A few days ago in London, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, made a speech at Chatham House, the UK’s most influential foreign policy think tank.
Most of Mogherni’s speech followed the line to be expected on such occasions: the UK’s contribution to the EU’s foreign policy; security threats affecting the EU’s neighbourhood(s), with emphasis on Ukraine, Syria, Libya and the Middle East Peace Process; praising a unity of efforts of the 28 member-states for the EU foreign policy to work, while making clear that a European foreign policy does not require its members to relinquish their national foreign policies…the kind of words we expect from someone in her position, nothing extraordinary, but nothing to be seriously upset about.
I’d like to focus on the last section of Mogherini’s speech, namely these three sentences: « Sometimes I say that European Union is a superpower and someone doubts, but we are a super power if we combine our tools. Most of all, we need to realise unity is our greatest strength. We have to combine our assets and our international expertise, as we all head for the same goal.«
While it’s perfectly understandable that the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will make such a statement, I think her words need to be challenged for the sake of adding something useful to the debate. It should be pointed out that there are several other voices which call the EU a superpower or which plead with the Union to become one. It’s my view that the HR was emphasizing what the EU does well on a global scale and as she was speaking in the least enthusiastic of member states, a certain wishful thinking was necessary to make the case more attractive.
When the HR says the EU is a superpower when its tools are combined (assuming Mogherini is referring to the political, economic, cultural and military assets of the 28 member states), she is taking a strictly quantitative view of the EU as a foreign policy actor. Granted, if we look at the GDP of the 28 member states, the two permanent UN Security Council seats of the UK and France, their respective nuclear arsenals and military means, the political influence of the 28 member states in their respective interest spheres, the weight of their cultural exports and so forth, one could feel tempted to apply the status of superpower to the European Union.
However, when stepping outside the framework of the HR’s speech, we come across the stark reality that not only is the EU not a superpower, it is not undertaking efforts to reach this status either. The most simple definition of a superpower postulates that in order to be called as such, a country, or let’s say an entity (just to do the EU a favour), needs to have the capacity to project all axes of its power at a global level – and by axes of power, this means political, economic, cultural and military power. In other words, it’s roughly what the United States and the USSR could for most of the second half of the 20th century.
Let’s use as a reference an audit published in 2014 by European Geostrategy whose authors assess 15 major powers under four categories and several sub-categories. While by no means dogmatic, this audit provides several relevant points when assessing major powers, specifically that numerical superiority in several fields does not equate being more « powerful » than the other. Let’s focus on how the EU members perform. Unsurprisingly, the UK and France come out on top, followed by Germany. Britain lands in the « global power » rank, whereas France and Germany are considered « regional powers ». Italy and Spain are to be found further down as « local powers ».
While the sum of the top EU countries in this audit may be impressive per se, this still does not imply that adding 28 member states (let alone three) will result in a European superpower. It is long known that European political integration (and its child, defence integration) has not grown in the same way as economic integration. Within the EU, we may have harmonised food safety standards, we may have developed one of the world’s best consumer policies, but we still have not managed to convince the member states to further blend their foreign policies and political structures with the EU’s. Naturally, the EU is not a state in the classical sense of the term – perhaps it would be too rushed to jump at statements that the EU is a superpower when the Union does not attempt to become a state in the classical conception of the term, hence the opinions that the EU is a « normative power » which rather than projecting its power using the same ways as sovereign states, it projects the power derived from the fields on which its member states have delegated their sovereignty to in order to make the world more akin to our own space.
Following the line that a simple mathematical sum of resources does not make a superpower, the two permanent Security Council seats of the UK and France, their (close to) 500 nuclear-armed devices and their five aircraft carriers (along with two from Italy and one from Spain) still do not make the EU a superpower, neither do the €14.3 trillion which form its GDP, added from the GDPs of its 28 members. It’s not necessary to pursue a very long and detailed analysis, if numerical superiority was everything, then virtually any country could have simply used their economic or military superiority over their opponents to overcome them, and History is full of cases where this did not happen (Vietnam and Afghanistan come to mind). So far, the EU’s sum of resources, while impressive on paper, still has not persuaded its neighbours to stride towards a model of liberal democracy with a regulated market economy that follows EU standards, despite all the observations of quality of life in EU countries in fields like education and healthcare.
But beyond the problem of numerical superiority, there’s a matter that is very specific to the European Union and which ultimately, is the main reason why it is not a superpower: it was not designed to be a superpower in the first place. Nowhere in its legal body and architecture can we find the means necessary for the European Union to become a superpower, at least if we are applying its classical notion. While the EU is a very successful example of integration and of spillover effect of common policies, its decision-making process and institutional architecture could only allow it to become a superpower if all traces of diverging views were eliminated from its 28 member states. Now, given that the Treaty (as well as the EU body of laws) must be approved by its 28 member states, it is virtually impossible to imagine that a future EU treaty will include an article stating something like « The Union shall have a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council along with veto right« , or « The Union will share with the Member States the competence to use and deploy their conventional and non-conventional military forces » or even « The Union shall have the exclusive competence to develop and manage a policy of higher education, research and development« , if we want to go with a soft power approach aimed at attracting talented people from outside (something the United States and some individual member states excel at, by the way).
« The EU itself […] is founded on the rejection of power as a mode of regulating relations among states. The entire process of European integration is about managing common challenges and disagreements through common rules, negotiation, and compromise – in other words, it is about rejecting the power politics that led to the disastrous history of the 19th and early 20th centuries.«
Every major step the EU has taken was the result of an enormous effort in negotiating, compromising, overcoming setbacks and failures and ultimately convincing its members that what they are giving away is guaranteed to benefit them. While we’ve seen tremendous advances, it is still extremely unlikely that the Union’s institutional and legal architecture will evolve in the near future towards something that will allow it to project all axes of its power to all corners of the globe. Those who defend the normative power approach may say that the EU can be considered as the equivalent of a superpower but unfortunately, not all examples are positive and there are several countries around the world which prefer to embrace the approach of China, with its complete disregard of democracy and Human Rights, as it ensures less interference in their internal politics (or in other words, the EU model is not very appealing to autocrats who intend to remain in power at all costs). We’ll see if TTIP and the FTA with Japan will prioritise the EU’s concerns over the United States’ and Japan’s.
It is possible that the HR was not referring to the EU as a superpower applying the same rules that were used to call the United States and the USSR superpowers in their days. But the reference to this concept, adding that it requires its members to come together and channel their assets, might be too much wishful thinking to appeal to a public in a country that has expressed serious doubts about its future as a member state. Yes, the EU could behave more like a superpower if all its members acted in a 100% productive way towards this goal…but unfortunately for those who think that many issues can be better handled by the EU rather than by national governments, this is far from happening. So all in all, dear High Representative, the intention was good but the choice of words could have been better.
The only way I can see the EU becoming a superpower anytime soon is in a bleak scenario, one where rising threats not only from its neighbours but also from its own members, in complete disregard for the Union’s policies, cause such a grave sense of urgency that in a unique conjugation of events, the European Commission is given emergency powers in order to quell this situation that threatens to break the EU apart. Perhaps followed by a backstage palace coup, which renders the Council useless, the Commission will start absorbing more and more competences from the member states and form a grand army of the Union, after which there will be an attempt to restrain the power of the Commission president who will gather the necessary support to reorganize the EU into an Empire and bring all its constituent members under its control…THEN, we’ll be having a superpower. But unless the next treaty is drafted by George Lucas, this is not very likely.
Edit: Slight correction on the first paragraph. Thank you to Captain Europe for pointing out the correct use of the word « notorious ».