1. History is sometimes cruel. Geopolitics, a term that the Europeans coined during the transition from the 19th to the 20th century – the authorship goes back to the Swede Rudolf Kjellén – is one of the greatest problems of the current European Union (also called Europe here for simplicity). The great European powers of the first half of the 19th century, which were also great world powers, promoted geopolitical thinking.
Names like Halford Mackinder (British), Karl Haushofer (German) and Paul Vidal de la Blanche (French), the latter with preparatory work on Eastern France and Alsace-Lorraine, the region at the heart of the Franco-German conflict, were fundamental to this process. However, the European Union, in which this past is inscribed, like it or not, is doing very badly to geopolitics in the 21st century. Today the largest global players are neither European nor do they often operate according to the rules and principles that Europeans would like to put into practice in international relations.
2. In the European perspective after World War II, the world of power and interest politics, which is largely the world of geopolitics, is a world of the past, especially the tragic European past of successive wars. In order to overcome this, the European Union created supranational institutions and built a (self-) image of a virtuous actor in international relations that distinguished itself from its great political creations of the past: sovereign (Westphalian) state and nation / nationalism.
When Ursula von der Leyen founded the current European Commission in 2019 and promised a “geopolitical commission”, this caused some surprises and criticism. Geopolitics and European Union were words that were not part of the same political lexicon. However, the idea arose in the context of a world in great flux, which posed new problems for Europe.
The United States under Donald Trump has moved away from traditional post-WWII multilateralism and has questioned the value of the Atlantic Alliance (NATO). China, which the Europeans for a long time saw almost exclusively from an economic point of view as a large new market or as an investor with high levels of liquidity, was perceived as a “systemic rival”. As for Russia, which places geography as part of and in continuity with Europe, the tumultuous relationship remained.
3. In order not to be just a catchphrase, the idea of a “geopolitical commission” needed an effective and credible implementation. But this is where the biggest problem for Ursula von der Leyen and the European Union begins. Europe remains trapped in the ghosts of the last half century and embroiled in its own contradictions that do not allow it to become a coherent, strong and credible geopolitical actor.
A fundamental obstacle is the conflict between principles and values on the one hand and interests and power on the other. The problem certainly does not only affect the European Union, but it naturally reaches a very high degree of intensity. More than any other sovereign nation state in the world, the European Union wanted to orient its behavior towards principles and values - the rule of law, human rights, pluralistic democracy and the protection of minorities are anchored in its “constitutional” texts ”.
But it is one thing to act in a world where these principles are widely accepted and another to act in a world that largely ignores them. Since it is easy to understand, it is practically impossible to be a major player in world geopolitics without resorting to power politics and the logic of interests in a world where the greatest problems follow this logic and via its transformative social skills Go beyond geopolitics. international reality.
4. In addition, the European experience of several decades of integration shows that there is seldom an internal cohesion that supports an assertive foreign policy on the most important questions of world geopolitics. For this reason, the conflict of principles and values with the logic of interests and power is not the only fundamental obstacle to creating a Europe as a strong and credible geopolitical actor.
Great powers like Russia and China – sometimes also the USA, which was very obvious with Donald Trump, as it had already happened with George W. Bush at the time of the Iraq war – feed the lack of European cohesion. They naturally take advantage of this weakness when their national interests are at stake. It should be noted, however, that not only the great powers slightly outperform the European Union for geopolitical reasons.
Medium-sized powers like Turkey have also managed to exploit the contradictions and the lack of internal cohesion in Europe and to replace it, although in theory they are far below the power of the European group. In fact, the European Union has a considerable influence in the geopolitical areas in which it only has a direct interest in the Balkans – and there only after interventions by NATO / USA in the 1990s.
In the Eastern European buffer zone from Moldova to Belarus to Ukraine, Russia is the geopolitically dominant state, as the annexation of Crimea shows. In the Eastern Mediterranean, another geopolitical area of direct interest to the European Union, Turkey largely ignores this in the conflicts against Greece and Cyprus.
5. With the contradictions and weaknesses highlighted, the expectations of a more assertive Europe in world geopolitics could (very) hardly be realized. A reality check – Josep Borrel’s catastrophic visit to Russia in early February 2021 – showed the illusion created by Ursula von der Leyen rather roughly. It is important to remember that Josep Borrel is Vice President of the European Commission and coordinates the Union’s external action and is therefore a central element in the idea of a “geopolitical commission”.
What has happened, however, is that Russian diplomacy has taught the European Union a lesson through its Foreign Minister. Not only did he ignore his criticism of the arrest of Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, but also expelled three European diplomats – one German, one Swedish and one Polish – during a joint press conference. Once again, European contradictions and weaknesses were too exposed.
It is one thing to condemn, for example, the military junta that seized power in Burma, Myanmar, and arrested Aung Suu Kyi, and the persecution and human rights abuses that the Rohingya have suffered. It is a distant geopolitical area where no one in Europe has great economic interests and Burma has no capacity for retaliation. Therefore, it is easy to conduct foreign policy according to principles and values. Another thing is to impose economic sanctions on Russia for human rights abuses and others, such as canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that connects Russia with Germany. In the latter case, Angela Merkel and Germany have shown too clearly that there are “two weights and two measures” which in practice again discredit the European Union.
Europe proclaims high moral values, but it almost always gives in when the interests of major powers like Russia or China are at stake, or even medium-sized powers that can reciprocate like Turkey – only threaten to open the door to migrants / refugees. This is the worst result for the Europeans. Nor do we have a Europe that is really coherent with its internal values in foreign policy, which its rivals and enemies use to the point of exhaustion to discredit it. Nor do we have a Europe that is geopolitically strong and credible on important global issues, even at the expense of abandoning the pretext of a foreign policy that is compatible with internal values. What we have is a Europe that is lost in the geopolitical world and that is neither good for one nor for the other.