From European impotence to Europe puissance

Essay selected for the topic cluster “The international chessboard. Checkmate to Europe?” at the conference “Europe in crisis: re-inventing the continent” organized at the College of Europe (Bruges, Belgium) on the 5 October 2013.

While Europeans have quickly understood during the past few years how the “crisis” impacts their day-to-day lives – fearing unemployment, struggling to make both ends meet –, the concept of “decline” seems to retain the attention of a narrower group of people, essentially consisting of conservative scholars and columnists. For the others, not only it goes relatively unnoticed but it is even often accepted with resignation or relief as the natural consequence of Europe’s shrinking weight in the world, be it in demographic or economic terms.

“Our Golden Age is over”, many of us think, and after all it may be fair for other countries now to take into their hands the fate of the world. In this new order, Europe would simply retire and live her own life in a peaceful manner, protected from the tragedies of war and poverty thanks to her “unique” model which has allegedly succeeded in keeping them at bay for over half a century. To some extent, the European Union (EU) has already entered this “post-modern” era described by Cooper (2002). The problem is that the rest of the world hasn’t followed her, and that the EU cannot stand as an island isolated from it.

The process of globalization has gone much deeper than political authorities – predominantly national – have desired or even imagined. Along with it have come up global issues such as climate change, sustainable development or affordable access to food and energy which are relevant to every single nation but have been so far hardly regulated for want of adequate structures. What is worse, since the turn of the century, the rise of emerging powers and the advent of a “nonpolar” world (Haass, 2008) have also paralysed the few international organizations which had been until then relatively functional, e.g. the World Trade Organization. Examples of the successive COP on climate change or the UN Security Council’s inability to react to the Syrian civil war – in contradiction with its “responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security” (UN Charter art. 24, para. 1) – have made the failure of multilateral approaches to protect global public goods all the more blatant.

This shift affects the EU in a particular way because among all the “big” players, the European Union is certainly the most committed to a multipolar international order based on rules and organizations. In a sense, such a model would not be very different from the EU’s own internal mechanism, recalling Jean Monnet’s prediction that “the Community itself [was] only one step away from the forms of organization of tomorrow’s world” (Monnet, 1976, p. 617).

However, when defending her interests, the EU very often confuses means and ends and behaves as if this multipolar order were already in place while in reality, it remains to be built. This is one of the reasons why the effectiveness of her foreign policy is not proportionate to her status and weight in the world. Even when she is ready to resort to policy instruments from the “modern” “action repertoire” (Tilly, 1984) to achieve her goals – for instance by extending the ETS to all airlines flying from or to her territory, including third-country based companies –, other powers easily disarm the EU with the use of threat as they know she will not put up resistance. In comparison, the United States have much less scruples in enforcing extraterritorial sanctions through e.g. the well-known d’Amato-Kennedy and Helms–Burton Acts.

If the EU wants to be heard on the world stage, it does not suffice, like some federalist wishful thinkers pretend, that she speaks with one voice. She must also be able to speak a language that the rest of the globe can understand, and this language cannot rule out the vocabulary of might. This is not to say that the EU should give up on her ambition to model the world on her system, but as long as the international order will remain predominantly “modern”, she must play by its rules to be strong enough and have a chance to overhaul them.

Such a change would require more of a fresh mindset than of a single policy proposal since it would apply to every field, from climate to defence to trade – for the latter, the EU is on the right path with a recent Commission proposal to reinforce anti-dumping and anti-subsidy instruments (European Union, 2013a). Yet, because the success of Europe puissance would greatly depends on her credibility in the eyes of others, she must demonstrate that she masters the full range of the modern action repertoire by putting emphasis on the most symbolic realm of power: security and defence.

It is therefore proposed to establish a new political agreement, in the first step outside the framework of EU treaties thus without ECJ oversight, that would set two targets for defence policy. First, each state party to the agreement shall commit itself to respect a minimum threshold for defence expenditure relative to GDP, similarly to NATO recommandations. Considering current levels (European Union, 2013b), a 1.3% objective would already oblige 13 out of 28 potential members to increase their military budget. A second target would require members to earmark a share of this budget – at least a quarter in order to be meaningful – for spendings of EU “common interest” in the form of joined R&D programmes, operations or other initiatives which contribute to meet the challenges defined in a revised European Security Strategy and acknowledged as such by peer countries.

The combination of these two targets is first of all to ensure that every country benefiting from the public good of security in Europe feels more responsible for its maintainance and participates accordingly in its costs. It is also to show to the rest of the world that the EU does not intend to fall into military irrelevance. Moreover, since a single EU defence policy that would entirely substitute its national counterparts is irrealistic in the short or medium term, the proposed double target is to foster from the bottom up harmonization not only of hardware but also of defence planning, as a country that “over-invests” e.g. in territorial defence may not meet the “common interest” criterion for insufficient contribution to projection capabilities or cyber-defence. This is to lay the ground for further integration in the field of security and defence, from a material as well as from a strategic point of view.

While it is expected that some Member States will not be very keen on increasing their military budget or accepting peer review in this domain, other countries which consider as unfair the current burden sharing may seize the occasion of the next EU treaty reform to make the existing mutual assistance clause (TEU art. 42 para. 7) conditional upon meeting the forementioned double target. Thus, free riding will no longer be an option, nor disinterest for world affairs. The EU cannot indeed afford to give up on global responsibility without endangering her own independence and prosperity. In this context, Europe puissance is not tantamount to nostalgia for a glorious past, it is a guarantee for the future.


- Cooper, R. (2002). The Post-Modern State and the World Order. Demos.
- European Union. (2012, October 26). Consolidated version of the Treaty on European Union. Official Journal C 326.
- European Union, European Commission. (2013, April 10). Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Councilamending Council Regulation (EC) No 1225/2009 on protection against dumped imports from countries not members of the European Community and Council Regulation (EC) No 597/2009 on protection against subsidised imports from countries not members of the European Community. COM(2013) 192 final. Brussels.
- European Union, European Defence Agency. (2013). National Defence Data 2011. EDA participating Member States. Brussels.
- Haass, R. N. (2008). The age of nonpolarity: what will follow U.S. dominance. Foreign Affairs, 87(3).
- Monnet, J. (1976). Mémoires. Paris: Fayard.
- Tilly C. (1984). Les origines du répertoire d’action collective contemporaine en France et en Grande-Bretagne. Vingtième Siècle. Revue d’histoire, 4(4), 89-108.
- United Nations. (1945, October 24). Charter of the United Nations. 1 UNTS XVI. Retrieved from