Europe In The Interregnum: Our Geopolitical Awakening After Ukraine
Josep Borrell FontellesHigh Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy
The war against Ukraine proves that Europe is even more in danger than we thought just a few months ago. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is not only an unprovoked attack on a sovereign country standing up for its rights and its democracy, it is also the biggest challenge to Europe’s security order since the end of World War II. At stake are the very principles upon which international relations are built, not least those of the UN Charter and the Helsinki Final Act.
Crises tend to crystallise developments and this one has made it even clearer that we live in a world shaped by raw power politics, where everything is weaponised and where we face a fierce battle of narratives. All these trends were already happening before the Ukraine war; now they are accelerating.
This means that our response must accelerate too – and it has. We have taken rapid action across the whole policy spectrum and broken several taboos along the way: unprecedented sanctions, massive support to Ukraine including, for the first time ever, financing the delivery of military equipment to a country under attack. We have also built a wide international coalition to support Ukraine, isolate Russia and restore international legality. By any standard, the EU’s response has been impressive – even if it is still not enough with the war still going on.
We do not know how and when this war will end. As le Grand Continent frames it in their recent print issue, we are still navigating an Interregnum. 1 But we can already say that the 2022 Ukraine war saw the belated birth of a geopolitical EU. For years, Europeans have been debating how to make the EU more security-conscious, with a unity of purpose and capabilities to pursue its political goals on the world stage. We have now arguably gone further down that path in the past weeks than we did in the previous decade. This is welcome, but we need to ensure that the EU’s geopolitical awakening is turned into a more permanent strategic posture. For there is so much more to do, in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Making Europe also a hard power
I am convinced that the EU must be more than a soft power: we need hard power too. However, we need to realise that the concept of hard power cannot be reduced to military means: it is about using the full range of our instruments to achieve our goals. It is about thinking and acting in terms of power. And, bit by bit, the conditions for this to happen are being fulfilled.
First, there is a growing awareness among Europeans about the threats they face together and the degree to which their fates are tied. Today, no one in Europe can believe or think that what is happening in Ukraine does not concern them, no matter how far away they are from the drama. So our support to Ukraine is not just an act of solidarity but also a way of defending our common interests and acting in self-defence against a heavily-armed and ruthless aggressor.
Second, the peoples of Europe have reached an unprecedented level of prosperity and social welfare, which EU membership has further increased. This makes Europe a fundamentally peaceful area built around the idea of interdependence generating prosperity and peace. However, one of the lessons of the war in Ukraine is that economic interdependence alone cannot guarantee our security. On the contrary, it can be instrumentalised against us. So we need to be ready to act against those who want to use the benefits of interdependence to harm us or wage war.
This is what is happening today. By taking unprecedented sanctions against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we are making the cost of aggression more and more prohibitive. At the same time, we must further enhance our resilience and reduce strategic vulnerabilities, be it on critical infrastructure, raw materials, health products or other domains.
Across the EU, there is a clear commitment to learn the right lessons from this crisis. This involves us finally getting serious about threats to our strategic interests that we have been aware of but not always acted upon. Take energy. We have known for years that energy plays a disproportionate role in EU-Russia relations and that Russia has used energy as a political weapon. We are now fully mobilised to cut our excessive dependence on Russia energy imports (of oil, gas and coal).
In a similar way, the war in Ukraine is making it more urgent to achieve a leap forward on EU security and defence. Here the main point is to stress that the extra investments that EU member states are now making – which are very welcome – should involve more coordination in EU and NATO. It is not just that each of us should spend more; it is that we must all spend more together.
A new world of threats
The Ukraine war is the most serious security crisis in Europe in decades, but threats to European security clearly come from a variety of sources, both within Europe and beyond. Our security interests are at stake in the western Balkans, the Sahel, the wider Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, etc.
While the Ukraine war rages on and exacts a terrible toll, we should not forget that the world is full of situations where we face hybrid tactics and intermediate dynamics of competition, intimidation and coercion. Indeed, in Ukraine as elsewhere, the tools of power are not only soldiers, tanks and planes but also financial sanctions or import and export bans, as well as energy flows, and disinformation and foreign interference operations.
In addition, we have seen in recent years the instrumentalisation of migrants, the privatisation of armies and the politicisation of the control of sensitive technologies. Add to this the dynamics of state failures, the retreat of democratic freedoms, plus the attacks on the ‘global commons’ of cyber space, the high seas and outer-space, and the conclusion is clear: the defence of Europe requires a comprehensive concept of security.
Thankfully, there is more awareness and agreement in Europe today on the nature of the threats we face – just as there is a process of strategic convergence on what to do about them.
The Strategic Compass – a leap forward on European security and defence
If we do want to avoid being a bystander in a world shaped by and for others, we need to act – together. That is the philosophy of the Strategic Compass that I presented last November and which was finalised by EU Foreign and Defence Ministers on 21 March. 2 There is a lot of detail in the Compass, which has developed into 47 pages, grouped under four work strands (Act, Secure, Invest and Partner). Let me highlight just a few of the main ideas:
To strengthen our capacity to act, we will work to reinforce our crisis management missions and operation and will develop an EU Rapid Deployment Capacity to allow us to quickly deploy up to 5.000 troops for different types of crises. We will increase the readiness of our forces through regular live exercises (never been done before at the EU level), strengthen our command and control arrangements and promote faster and more flexible decision-making. We will expand our capacity to tackle cyber threats, disinformation and foreign interference. And we will deepen investment into the necessary strategic enablers and next-generation capabilities. This will make the EU a more capable security provider for its citizens, but also a stronger global partner working for international peace and security.
More than the papers that we usually produce in Brussels, the Strategic Compass sets out concrete actions – with clear deadlines to measure progress. This is a Member States-owned document now adopted by the Council. Throughout the process, Member States have been in the driving seat. By signing off to it, they commit to implementing it. There will be a robust follow-up process to ensure implementation. These are major differences with the 2003 EU Security Strategy and the 2016 Global Strategy.
A stronger EU also means a stronger Transatlantic partnership
At this point of the conversation, people tend to say: “that is all very nice but what about NATO?”. Let me stress that NATO remains at the heart of Europe’s territorial defence. No one is questioning that. However, this should not prevent European countries from developing their capabilities and conducting operations in our neighbourhood and beyond. We should be able to act as EU in scenarios like we saw last year in Afghanistan (securing an airport for emergency evacuation) or intervene quickly in a crisis where violence is threatening the lives of civilians.
I am convinced that greater European strategic responsibility is the best way to reinforce transatlantic solidarity. It is not either EU or NATO: it is both EU and NATO. Let me add that hesitations to move ahead on this agenda “because of NATO” come from inside the EU, not the US. Here I can quote from the joint statement that Secretary Blinken and I issued last December, namely that the US wants: “a stronger and more capable European defence that contributes to global and Transatlantic security”. The US essentially says: ‘Don’t talk, act. Please get on with it and help us share the security burden.’
If not now, then when?
I realise that those, like me, who want a step change on security and defence should explain why we feel that ‘this time will be different’. We should acknowledge that in the history of European defence there have been numerous plans and initiatives, full of acronyms, going from the Pleven Plan and the European Defence Community; to the start of the Common Foreign and Security Policy after Maastricht; to the wars in former Yugoslavia and the “hour of Europe”, to Saint Malo, the start of ESDP, then CSDP, the Helsinki Headline Goal, PESCO, the European Defence Fund and the European Peace Facility, etc..
Yet the basic fact remains that security and defence is probably the area in EU integration with the biggest gap between expectations and results. Between what we could be and what citizens demand – and what we actually achieve.
So it is time to have another go. And the reason why I feel the Strategic Compass could have more impact than previous plans lies in the speed at which the global trends and geopolitical context are changing and worsening. This makes the case for action urgent and indeed compelling. This is vividly true for the war in Ukraine and the wider implications of a revisionist Russia has for European security.
But it goes beyond that: all the threats we face are intensifying and the capacity of individual member states to cope is both insufficient and declining. The gap is growing and this cannot go on.
My job has been to sketch a way out. But I know all too well that results do not depend on strategy papers, but on actions. These belong to the member states: they hold the prerogatives and the assets.
The good news is that every day we are seeing more member states ready to invest more in security and defence. We have to ensure that these welcome additional investments are done in a collaborative way and not in a fragmented, national manner. We must use the new momentum to ensure that we, finally, equip ourselves with the mind-set, the means and the mechanisms to defend our Union, our citizens and our partners.
Politically I see the choice we face as similar to when we launched the euro or the Recovery Plan. When the costs of “non-Europe” became so high that people were ready to re-think their red lines and invest in truly European solutions. We jumped together, so to speak and, in both cases, the results are clear and positive. Let us make a similar jump forward on European security and defence, as our citizens expect. If not now, then when?
The language of power revisited
For good or bad, I suspect that my mandate as EU High Representative will be associated with a phrase I used during my hearing in October 2019 in the European Parliament, namely that Europeans had “to learn to speak the language of power”.
I argued that the origin of European integration had stemmed from a rejection of power politics among the participating states. The European project had succeeded by turning political problems into technocratic ones and by supplanting power calculations with legal procedures. In the history of international relations and our war-torn continent, this was a Copernican revolution. It was also spectacularly successful, cementing peace and cooperation among previously warring parties, creating institutions, mental maps and a vocabulary that were unique.
But this historic chapter has ended, as the EU grappled with various crises and shocks: the financial and euro crises, the migration crisis 3 and Brexit. All these triggered intensely political debates about the nature of the EU and the sources of solidarity and legitimacy. These could not be solved with the usual EU tactic of de-politicisation and technical fixes and market-based solutions.
For many years, we have been living through a new phase of European history that is not so much about spaces (a Brussels favourite, of open borders and free movement) but about places (where people come from and belong to, their identity). We seem less focused on trends (globalisation, technological progress) and more on historic events (and how we respond to them): like the pandemic and Russia’s attack against Ukraine. 4
On top comes a major external driver. The success of EU integration and the chosen method of de-politicisation also came at a price: a reluctance and inability to come to terms with the fact that, outside our post-modern garden, “the jungle was growing back”. 5 Thirty years ago, many discussions and books were about how the world was flat, how history had ended and how Europe and its model was going to run the 21st century. These days they are about the weaponisaton of interdependence and how a supposedly naïve Europe is ill suited to the age of power politics. 6
Throughout all this, I have been convinced of two core points:
First, we must be realistic and recognise that the current phase in history and global politics requires us to think and act in terms of power (hence, the phrase ‘the language of power’). The war against Ukraine is the latest and most dramatic illustration of this.
Second, the best way to exert influence, shape events and not be driven by them, is at the EU level: by investing in our collective capacity to act. 7
Everything else is embellishment and detail.
As a consequence, we must equip ourselves with the mind-set and the means to handle the age of power politics and we must do so at scale. This will not happen overnight – given who we are and where we come from. However, I do believe that we are putting in place the building blocks and that the Ukraine crisis has accelerated this trend.
Already in 2021, we were showing that we were ready to adopt a strong posture to counter the open displays of power politics on our eastern borders. In addition to our support for Ukraine, one can point to what we did on Belarus, where we have held firm including on the instrumentalisation of migrants, or to Moldova, where we expanded our support.
In addition, we have been strengthening our approach to China and set out how the EU can enhance its engagement in and with the Indo-Pacific region. On China, we have become less naïve and been doing our homework to counter the challenge of asymmetrical openness with our policies on investment screening, 5G, procurement and the anti-coercion instrument, as also set out by Sabine Weyand in Le Grand continent. 8
Plus, with our Indo-Pacific strategy, we are engaged in a process of political diversification, investing in our ties with democratic Asia. Central to this effort is our work on the Global Gateway, to spell out our offer and how it differs from that of other actors. The point of the Global Gateway is to build links not dependencies. Indeed, many Africa and Asian partners welcome the European approach to connectivity with its emphasis on agreed rules, sustainability and local ownership. But this is a competitive field and there is a battle of standards underway. Therefore, we need to be concrete and not limit our stance to general statements of principles and intent. That is why we envisage mobilising up to €300 billion under the Global Gateway, with €150 billion especially for Africa, plus several flagships, to make the cooperation as concrete and tangible as possible. 9
I could go on but the main point is to underline that, bit by bit, the notion of a geopolitically aware EU was already taking shape before the war against Ukraine. The task ahead is to make Europe’s geopolitical awakening more permanent and consequential. This requires us not just to learn the language of power but to speak it.
Halfway through the mandate: what can we do differently and better?
This European Commission started in December 2019. More than two years on and having analysed how we make EU foreign policy, my main worry is that we are not keeping pace. As my friend and the EU’s first High Representative Javier Solana says, time in politics, like in physics, is relative: if the speed at which you are changing is lower than the speed of change around you, you are going backwards. And this we cannot afford. Our response to the Ukraine crisis shows what can be done if the pressure is extreme. However, it is too early to conclude this has become the general way of operating in EU foreign policy.
So let me share some ideas on what could be the four key ingredients for success and greater EU impact in a turbulent world:
1. Think and act in terms of power.
Europeans, with good reason, continue to favour dialogue over confrontation; diplomacy over force; multilateralism over unilateralism. But if you want dialogue, diplomacy and multilateralism to succeed, you need to put power and resources behind it. Whenever we have done so – in Ukraine, Belarus or with our climate diplomacy – we have had an impact. Whenever we opted for stating principled positions without specifying the means to give them effect, the results have been less impressive.
My sense is that the ideas around the language of power or the weaponisation of inter-dependence are now broadly accepted. However, the implementation and the needed resources and commitments are still a challenge.
2. Take the initiative and be ready to experiment.
Overall, we are too often in a reactive mode, responding to other people’s plans and decisions. I also believe we have to avoid bureaucratic routine (“what did we do last time?”) and regain a sense of initiative.
In addition, we must be ready to experiment more. It is often the safest option to stick to what we know and what we have always done. But that is not always the best way to get results.
3. Build diverse coalitions and take decisions faster.
We need to be more goal-oriented and think how we can mobilise partners around our priorities, issue by issue. We should acknowledge that, alongside coalitions of like-minded partners, we also have countries working with us on some issues while opposing us on others. And if the central government is unhelpful, we should work more with local forces or civil society groups.
In the EU, we are very busy with ourselves, and it takes a long time to establish common positions. When member states are divided, the unanimity rule in foreign security policy is a recipe for paralysis and delay. That is why I am in favour of using constructive abstention and other options foreseen under the Treaty, such as using qualified majority voting (QMV) in selected areas, to facilitate faster decision-making. 10
There is the risk that we prioritise the search for internal unity over maximising our external effectiveness. When we have finally reached a common position – often by adding a lot of water to the wine – the rest of the world has moved on.
4. Shape the narrative
After spending decades in politics, I am convinced that probably the most important ingredient for success is shaping the narrative. This is the real currency of global power. 11
For this reason, at the beginning of the pandemic I spoke about existence of a “battle of narratives” 12 and stressed the importance of investing in a common strategic culture, which needs a European debate, a space to discuss about what we can and cannot do in EU foreign policy and why. Accordingly, I regularly contribute to this journal and to the seminars of Groupe d’études géopolitiques, which I consider a tangible example of the emergence of a strategic, political and intellectual debate on a continental level. 13
The citizens of the EU do not care much about who does what in Brussels, nor about abstract discussions. They are not bothered with the number of statements we make, or what sanctions we adopt. They judge us on outputs not inputs. In other words, on results: are they safer, or more prosperous because of EU action? Is the EU more or less influential, also in terms of defending our values, than a year ago? Are we more or less trusted by others? Have we achieved more or less by way of supporting our partners? These are the metrics that matter.
The war against Ukraine has made it clear that in a world of power politics we need to build a greater capacity to defend ourselves. Yes, this includes military means, and we need to develop them more. But the essence of what the EU did in this crisis was to use all policies and levers – which remain mainly economic and regulatory in nature – as instruments of power.
We should build on this approach, in Ukraine but elsewhere too. The core task for “geopolitical Europe” is straightforward: to use our newfound sense of purpose and make that the ‘new normal’ in EU foreign policy. To protect our citizens, to support our partners and to face our global security responsibilities.
- Le Grand Continent, « Politiques de l’interrègne », Gallimard, 2022.
- You can read more on the rationale and main elements in my personal foreword: https://eeas.europa.eu/sites/default/files/en_updated_foreword_-_a_strategic_compass_to_make_europe_a_security_provider_v12_final.pdf
- Ivan Krastev, “Angoisse écologique contre crise démographique : le clivage européen de deux imaginaires apocalyptiques” in Le Grand Continent, “Politiques de l’interrègne”, Gallimard, March 2022. See also: Hugo Brady, “Openness versus helplessness: Europe’s 2015-2017 border crisis”, Groupe d’études géopolitiques, June 2021.
- Luuk van Middelaar makes this point in https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/2021/04/15/le-reveil-geopolitique-de-leurope/
- See Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Brookings, 2018.
- Mark Leonard, “L’ère de l’a-paix”, Le Grand Continent, 18 février 2022.
- Luiza Bialasiewicz, “Le moment géopolitique européen : penser la souveraineté stratégique” in le Grand Continent, “Politiques de l’interrègne”, Gallimard, March 2022.
- See https://legrandcontinent.eu/fr/2022/01/31/doctrine-de-la-double-integration-sabine-weyand/
- See more here https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_6433
- See more on this: https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/86276/when-member-states-are-divided-how-do-we-ensure-europe-able-act_en
- Lorenzo Castellani, “Le nouveau visage du pouvoir” in le Grand Continent, “Politiques de l’interrègne”, Gallimard, March 2022.
- See the blog post here https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/76379/coronavirus-pandemic-and-new-world-it-creating_en
Josep Borrell Fontelles, Europe In The Interregnum: Our Geopolitical Awakening After Ukraine, Jun 2023,
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