately lead to a more secure future. Indeed, there are many indicators that the EU’s geopolitical ambitions primarily amount to expanding its military power to the detriment of the security of the majority of people inside and outside the EU.
What Geopolitical Awakening?
The concept of a geopolitical EU is as disputed as the term geopolitics itself. Since Ursula Von der Leyen unveiled the Union’s “Geopolitical Commission” in 2019, there have been a number of doubts and questions concerning the EU’s geopolitical goals and leverage.
Arguably, the EU’s proclaimed geopolitical awakening is not about Russia or the war in Ukraine, but continues the long-standing endeavour to make the EU a stronger actor in the global rivalry between great powers. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine served more to accelerate existing processes than trigger any substantial change.
Yet some factors are new, such as the deliveries of lethal weapons into a war zone via the European Peace Facility, a military training mission for 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers, a far-reaching sanctions package against Russia, and the decision to extend Ukraine EU candidate status in an unprecedented “new special procedure”. Some EU member states have also undertaken significant measures, such as Germany’s 100-billion-euro special fund to upgrade its armed forces along with requisite constitutional amendments and increased defence spending to the meet NATO’s 2 percent goal. None of that will affect the course of the war in Ukraine, however, as it will be years before the money is spent and the new and upgraded weapon systems arrive.
This trend is not particularly new. In 2016, the “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy” insisted on the need for member states to bolster spending and bid farewell to prioritizing soft power if the EU was to become a bigger global player. Especially since Brexit, the EU has focused on expanding military power, while other levers of geopolitical influence have been overlooked or declined in importance. There has been no notable progress in the EU’s neighbourhood and enlargement policies, EU development cooperation remains bereft of major initiatives, and the “Global Gateway” project (the EU’s response to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative) has failed to curb Chinese influence in the Global South. Comprehensive trade deals appear to now be a thing of the past, as EU foreign direct investment outflows have diminished and the transatlantic bond weakened under Trump. At the same time, the EU — which did, after all, win the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize — has taken unprecedented steps to shift resources and attention away from civilian to military priorities.
Strategic Autonomy and Great Power Rivalry
At the heart of the EU’s militarization is the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) that entered into force in 2017. PESCO is designed to Europeanize armaments and military policies by driving forward cooperation on crucial armament projects. It obliges the participating member states to continuously increase their defence budgets to finance the means of future warfare. As PESCO is a binding process and member states can be excluded should they fail to fulfil the participation criteria, governments find themselves pressured into an accelerating armaments spiral. After all, member states are not keen to lose their influence within PESCO and opportunities for their respective arms industries.
Another alarming milestone in the EU’s paradigm shift from soft to hard power is the 8-billion-euro European Defence Fund (EDF) launched in 2021. Its creation marked a turning point, as it was the first time the EU community budget could be directed to military-related activities. Ostensibly, its main objectives were to strengthen the European arms industry and boost its competitiveness on the global stage, which includes boosting arms exports.
The EU broke another taboo with the establishment of the European Peace Facility (EPF) that same year. This instrument turns the EU into an arms dealer, as it funds the delivery of military equipment, including ammunition and lethal weapons, to states already facing tensions or internal conflicts. So far, the EU has dedicated 3.6 billion euro of the originally planned 5-billion-euro budget for 2021–2027 to its support for Ukraine — the first time the EU has organized the direct delivery of weapons to a country at war.
From the beginning, control of migration flows and fighting terrorist threats to European states and economic interests dominated the EU’s agenda.
The latest building block of EU militarization is the so-called “Strategic Compass”. Adopted at the EU summit on 25 March 2022, it sets the direction of future European military policy and harmonizes the 2016 Global Strategy with the mechanisms created since then. The strategic assessment contained in the Compass draft describes an EU surrounded by instability and conflict within a conflict-laden, multipolar world. Power politics have returned to the global stage, and access to space, sea routes, and critical resources are increasingly contested. In this “highly confrontational system, the EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor. … a lot remains to be done for the EU to raise its geopolitical posture. This is why we need a quantum leap forward to develop a stronger and more capable European Union that acts as a security provider.”
The centrepiece of the Strategic Compass is the concept of “strategic autonomy”. Championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, strategic autonomy, despite the absence of a common definition, is supposed to enable the EU to autonomously decide upon and execute military operations with weapons and capabilities developed and produced in the EU itself.
That said, the prospects for such strategic autonomy have grown significantly dimmer since the war in Ukraine began. The failure of the Normandy Format negotiations between France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia prior to the war also constitutes a failure of Europeans to take security on the continent into their own hands. Macron declared NATO braindead in 2017, but in the last year, the alliance gained two new European members and is now even more of an uncontested cornerstone of European defence. When it comes to energy imports, the EU is now more dependent on fracked gas from the US. The reliance on NATO and US energy imports are the most effective levers to demand the EU’s allegiance to the United States’ geopolitical ambitions.
In an analysis published by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Brussels Office, Jürgen Wagner concludes on the Strategic Compass: “The really problematic issue in all of this is the full commitment to the expansion of the military apparatus as the only proven means of responding to the increasing conflicts between great powers. Other aspects are reduced to add-ons within these power conflicts — confidence-building measures, disarmament initiatives or arms control, which would be suitable for reducing the ever-increasing tensions, but unfortunately only lead a shadowy existence in the Compass.”
The Strategic Compass leaves no doubt that the current EU leadership regards strategic autonomy through expanded military power as the key to strengthening its geopolitical influence. To understand the dangers that come along with this approach, a closer look to the Sahel region is telling.
Insecurity in the Sahel
The Sahel region and Mali in particular have become synonymous with the EU’s failed attempts to act as a security provider. Dubbed the EU’s “laboratory” for border externalization and strengthening military and security forces in unstable partner countries, the region has served as a testing ground for operational and decision-making procedures for future missions under the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy.
The situation in Mali in particular, but also in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, has worsened since first France and later other EU member states intervened. Following the French military intervention in 2013, the EU set up a training mission known as EUTM Mali. Since 2013, trainers from 22 EU countries have trained 15,000 Malian soldiers — some of whom are accused of committing abuses and human rights violations against civilians. The EU suspended the mission last March after France announced the withdrawal of its troops. By that time, wide swathes of the local population had come to oppose the soldiers’ presence given the deteriorating security situation in the country.
The government that came to power in Mali through a coup d’état in 2021 suspended planned elections in February 2022, and has since then increased the pressure on foreign troops in the country. At the same time, troops from the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group accepted the Malian government’s invitation and began arriving in the country. The EU stated that EUTM Mali could only be resumed if there were a clear separation from the Wagner Group to avoid EU-trained soldiers ending up under Russian command. The Malian population now finds itself not only confronted with the threat of terrorism, which has increased despite the presence of international troops, but also caught up in the geopolitical confrontation between the EU and Russia.
The EU’s security-first approach in the Sahel, with its focus on counter-terrorism efforts, training of security and military personnel, and border management has failed to provide security for the people in the Sahel. Indeed, the NGO Saferworld finds that “Member States and the current European Commission leadership believe that tools that use the ‘language of power’ offer them more control over security threats. However, evidence shows that these types of responses have allowed violence to escalate while also permitting repressive governments and authoritarian regimes to operate with impunity.”
While antagonistic security policies seek to provide security from the Other, collective security seeks to generate security with the Other.
Despite the failures in Mali, the EU maintains their presence and continues to fund and expand the security and military apparatuses in the other four G5 Sahel states (Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad). The civilian capacity-building Mission EUCAP Sahel Niger, established in 2012 to train and reform the Nigerien police, signed a working agreement with FRONTEX, the EU’s border management agency, in July 2022. This first-of-its-kind agreement between an EUCAP mission and FRONTEX highlights the EU’s interest in the Sahel.
From the beginning, control of migration flows and fighting terrorist threats to European states and economic interests (such as Niger’s uranium potential) dominated the EU’s agenda. The humanitarian goals that supposedly overshadowed these interests are now even further jeopardized as the EU’s focus shifts to maintaining a presence against Russia and securing influence in the region.
The latest example of the EU seeking military solutions to instability in a former colony is Mozambique. In 2021, the EU established the EUTM Mozambique with the goal of providing training and support to the Mozambican armed forces in order to protect civilian populations and fight an insurgent group with links to Islamic State in the Cabo Delgado Province, where the French energy giant Total was forced to suspend a 20-billion-dollar LNG project in 2021. The EU also earmarked 89 million euro from the EPF in assistance to the Mozambican armed forces.
We should keep these examples in mind when the Strategic Compass calls for the EU should become a stronger security provider to bolster its geopolitical position. Josep Borrell made a statement in October 2022 that illustrates how the most vocal proponent of the Strategic Compass sees the EU in the world. Citing the continent’s political freedoms, economic prosperity, and social cohesion, he told future diplomats “Europe is a garden, we have built a garden. Everything works.” He then continued: “Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.” These kinds of racist statements and neo-colonial backyard policies towards countries in the Global South, which cater primarily to the EU’s economic and migration-related interests to the detriment of local populations, are ultimately tools that will cause the EU to lose geopolitical influence.
The EU is now set on continuing this paradigm shift towards hard power, which began well before the war in Ukraine, with even more ambition. But the EU’s military build-up not only diverts much-needed funds to the arms industry and away from addressing climate, social, and public health emergencies, it also poses a real threat to those caught up in the EU’s security-first approaches in the Global South.
While ensuring EU member states’ capacity for territorial defence and taking the possibility of future Russian military aggression against Central and Eastern Europe states seriously, the EU ought to focus its global ambitions on addressing the three biggest threats facing humanity: destruction through nuclear war, the loss of biodiversity, and the climate crisis. None of these security risks will be solved with more weapons.
An even more militarized EU will not strengthen its role as a diplomatic power to build a new European security order based on shared rules, diplomacy, and cooperation. The EU will have a hard time being a military actor in the global arms race and a trusted negotiator at the same time. De-escalation, civil conflict-prevention measures, and multilateral disarmament efforts — as opposed to rising defence budgets — are needed more than ever.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered an unambiguous speech during the opening of COP27 in Egypt, warning the global community that “We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. … We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”´ In short, we cannot afford to shift resources and attention away from addressing the climate crisis to fuelling a global arms race and a new block confrontation. The consequences of climate breakdown already affect and will affect the material security of the majority of people on this planet. Providing this security means ensuring access to quality food, water, housing, healthcare, education, and energy, and enabling prospects for a common liveable future.
It is high time to rethink our understanding of security. We cannot afford to maintain a security system that safeguards the privileged few at the cost of the marginalized many, pushing the latter into a state of constant insecurity and the planet further down the spiral of collapse. A convincing and holistic approach to security derives from social struggles and serves the need for safety of all, by linking questions of class, climate, migration, militarism, peace, state repression, sexism, and racism.
To secure a liveable future, we need collective security approaches to oppose the current antagonistic security policies and structures. While antagonistic security policies seek to provide security from the Other, collective security seeks to generate security with the Other. Collective security means arguing for a form of security that makes us safe because the others are safe. Demanding safety in all aspects of life for all is not a utopian goal, but rather a realistic response that takes the material interdependence of the world seriously.
Ultimately, nobody is safe until everybody is safe.