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Not Another Geopolitical Commission, Please!

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As the European Council is about to entrust Ursula von der Leyen with a second term as President of the European Commission (still to be confirmed by the European Parliament), did the leaders give an indication of the Grand Strategy they want her to pursue?


Not Another Geopolitical Commission, Please!

As the European Council is about to entrust Ursula von der Leyen with a second term as President of the European Commission (still to be confirmed by the European Parliament), did the leaders give an indication of the Grand Strategy they want her to pursue? Under von der Leyen’s leadership, the EU rediscovered the importance of geopolitics – that is good. Over time however, many began to behave as if strategy and foreign policy is nothing but geopolitics – that is not so good.

Where am I? Where are the natural resources that I need to import coming from? Where are my exports going to? Where are my friends, where are my enemies? And what are the lines of communication that connect all of these? That is geopolitics. It is important to be fully aware of one’s geopolitical situation, for it entails specific vulnerabilities. But it does not determine strategy. One still has to choose how to deal with one’s geopolitical issues.

For example: Russia and the EU have clashing views on the geopolitics of Ukraine. We saw it as buffer state that should have good relations with both Brussels and Moscow, but Russia always saw it as its exclusive sphere of influence. We offered an association agreement, Russia went to war: is their way “geopolitical” and ours not, or vice versa? No, both are different strategies to solve the same geopolitical dispute.

It is nonsense, therefore, to call on the EU to become a “geopolitical actor”. There is no such thing. We must be a geopolitically aware strategic actor: focused on our interests, aware of constantly evolving threats and opportunities (including but not only in the geopolitical sphere), and decisive on ends, ways, and means.

The EU has taken sound strategic decisions with major geopolitical implications, notably offering candidate status to Ukraine. That decision reflects the new geopolitical reality of Ukraine: by surviving Russia’s onslaught, de facto it has become the border of our security architecture, instead of a buffer between us and Russia.

But other EU decisions seem to be blissfully unaware of geopolitical realities. Candidate status for Georgia, which until now was a buffer state too, means pulling the country entirely out of the Russian orbit and into our own. If Russia were ever to react by aggressing it, we have to be ready to do for Georgia what we are now doing for Ukraine. But could we? Georgia does not border on the EU, and the Montreux Convention limits access via the Black Sea. The decision has been made, though, so we must assume our responsibilities. So must Georgia, but the EU must be careful not only to see Georgia through the prism of the foreign agents law and potential sanctions – we must also make clear our offer to Georgia, or we risk pushing it right back into Russia’s arms.

Many decision-makers, it seems, just mean a more assertive EU when they talk about a “geopolitical” EU, without having any strategy in mind. The EU can certainly be more assertive – but to achieve which ends? The same decision-makers then often react very slowly, or not at all, when there actually is a direct threat to the EU’s geopolitical situation. When the EU Military Staff prepared plans to evacuate EU citizens from Sudan as civil war erupted, Member States refused to even discuss potential action under the EU flag. What would they have done if a Russian-backed warlord had taken control of Port Sudan on the Red Sea and threatened our truly vital sea lane of communication to Asia? A year later, that is exactly what the Iran-backed Houthi’s started doing from Yemen. The EU did launch a naval operation, Aspides, but it took Member States three months to agree, and the three or four ships we deploy are insufficient to halt the threat.

Most importantly, looking at the world only through the lens of geopolitics, produces a distorted image. World politics is much more than a race to advance one’s geopolitical position. States also seek political influence, economic penetration, positions in international organisations, etc. And while they do compete for these, through legal means, they often also partner up to achieve these goals, though some also act as rivals and use illegal means. For example, what does a purely geopolitical analysis tell us about how to approach China? Nothing much. The EU and China have important economic disputes to resolve, and the EU is justifiably wary of China’s growing political influence, but there are no direct geopolitical disputes between them.

The question that von der Leyen and the other EU leaders have to answer first is not the geopolitical one (Where am I?), but the strategic one: Who am I? Which role does the EU think it is playing on the world stage? I know my answer: the EU’s role is to steer the great powers away from geopolitical rivalry, and focus on keeping the world together. Keep the tensions that are inevitable in a multipolar world manageable, and prevent normal competition from escalating into hostile rivalry, by seeking a consensus on a core set of rules for relations between states. That is a two-way street, of course: if another power opts for war, as Russia has done, we will push back. If our sovereignty is attacked, we will fight to uphold it. But as long as a modus vivendi between the great powers remains at all possible, it must be attempted.



In his recent book, This Is Not a New World Order: Europe Rediscovers Geopolitics, from Ukraine to Taiwan, Sven Biscop analyses the geopolitical situation of the EU, and then looks beyond it, to propose a Grand Strategy aimed at keeping the world together.


(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)