Global challenges have left only one option off the table for the European Union—inertia.
Huge developments are shaking world politics. Global challenges—climate change, Covid-19, the war in Ukraine—increasingly demand collective European responses. For pro-Europeans, left-wingers and liberals they demand clear thinking on the options for Europe’s ‘geopolitical’ future.
Across the European Union, the forces of fragmentation no longer have the wind in their sails as they did after the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the United Kingdom and the 2016 election victory by Donald Trump in the United States. Then, many populists confidently forecast the demise of the EU. Today, leading nationalist politicians and their intellectual outriders have trimmed their ambitions, claiming they want to reform the union rather than demolish it.
The populists remain a potent force across Europe—from Italy to Sweden. Yet revived Russian militarism on their doorstep has made some east-European national populists—if not the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán—more cautious. For the moment, populist insurgency has been held at bay.
These profound challenges have closed off one option for the EU—inertia. The last three years have seen EU leaders as well as national politicians overcome structural paralysis, as global events have driven them to take more common action.
Pandemic as impetus
When she was appointed president of the European Commission in 2019, Ursula von der Leyen set the ambition for the EU to become more of a ‘geopolitical’ player. The new commission set about addressing climate change as its priority with a communication on the European Green Deal. Responding to the evolving scientific and policy agenda—rather than vague talk of a ‘green revolution’ or selective hype on specific technologies—it set out route maps on how to make the transition to ‘net zero’.
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The pandemic provided the impetus to launch the programme. It jolted EU politicians across the political spectrum. The leaders of Europe’s four biggest countries—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—representing a diverse range of political forces, led the way in calling for major green-recovery programmes to respond to the economic damage caused.
In a further communication, ‘Europe’s moment: Repair and Prepare for the Next Generation’, the commission proposed an unprecedented €750 billion programme, NextGenerationEU, to finance additional expenditure by issuing common debt from funds raised on financial markets. This shattered the fiscal straitjacket neoliberals and German ordoliberals had previously insisted was sacrosanct. The EU would for the first time acquire a fiscal capacity.
Initially, the EU response to the pandemic as such was slow and unco-ordinated. But it did agree to adopt a common vaccine-purchasing programme and after a hesitant start was able to ensure that all member states received a steady flow of vaccines during 2021, while also agreeing to send a significant—though still inadequate—quantity to Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
Old spectre revived
The massive Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, in clear breach of international law, revived an old spectre—a major European land war—which the very existence of the EU was meant to have vanquished. It has led the union to act in a co-ordinated fashion on a hitherto unknown scale.
It implemented an extensive range of economic, commercial and financial sanctions against Russian state institutions, banks and businesses. It introduced measures to reduce reliance on Russian oil and gas—via common-purchasing arrangements and extending the interconnectedness of European electricity and renewables markets—as well as energy demand. In co-ordination with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, member states immediately agreed to supply substantial military and defence equipment to Ukraine, supplemented by resort to common EU funds.
Whereas in 2015 only Germany and Sweden responded with an open-door policy to the Syrian refugee influx, this time all 27 member states have so acted. The Temporary Protection Directive gave immediate rights to Ukrainians to live and work in the EU for up to three years and to gain access to entitlements such as housing and medical care. The policy was a real, practical example of how the union could react quickly and collectively to a massive humanitarian crisis.
It also gave a positive response to Ukraine’s request for accession to the bloc. This is always a long process but the political reaction indicated that the EU clearly envisages post-war Ukraine within its embrace.
Of course, tensions and hesitations remain. EU structures do not make for easy decision-making, while the absence of a set of powerful and charismatic political leaders makes the task more difficult. But, contrary to the assertions of its familiar critics, the union has shown significant capacity and resilience during the crisis up to now.
Sometimes, the basic political story is simple and clear. Global challenges are increasingly demanding collective European responses. In the 21st century, the fragmentation of Europe would be a gift to big powers across the globe—that’s why Vladimir Putin’s Russia supported Brexit.
For Europe to survive and prosper it needs the capacity to organise and protect its own interests much more effectively than it has done until now. Otherwise, it will be a chessboard on which other powers play.
The big unanswered question is: what kind of geopolitical actor does Europe aspire to be? Until recently, the union only appeared a significant world player on trade. It is beginning to show it can be a wider global actor with its Green Deal, its response to Covid-19 and on Ukraine. Its unity and resilience have surprised Eurosceptics and populists. Yet the precise shape and direction of this evolving European capacity remains uncertain.
Astonishingly, political leaders across the continent have so far been unable to offer, let alone agree, a clear vision of the type of Europe needed to address the challenges we face. This surely has to change.
Among senior European politicians only the French president, Emmanuel Macron, has offered a European vision, calling for the continent to have greater autonomy in economic and military affairs. His view of a ‘sovereignist’ Europe, with its Gaullist overtones, was gently rebuffed by Germany under Angela Merkel’s leadership.
With the long-term shift in the US focus towards Asia—Ukraine notwithstanding—Europe will however no longer be able to rely on the US military umbrella. The commitment of the current German government of Olaf Scholz to an enormous increase in defence spending shows how quickly post-invasion politics is moving.
The raison d’être of the EU is peace, reconciliation and the rule of law. It is conceivable that a combination of the rise of authoritarian nationalism globally, the competition among power blocs for rare raw materials and political forces seeking to exclude migrants could push the union in an authoritarian, ‘Europe first’ direction. However, the emergence of a centrist, liberal project promoting a more confident, assertive Europe on the global stage is more probable. Whether this will be a progressive project will depend on the extent to which it stands by the EU’s principles of the social-market economy and the rule of law and avoids the neoliberal errors of the past three decades.
This debate can be shaped by progressives by taking the core principles of the 1975 Helsinki Declaration and applying them to contemporary Europe. All the various segments of progressive opinion will need to revise and renew their strategic thinking.
Most importantly, to repair its lost links with the working class and low-income households, much of mainstream social democracy will have to shed its attachments to the neoliberal, ‘third way’ model of globalisation. Other parts of the left, such as La France Insoumise, have to recognise that economies have slipped the leash of the small and medium-sized nation-states Europe comprises. There are no nationalist boltholes in the interconnected 21st-century world.
The ‘new Labour’ infatuation with globalisation provoked a backlash in parts of the left which understandably wanted to reaffirm the significance of place and neighbourhood. Yet today’s multi-ethnic Europe makes it indispensable to resist nativists within the left, such as the Danish Social Democrats, who draw on an idealised ‘communitarianism’ to promote an exclusionary notion of identity, with harsh immigration and refugee policies. Progressive social solidarity accepts difference and recognises that in today’s Europe a solidaristic state can no longer be based on an ethnically homogenous ‘nation’ but has to be rooted in a secular understanding of citizenship.
The Ukraine war has reminded social democrats, liberals and greens of the limits of pacifism. Progressives were not pacifist in the face of Nazi aggression and they cannot be now, confronted with Putin. Yet wholehearted support for the defence of Ukraine cannot be taken as an endorsement for any repeat of NATO military adventures out of Europe. Dialogue and multilateralism will remain central to European engagement with its neighbours.
The debate on the geopolitical future of Europe is just beginning. Progressives urgently need a common framework to push it in a democratic direction.
Senior progressive politicians must offer a resolute defence of the democratic values and adherence to the rule of law set out in the EU’s founding documents. Failure to enforce these requirements in Hungary and Poland has severely undermined the EU’s credibility. Europe’s democracy needs strengthening by streamlining decision-making, moving from the requirement for unanimity to qualified-majority voting and giving the European Parliament the right to table legislation, currently the preserve of the commission.
The progressive narrative must promote an EU that ditches austerity and addresses the economic and social shortcomings which have kept living standards low for two decades. This requires fundamental reform of the Stability and Growth Pact and a willingness to borrow for the green investments crucial to a net-zero future.
Externally, promoting a defence and foreign policy that gives Europe the capacity to defend itself will become more urgent if Trump or a similar politician becomes US president in 2024. A coherent approach across the continent to managing migration flows as well as a mechanism to respond to refugees in the spirit that the EU has displayed on Ukraine is also essential.
Dealing with Russia
The biggest and most difficult issue Europe will face at the end of the Ukraine conflict will be how to deal with Russia. This vast country sharing the European land mass and with a large population is not going to disappear. Indefinite ‘containment’, cold-war style, would mean the continuation of a sullen, morose Russia endlessly dependent on the exploitation of its oil and gas reserves. This would imperil targeted global greenhouse-gas emissions which require turning the Russian economy on to a low-carbon axis.
A postwar settlement will require Europe to use its diplomatic skills to cajole Russia in a new direction. For Europe to have a huge resentful neighbour on its doorstep would be a recipe for continued instability. Complicated as this will be, the Europe of the future is going to need to deal with Russia with an open hand—not a closed fist.
The continent’s future is up for grabs. Millions now recognise that as well as their individual identities, the multiple states of Europe need to come together, develop a clear narrative and support a common European capacity to deliver it. Progressive parties, social movements and leaders need to show they can match the task. Who is up to the challenge?
Jon Bloomfield is a writer, European policy specialist, environmental practitioner and author of Our City: Migrants and the Making of Modern Birmingham. He is an honorary research fellow at the University of Birmingham.