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European Union Geography

A Geopolitical Union: Bound and Divided by Geography
Pre-Master Human Geography
Academic Skills II 2021
Arjan van Tongerlo (s1065697)
The EU Global Strategy in June 2016 reintroduced the concept of European strategic autonomy (ESA)
to European foreign and security policy. ESA aims to position the EU as a strong independent actor to
adequately deal with the geopolitical competition of the 21st century. In the current multipolar world
order the EU and its member states can no longer neglect their security and require an appropriate
collective strategy in order to protect their interests. To achieve this, however, one has to consider the
geographical and geopolitical challenges that the EU faces.
This paper assesses the effect of the EU’s geopolitical environment on its strategic autonomy
ambitions, namely: How does the EU’s geopolitical environment affect its ambitions of becoming
strategically autonomous in foreign and security policy? An empirical analysis will be conducted
based upon EU foreign and security policy documents to assess the EU’s ambitions and geopolitical
environment. Additionally, this essay uses theories of liberalism and realism to further analyze the
political dynamics affecting EU foreign and security policy. The use of such theories in combination
with the empirical analysis of EU policy can establish an understanding pertaining to the geopolitical
confinement of the EU in their strategic autonomy ambitions. While the EU requires a unified strategy
in order to achieve strategic autonomy, this essay suggests that the EU will have to overcome
institutional roadblocks imposed by different threat perspectives and priorities due to different
geographical positionings in order to achieve a cohesive strategically autonomous Union.
Keywords: Strategic autonomy, geopolitics, European Union, foreign policy, security policy
In June 2016 the European Union’s High Representative Federica Mogherini delivered the EU Global
Strategy (EUGS) 2016. A long overdue revision of its predecessor, the 2003 European Security Strategy,
the document focused on the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy, pleading for a stronger and more united
Europe regarding military cooperation and foreign policy in order to deal with the changing international
environment (EUGS, 2016).
In the current international order, the EU has to deal with a variety of challenges in order to maintain its
security and stability. Over the past number of decades, what scholars have called a ‘ring of instability’
has formed around the territory of EU states (Robinson, 2020; Iklody, 2016). From the East beginning
with Russian, gradually going south towards Northern-Africa an ‘arc’ or ‘ring’ of uncertainty and
instability is surrounding the EU. In addition, the previous United States (US) administration under
president Trump laid bare how fragile the transatlantic alliance can be further stimulating the narrative
that the EU needs to be able to provide in its own foreign and security policy. Combined with the fall of
the liberal international order and the rise of new global powers such as China and to a lesser extend
Russia, Europe can no longer depend on the US for its security and defense (Torreblanca, 2019).
In its current position, no European state is able to establish a power position in the changing political
environment (Messenger, 2017). A collective European security and defense policy, in which Europe is
able to act autonomously, is required in order to ensure the security and power position of the European
states. However, in achieving such a collective position the EU is a ‘prisoner of geography’. The diverse
nature of the 27 EU states due to differing geopolitical ambitions and risk assessment in combination
with the intergovernmental nature of EU foreign and security policy complicates the EU’s potential in
achieving its ambitions laid out in the EUGS.
Therefore, the following paper seeks to assess the effect of the EU’s geopolitical environment on its
strategic autonomy ambitions. Thus, the research question for the following analysis is: How does the
EU’s geopolitical environment affect its ambitions of becoming strategically autonomous in foreign and
security policy?
The scientific relevance of this research paper lies in the increased understanding of the complicated
geopolitical environment the EU and its member states have to deal with in relation to their strategic
autonomy ambitions. Much of the academic work on the EU’s strategic autonomy since the publication
of the EUGS has focused on either internal aspects like the potential military capabilities and political
will of the EU, such as Fiott’s work on European capability development, or on the external aspects
such as the potential of the EU to autonomously maintain stability in its neighborhood, with Makarychev
& Devyatkov work on EU’s eastern neighborhood being a prime example (Fiott, 2018; Makarychev &
Devyatkov, 2014). Therefore, it can be said that most debates so far have focused either on internal or
external aspects of strategic autonomy from a political science perspective. This paper aims to look at
the dynamics between the internal and external from a geographical perspective in order to establish a
framework of how this geographical dynamic affects the EU’s strategic autonomy ambitions.
The societal relevance of this research paper lies in the added value to the EU’s current attempts to
increase its strategic autonomy. While in this sense, the direct implementation primarily relates to EU
policy makers and politicians, the long-term effects will affect EU citizens as well. This paper aims to
establish a framework in which the possibilities to establish a strategically autonomous Union set clearly
defined lines for potential obstacles in providing a collective foreign and security strategy. Currently,
the EU is aiming to establish a so-called Strategic Compass which is aimed at establishing a collective
framework for member states to work within (European External Action Service, 2021). This paper
should therefore be seen as a potential addition to establishing a collective EU framework by providing
a realistic geopolitical analysis of the EU’s and member states’ ambitions.
In order to provide an answer to the research question, an empirical analysis will be provided.
Considering the qualitative nature of this research, the empirical analysis will be used in order to ‘’find
meanings, opinions, or the underlying reasons from its subjects’’ (Bouchrika, 2021). Specifically, this
research will use textual analysis involving the process of describing, interpreting and understanding
textual content. As defined by Fairclough, its aim is to connect broader cultural, political or social
context (Fairclough, 2003). For this research, a textual analysis of key policy documents pertaining to
European strategic autonomy will be conducted. First, the EU Global Strategy 2016 will be analyzed in
order to acquire a better understanding of the EU’s aims and ambitions. Second, the Implementation
Plan on Security and Defence, the follow up document of the EUGS will be looked at. The analysis of
these documents will be supplemented be a further review of the EU’s geopolitical environment. In
order to do so, key literature on the EU’s neighborhood and EU states’ foreign and security policy
documents will be analyzed. This analysis will be further supplemented by the use of the theories of
liberalism and realism. These political theories will be supplemental to the research in order to provide
a scientific explanation of the political dynamics at play.
Theoretical Framework
In order to comprehend the full scope of the issues at hand it is important to first look at relevant theories.
Through the theoretical framework, a number of theories regarding European strategic autonomy and
its topics will be explained.
The concept of realism is viewed as one of the core theories within political science. It has, however,
been used in a variety of ways and a variety of concepts within academic literature. In its most basic
form, realism can be defined as a theory which assumes that the international environment is anarchic,
meaning there is no international authority to enforce universal law and agreements or prevent the use
of force by nations (Doyle, 1997). Due to the uncertainty in states’ behavior and the inability of the
international system to control states’ behavior, realists believe that states try to become as powerful as
they can to ensure their own security and survival (Waltz, 1959). Inherently, this definition of realism
shows its geographical nature. A realist consider the power of state in relation to other states and with it
in relation to its geographical situation (Carmichael, 2013).
While governments and international institutions themselves do not use terms such as realism in the
formulation of their policy, the use of realist thought is often noticeable. For the purpose of this paper,
realism will be used in order to explain the behavior of (European) states in the post-World War II era
as well as in the modern day. It is often argued that it was the weakness of post-war European states that
forced these states to cooperate in the face of potential Soviet threat. As Waltz would argue, when there
is a lack of internal balancing capabilities in order to protect oneself against others, one needs to balance
externally in the form of alliances (Waltz, 1979). Based on this reasoning, it is realist thought that led to
the creation of the liberal EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The
pressure of external forces in the form of the Soviet Union determined internal politics.
While often seen as the counterpart of realism, liberalism can also be viewed as re-examining realism.
Similar to realism, liberalists agree that there is a natural state of anarchy in the international
environment in which the state has to protect its sovereignty and national interest. Unlike realism,
however, liberalism argues that democracy and international cooperation in areas such as trade are the
answer for the prevention of conflict (Morgan, 2013). In this paper, liberalism will be used in order to
explain the post-World War II developments within Europe and how liberalist strategies were employed
for the protection of European states. While liberalism does not inherently perceive geography as a core
factor for security in the same way as realism, this paper will argue that the EU has geopoliticized
liberalism in such a way that its underlying assumption are geographical.
Liberalist ideas and expansion in post-war Europe can broadly be characterized in two distinct ways.
The first of these is the liberalization process that began in the immediate after of the second World
War, which can be seen as an internal liberal strategy. As liberalists will argue, the development of
strong economic ties between states will significantly decrease the chances of interstate conflict due to
interdependencies (McGlinchey, 2017). Within Europe, this led to the creation of economic liberal
institutions such as the EU. The second liberalization process has occurred in the post-Cold War era.
While through its expansionist behavior the internal liberal strategy continued through the inclusion of
post-Soviet states in the EU, an external liberalization policy took place in order to deal with the
European periphery. Through concepts such as the European Neighborhood Policy, the EU attempted
to use liberalization as a controlling mechanism in order to keep its neighboring states ‘in check’. The
provision of economic incentives was meant to promote liberal-democratic ideals in Europe’s periphery
and with it lead to further European stabilization.
Liberal Intergovernmentalism
The final relevant theory for this paper is liberal intergovernmentalism. One could argue that liberal
intergovernmentalism lies at the crossroads between realism and liberalism, in that it uses liberal
institutions through a realist lens. Liberal intergovernmentalism is founded on two basic assumption
about international politics. First, there is an internal competition within states between different interest
groups in order to formulate domestic preferences. Second, states will push this domestic agenda within
international institutions such as the EU while bargaining common European interests (Moravcsik &
Schimmelfennig, 2018). Due to certain states having a better bargaining position, in the case of Europe
the more powerful states such as Germany and France, EU-level policy is often influenced by the
preferences of such states.
In relation of this paper, this theory will be used in order to exemplify how external factors effectively
impact internal EU-level politics. States try to use liberal organizations such as the EU to advance their
own national realist imperative which, as has been previously stated, is in part determined by the
uncertainty of potential insecurity of its own geographical environment. Therefore, the
acknowledgement of this process is essential in order to further develop a framework to explain the
internal constraints caused by the external environment.
The Strategic Autonomy Ambitions of the EU
‘’The purpose, even existence, of our Union is being questioned.’’ These are the opening words of the
EU Global Strategy by Federica Mogherini (EUGS, 2016). The crisis Europe is currently going through
regarding its international identity is at the foundation of the EUGS. Throughout this section, the
ambitions of the EU regarding its strategic autonomy will be looked at. In order to effectively analyze
European strategic autonomy (ESA), one needs to know the political environment within which it
operates. Therefore, this chapter will begin with a brief overview of the development of European
foreign and security policy after which the relevant policy documents pertaining to ESA will be
The Origins of EU Cooperation
The origins of modern European cooperation can be traced back to the post-World War II period. In the
aftermath of two world wars within a matter of decades, European states were weakened. The era of
European great powers had faded and many European states came under influence of either the US or
the Soviet Union. This in turn led to the bipolar international order between 1945 and 1991 (Messenger,
As an effect of the instability in the first half of the 20th century, which culminated in both world wars,
European states had lost their status as great powers. On the one hand, European states were in a state
of internal disarray due to their war-torn economies and societies. On the other hand, the effect of this
decreased power position subsequently resulted in decolonization, with European states no longer able
to control their foreign territories. European states were no longer the great powers themselves, but were
influenced by great powers. The ‘outside forces’ effectively resulted in European states having to adapt
their own national discourse in order to not simply function as a satellite state between the new great
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the United States (US) and Soviet Union began
to show a realist foreign policy with Europe being the main playing field. It can be said that both the US
and Soviets followed the logic of the Rimland theory, which argues that whoever controls the ‘Rimland’,
an area which stretches from West-Europe almost entirely around the Soviet Union to East-Asia, had
the power to control the world (Mishra, n.d.). Since neither super power could allow the other to be in
control, Europe became the prime chessboard for the geopolitical power struggle. While both powers
tried to ensure their own security through an arms race, both the United States and the Soviet Union also
implemented what Waltz would dub external balancing strategies through their European allies (Waltz,
1979) in order to prevent European states from switching sides.
Being in a weakened state, European states had little choice but to be influenced by either of the powers.
Whereas the east of Europe came under Soviet influence, the western part of the continent heavily relied
on the US for support. Following realist reasoning, the US knew that weakened West-European states
would be vulnerable to Soviet communist influences. Therefore, the US decided to revive WestEuropean economies through the Marshall Plan while simultaneously providing a collective security
force through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the case of a Soviet attack (Messenger,
2017). While these realist external balancing strategies were aimed at maintaining the US power position
through the prevention of Soviet influences, the US knew internal West-European change was also
required in order to provide stability. Besides external pressures from the Soviet Union, another potential
risk for European destabilization was falling in the old trap of interstate European conflict. With both
the US and European states themselves willing to prevent future intra-European conflict, the external
realist policies were supplemented with internal liberal strategies. Based on the liberal thought that
economic interdependencies prevent the potential of interstate conflict, West-European states under US
influence decided to move towards economic integration in order to not only strengthen the collective
position, but also prevent conflict amongst each other (Messenger, 2017). This aim was further
underlined by the form of cooperation that was established, the European Coal and Steel Community
(ECSC), a collective control over coal and steel, two vital war resources, chances of interstate conflict
significantly decreased (Carmichael, 2013).
Based upon the abovementioned, it can be stated that the European cooperation originated due to
external influences. There may be no greater way to exemplify this than the famous words of first NATO
Secretary-General Lord Ismay, who said NATO was created to ‘’keep the Soviet Union out, the
Americans in, and the Germans down’’ (NATO, n.d.). The foreign and to a certain extent domestic
policies of West-European states were influenced by American realist thinking and the geopolitical
reality of Cold War Europe. In this, collective foreign and security strategies were often left to NATO
with the European project primarily focusing on economic affairs (Messenger, 2017). It wasn’t until the
end of the Cold War that the EU moved into the foreign and security policy domain through the Common
Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) (European
Commission, 2019).
EU Global Strategy
The end of the Cold War marked the biggest geopolitical shift since the end of the second World War.
The fall of the Soviet Union opened the door for the US to become the sole superpower and with it a
liberal hegemonic order. This dynamic shift significantly affected the geopolitical reality of the EU.
Without a significant threat rivaling the US power position, the US no longer needed to invest as heavily
European security nor did it need to dictate European foreign policy (Mearsheimer, 2018). Therefore,
the European states gained a new level of independence in setting its own foreign and security policy
ambitions. Considering that NATO, primarily through American personnel and material, had been the
hard power during the Cold War, the EU had to rely on its soft power and normative instruments in this
new world order. Therefore, the EU’s methods to ensure the peace and security of its member states
centered around a geography-based liberal strategy. In the two decades following the Cold War the EU
expanded into Central- and East-Europe by integrating a multitude of former Soviet states into the
organization. Through a process of liberal-democratization in its eastern periphery the original WestEuropean EU states intended to stabilize their geographical environment (Messenger, 2017). A second
foreign and security policy strategy subsequently took place. This strategy, which has been criticized
for being a neo-colonial policy, took shape in the form of the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP)
(Hoh, 2012). The ENP has been an attempt to exert influence over states in Europe’s eastern and
southern periphery that are unable to integrate into the EU. To this end, the EU attempts to stimulate
states into a process of liberal-democratization in exchange for economic benefits.
In essence, post-Cold War Europe displayed a positivistic outlook onto the world in which the
fundament was based around the liberal idea that the promotion of liberal-democratic ideals would
prevent interstate conflict. This vision was further underlined in the 2003 European Security Strategy
(ESS), the predecessor of the EUGS. While acknowledging potential threats such as the EU borders
growing closer to conflict areas, the EU set out a clear preference for soft power tools through
multilateralism and the promotion of liberal values (CVCE, 2013).
By 2016, this positively outlook had changed. The claim by Fukuyama that simple democratic
promotion would not result in the hoped for liberalization came to be true (Fukuyama, 1995). For this
reason, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica
Mogherini was ordered to establish a new strategy paper, the EU Global Strategy. The document titled
Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe marked the beginning of a new era of EU foreign
and security policy. Through this document, the EU acknowledged that the persistence of ‘forever wars’
in the Middle-East, a significant increase in migration streams towards the EU, terrorists attacks in EU
states and the Russian annexation of the Crimea signaled an end to the prosperous liberal hegemony that
Europe had envisioned after the Cold War (EUGS, 2016). With this, the EU underlines that its external
environment has begun threatening the internal stability and security of the EU.
The EUGS, as opposed to its predecessor, poses a more realistic outlook of the world with the
acknowledgement of threats facing the Union, going as far as stating that the Union is under threat and
that the European project is being questioned (EUGS, 2016). While the document still supports the
promotion of liberal-democratic values throughout the world, it recognizes that the EU will have to deal
with a variety of threats in order to maintain its own peace and security. This new outlook gets underlined
by the introduction of the term ‘principled pragmatism’, meaning that the EU will view the world in the
way that it is, not in the way the EU wants it to be, while simultaneously upholding its norms and
universal law (Kaldor, 2017).
In order to ensure the aforementioned goals of promoting liberal-democratic values while maintaining
a realistic outlook of current-day geopolitical competition, the EUGS goes on to emphasize the
importance of unity and united action. Acknowledging the fact that no single EU member states has a
significant power position in the current geopolitical environment, the EUGS states the a collective
Union will be able to achieve more than uncoordinated unilateral actions by member states (EUGS,
2016). This sentiment gets further underlined through the statement that ‘’Only the combined weight of
a true union has the potential to deliver security, prosperity and democracy to its citizens and make a
positive difference in the world’’ (EUGS, 2016). Markedly, however, one also has to take note of the
statement there is no clash between national and European interests, a statement which will be further
examined in a later section of this paper.
Continuing on the need to act as a collective unit, the importance of EU engagement in the wider world
is marked as vital for European peace and security. Acknowledging the importance of actively engaging
in the global marketplace in order to obtain a power position within the current world order, the EU
knows that maintaining peace and security requires the use of its economic power. Through the creation
and maintenance of strong ties within areas such as global value chains, collective climate actions and
transnational crime the EU hopes to establish interdependence, meaning that the parties involved cannot
afford to act hostile without it threatening their own peace and security (EUGS, 2016). Based upon this
one can say that the EU still underpins the importance of liberal ideals such as economic
interdependence. Through the maintenance of economic ties, the EU hopes to prevent further
destabilization. On the other hand, this liberal principle simultaneously displays an underlying realist,
and therefore geopolitical, motive. The strengthening of economic ties should result in an increased
power position.
In addition to underpinning the importance of internal cohesion, the EUGS also established five
priorities for external action: the security of the union, state and societal resilience to the east and south,
an integrated approach to conflict, cooperative regional orders, and global governance for the 21 st
century (EUGS, 2016). What all these priorities have in common is that the EU seemingly has to
ambition to step up its involvement on the international theatre in security and defense. The EU realizes
that, while still acknowledging NATO as an important security actor, its member states can no longer
solely rely on NATO for the protection of Europe and its neighborhood. The EU and its member states
have to be able to respond to the security challenges of the 21 st century ranging from military threat,
terrorism, hybrid threats to climate change and energy security. Therefore, the EU requires to capacities
and capabilities to defend its own territory while also being able to exert influence outside of its territory
in order to ensure stability in its neighborhood and maintain peace throughout the world. In order to do
so, the EU and its member states have to step up in its foreign and security policy.
One of the core principles in achieving a safe and secure Union is through strategic autonomy. The
EUGS states that ‘’An appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy is important for Europe’s
ability to promote peace and security within and beyond its borders’’ (EUGS, 2016). The document goes
on to mention that ‘’Europeans, working with partners must have the necessary capabilities to defend
themselves and live up to their commitments to mutual assistance and solidarity enshrined in the
treaties’’ (EUGS, 2016). Based upon this, one can derive a general meaning of strategic autonomy as
the ability of Europe to set its own priorities and make its own decisions regarding its foreign policy and
security (Fiott, 2018). The EUGS does, however, lack a definition of European strategic autonomy
which leaves member states the opportunity to assign their own meaning to the concept.
Altogether, one can infer that the EUGS has a more realistic outlook on the security of Europe. Through
the EUGS, the EU has shown its ambition to create a stronger foreign and security policy. The external
environment has deteriorated to such an extent that it has begun to threaten the EU and its member
states. The liberal-democratic strategies of the post-Cold War era have not succeeded in their aim of
ensuring the peace and security of Europe and need therefore be replaced. Similar to the post-World
War II era, the European states are not in a proportionate power position to individually challenge the
threats. Unlike this period, however, the US has no strategic interest in being the sole protector of
Europe. Due to its historic reliance on NATO and its legacy of being a liberal soft power organization,
the EU now lacks the necessary capabilities to act as a more realist actor. The EU needs to present itself
as a strong unified actor in the current multipolar order and in the global market. Only through direct
involvement can the EU establish itself as a strong and leading geopolitical actor. Besides promotion of
liberal-democratic values and the flexing of the Union’s economic muscles this also means that the EU
has to be capable of protecting its own territory and intervening abroad in order to end conflicts and
maintain stability in its wider region. Under the banner of European strategic autonomy, the EU aims to
achieve these goals by becoming a Union that is capable of setting and acting upon its own strategic
ambitions without being influenced or needing help of outside actors. However, this does require the
EU to become a credible actor in foreign policy matters. Currently, the EU has a severe gap between its
strategic autonomy ambitions and its security and defense capabilities. The intergovernmental nature of
EU foreign and security policy accompanied by a negligence of military investments throughout much
of the 21st century has left the EU in a weakened state. Collective security and defense build-up in
accordance with collective strategic ambitions are required in order to ensure the security of both the
Union as a whole as well as the individual member states.
Implementation Plan on Security and Defence
As mentioned above, the EU currently lacks the security and defense capabilities necessary to be a
credible security block in the current geopolitical order. Therefore, as a follow-up to the EUGS
Mogherini put forward the Implementation Plan on Security and Defence (IPSD) in November 2016.
Building upon the ambitions laid out in the EUGS, the IPSD puts forth a renewed level of ambition for
EU security and defense policy (Council of the European Union, 2016). The new level of ambition is
based around three strategic priorities from the EUGS: responding to external conflicts and crises when
they arise, building the capacities of partners, and protecting the European Union and its citizens through
external action (European External Action Service, 2018). Notably, all three of those priorities are
focused on ensuring the internal peace and security of the EU through external action outside of EU
territory. Similar to the EUGS, the IPSD notes that the member states need to increase cooperation in
order to acquire the necessary defense capabilities while the EU simultaneously requires to become a
more active partner in stimulating cooperation with organizations such as NATO.
In order to ensure the success of both the EUGS and IPSD a number of actions were proposed in the
document. The first of these is deepening defense cooperation. In order to deepen defense cooperation
the EU established the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). The aim of CARD is to
develop a more systematic way to provide more transparency and identify shortcomings from EU
member states. CARD provides an intermediate step in the development of EU capabilities (EDA, n.d.).
Through CARD the EU can establish an overview of the capability landscape and deeper cooperation
and synchronization regarding defense. A second action for implementation is the Permanent Structured
Cooperation (PESCO) through which capable and willing member states can collectively develop
defense capabilities. Currently, there are 47 active PESCO projects related to training, land formation
systems, maritime, air systems, cyber and joint multiple services (European Council, 2020).
Additionally, the IPSD proposed actions to improve the possibilities of the EU to conduct mission and
operations. Under the IPSD proposal, the EU should improve the flexibility of the EU Battlegroups in
order to better rapid response when necessary alongside establishing a joint planning and conduct for
civilians missions (Council of the European Union, 2016).
In essence, the IPSD continues upon the conclusions of the EUGS and sets forth a number of goals and
strategies in order to obtain the security and defense capacities and capabilities required in order to
become a strategically autonomous actor. Within the IPSD it becomes clear that most of these actions
are aimed at increasing internal aspects such as increased integration and coordination between member
states in order to better deal with the external environment.
Unifying a Union
It may be clear by now that the EU’s ambitions to become a strategically autonomous actor cannot be
achieved without further coordination and integration between EU member states. Due to the
intergovernmental structure of EU foreign and security policy the EU is dependent upon the willingness
of its member states who are responsible for setting their own national foreign and security policy.
Therefore, one has to consider the geopolitical circumstances affecting the foreign and security policy
of EU member states before one can consider the possibilities for a collective EU strategy. Prior to
looking at the foreign and security ambitions of individual states, one has to consider the wider
geopolitical context affecting not only the EU as a whole but also the member states individually.
European Neighborhood
Europe is in the unique position of being directly connected to its bordering continent without natural
separation by an ocean. Often referred to as ‘Eurasia’, the European and Asian continents, while
consisting of different cultures, are geographically linked (Makarychev & Devyatkov, 2014).
Historically, Central- and East-European states have provided a buffer zone between West-Europe and
Russia and vice versa. However, since the end of the Cold War, the West has expanded its influence
towards East-European states through EU and NATO expansion, causing a dynamic shift in the way
Europe has to deal with its eastern borders. Even though the East-West dynamic has improved since the
end of the Cold War, conflicts in Georgia in 2008 and the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula
in 2014 showed the unstable relationship Europe has with its eastern partners such as Russia.
Furthermore, both the Fragile State Index and Corruption Percentage Index show medium to low scores
in East-European states such as Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine with a decline in their 2019 scores
meaning the region has become less stable in 2019 (Fund For Peace, 2019).
Even though many former Soviet states have integrated into the EU, there is still a clear difference
between these Central- and Eastern-European states compared to the West-European states. Many EastEuropean states are wary of the concept of strategic autonomy since they fear this will provoke the US
and could lead to a decreasing US commitment in Europe (Meijer & Brooks, 2021). Developments such
as the sudden emergence of the Ukraine Crisis in 2014 only underlined the concerns of European states
about the threat Russia poses. The positive EU outlook of the post-Cold War which saw the extension
of liberal-democracy into previous Soviet states as the solution to create stability in Europe did not
properly consider the Russian foreign policy marked by realism. Russia sees the expansion of both the
EU and NATO towards its border as a threat to its security which has led to the current state of affairs
in which both the EU and Russia have to be wary of the other in East-Europe (Russian Federation, 2014).
In its southern neighborhood, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the EU also faces
several challenges. The political instability and military interventions that have occurred in the MENA13
region over the past number of decades have directly affected the threat perception the EU has to assign
to the region. Only separated by the Mediterranean Sea, North Africa’s instability could spill over into
Europe. Between 2011 and 2019, protests and riots have risen in countries such as Libya, Algeria and
Morocco (Munich Security Conference, 2020). As the last decade has shown, disruption accompanied
by migration flows can cause tensions within and amongst European countries. The development of
further civil unrest in states such as Algeria could potentially lead to a disruption in gas export to EU
member states, which could lead to a greater European reliance on either Israel or Russia for its natural
gas (Munich Security Conference, 2020). Furthermore, the European limitations in its ability to provide
stabilization in North African states has opened the door for other states such as Russia to push its agenda
in the region.
Similarly, the volatile developments in the Middle-East influences the geopolitical context of the EU
and Europe as a whole. The persisting instability in the region continues the cycle of conflict, terrorism
and migration flows which could affect Europe. The spill-over effect of the instability in the MiddleEast and increasing presence of actors such as Russia remains a key point of contention for numerous
south-European states (Meijer & Brooks, 2021).
The Affair of States
The geopolitical environment of the EU member states has a considerable amount of influence on the
possibilities of the EU to become a strategically autonomous actor. Most notably, one can look at the
differing national foreign and security policies in order to see how geography affects the geopolitical
ambitions of states. Since an analysis of all 27 member states would be excessive, a selection of the five
most powerful EU states has been made. The criteria for determining the most powerful European states
is based upon the population size and defense budgets of the states (Nováky, 2019). The reason for this
selection can be found in liberal intergovernmentalist thinking. As this theory explains, more powerful
states will often use their stronger position in order to establish policies more beneficial for their national
interests (Moravcsik & Schimmelfennig, 2018). Therefore, the views of the largest EU states will
presumably be most significant for the strategic autonomy discourse of the EU.
The first state one can look at when considering European foreign and security policy is France. Ever
since the inauguration of president Macron France has been the main driver of European strategic
autonomy. Reflective of its geographical environment as a West-European state, the French vision
entails a level of independence from other powers such as the US, while remaining compatible with
NATO (La Délégation à l'information et à la communication de la défense, 2017). Due to its relative
distance from Russia, France does not depend on NATO and US protection and is therefore capable of
promoting a significant level of autonomy for Europe. In light of events in recent years, France sees
terrorism as the biggest threat facing Europe. Therefore, the stability of the MENA-region is a top
priority for France. Furthermore, both the French national foreign and security policy as well as its
ambitions for strategic autonomy put a bigger focus Africa. While not wishing to return to the age of
being a colonial empire, France does believe that strong ties with African states will benefit Europe
(Powell, 2017).
Germany, on the other hand, has a more modest stance when it comes to strategic autonomy. A state
still reluctant to become a powerful military force due to its past while simultaneously being more wary
of Russia due to its location, Germany refers to the use of strategic autonomy in relation to Europe’s
historical normative character and Europe’s economic structure. Being located more centrally in Europe,
Germany perceives Russia as a more imminent threat than France (Meijer & Brooks, 2021). In regard
to security and defense, Germany outlines Europe’s dependency on NATO and the US due to capability
gaps. Unlike the French vision of autonomy of action, Germany relates strategic autonomy to the
decision-making abilities, which implies reluctance in vouching for autonomy of action considering
Germany’s positive stance on NATO (Lippert, von Ondarza & Perthes, 2019).
When looking at Italy’s views regarding strategic autonomy, one should note that Italy’s White Paper
for International Security and Defense was published in 2015, one year prior to the EUGS. Therefore,
the white paper has no mention of the term strategic autonomy (Ministero Della Difesa, 2015). However,
it still provides Italy’s views regarding European cooperation in the security and defense dimension.
Unsurprisingly, due to its geographical location, Italy assign more attention to the Mediterranean region.
Similar to France, Italy does not view Russia as its biggest threat, but is more focused on matters such
as transnational terrorism and the instability in the southern periphery (Meijer & Brooks, 2021).
Regarding the Spanish view of strategic autonomy, one can look at the Spanish National Security
Strategy 2017. Spain refers to the EU’s normative power by stating that the EU should have a positive
influence in transforming its neighboring states and potential EU-member states, which will stabilize
the region (Presidencia Del Gobierno, 2017). In March 2021, Spain put forth a non-paper in cooperation
with the Netherlands pertaining to strategic autonomy. Considering the Spanish history with financial
struggles, it should come as no surprise that there is an emphasis on the collective economy in this
document (Permanent Representation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the European Union, 2021).
Furthermore, due to its geographical location Spain, like Italy, assigns significant attention to the
Mediterranean region (Meijer & Brooks, 2021).
Poland is the biggest European actor in Central- and East-Europe based on its population size, defense
expenditure and GDP (Nováky, 2019). Poland is one of the main supporters regarding transatlantic
cooperation. Due to its location and history, Russia is viewed as the dominant threat (Meijer & Brooks,
2021). Therefore, Poland supports strategic autonomy in a way that is beneficial to NATO. According
to the Polish vision, European strategic autonomy must be in line with the European availability and
capability to be a partner within NATO (Zaborowski, 2018).
A Clash of Visions
Based upon the analysis of the five states one can infer that there is a lack of a cohesive strategic mindset
within the EU. While each member state, through the EU, agrees upon the protection of liberaldemocratic principles and core values, the geographies and histories of the member states lead to
diverging threat assessments. When one goes towards the east of Europe, one will find that states assign
a larger amount of attention to the threat posed by Russia, while going towards the Mediterranean results
in a more vocal stance against terrorism and potential spill-over effects from the MENA-region. While
geography is one of the main factors for this cacophony of visions, another important factor can be found
in the nature of the EU itself.
The EU is an organization based upon the principles of liberalism. Both economic liberalism, based
upon the logic that economic interdependence will prevent conflict, and democratic liberalism, the belief
that democratic states do not go to war with one another, are ideas that can be found at the core of the
EU. As has been argued in this paper, the ECSC was not only meant for the collective strengthening of
(West-)Europe, but also to establish interdependencies in order to decrease the likelihood of further
conflict. In the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union the liberalistic positivist outlook gained momentum
without any severe threat or opposing force. Due to the lack of opposition, liberalism was perceived by
many as the answer to the prevention of conflict and the EU managed to not only expand geographically,
but also across the political spectrum by entering the realm of foreign and security policy through the
As the age of liberal hegemony fell, however, realism once again became more prominent in
international politics. As per (neo)realist thinking, the state is the only reliable actor in protecting its
own interests and assuring its own security. While cooperation with other states, or as Waltz coins it
external balancing, is a potentially strategy in doing so, cooperation is not seen as the sole solution.
Within the EU this entails that while the CFSP and CSDP can be beneficial for EU member states, states
can and often do decide to make unilateral decisions if their national interests diverge from EU policy.
While economic cooperation within the EU is supranational, the intergovernmental nature of foreign
and security policy can be seen the last stronghold of the sovereignty European states possess (Howorth,
2017). Effectively, while the EU, based upon liberal principles, tries to become a geopolitical power in
order to deal with current-day challenges, the member states’ priority is to protect its own interests first.
Such a clash of visions was once again underlined during a defense ministerial meeting in November
2020, where it was noted that national and NATO ambitions are often prioritized over EU ambitions
(EDA, 2020).
This paper has sought to examine how the EU’s geopolitical environment affects its foreign and security
policy ambitions of becoming strategically autonomous. The first section of this paper established how
external influences and internal instability in a post-World War II era led to interstate cooperation in
order to collectively strengthen (West-)Europe and prevent future interstate conflict amongst European
states. It wasn’t, however, until the end of the Cold War that the EU began expanding into the realm of
foreign and security policy. Even when it eventually did expand into this realm, the EU itself was
primarily a liberal-democratic soft power organization, leaving the hard security aspects to NATO and
the security umbrella of the US.
As a result, the EU and its member states have not sufficiently prepared themselves for the changing
geopolitical environment. The ring of instability in the EU’s eastern and southern periphery and the
originating of a multipolar world order have pushed the EU to adapt its outlook onto the world and its
foreign and security policy ambitions. The publication of the EUGS marked the changing perspective
of the EU. Through the EUGS and the subsequent IPSD the EU acknowledges its weakened position
and capability gaps. Through the concept of European strategic autonomy the EU is attempting to
position itself as a unified geopolitical block with the capabilities to deal with the new geopolitical
Due to the intergovernmental nature of European foreign and security policy the EU is dependent upon
the willingness of its member states in achieving strategic autonomy. The statement made in the EUGS
that there is no clash between European and national interests has proven to be a simplified statement
that does not capture the full geopolitical scope of the EU. At its core, EU member states share the same
liberal-democratic principles. Furthermore, an EU able to impose itself as a unified geopolitical Union
is able to position itself as a superpower whereas no singular EU member state has the power to
effectively deal with its neighborhood or the Sino-American geopolitical rivalry. However, it has proven
to be rather difficult to achieve a convergence of strategic interests. In order to achieve a strategically
autonomous Union, a common strategic vision has to be established. Due to differing geographical
contexts, resulting in diverging threat assessments, a common European strategy will be difficult to
establish. EU member states have diverging histories and geographical positionings, therefore they
perceive different threats as more imminent than others. As the analysis has shown, states towards the
east of Europe such as Poland will assign a higher priority to threats pertaining to Russia, while states
such as Spain and Italy, in addition to France due to its history in the region, look towards the
Mediterranean area first when considering their threat assessments. Because EU foreign and security
policy is intergovernmental, states will look to their own interests first. While member states largely
share the same norms and values they want to protect, common strategic interests have to be based on
common threat assessments which is being hampered by historical and geographical differences.
The EU’s changing external environment has caused the need for greater internal cohesion and
capabilities in foreign and security policy. However, this same external environment is affecting the
possibilities of achieving the level of required cohesion and capabilities as laid out in the EUGS and
IPSD. While the EU as a collective faces the same threats, individual member states will assign different
priorities based upon their own histories and geographies.
If the EU wants to achieve strategic autonomy it needs to first address nationalistic diverging attitudes
of its member states. The lack of a comprehensive definition of strategic autonomy within the EUGS
has enabled member states to assign its own definitions. Therefore, the geopolitical differences between
member states cannot be overlooked. In order to become strategically autonomous, the EU and its
member states will first need to find come to a comprehensive consensus on its strategic vision.
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