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Is the European Union becoming more of a traditional power player?

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Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, has been in the news lately. In response to Putin’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric, Borrell announced that a Russian nuclear strike against Ukraine would provoke “such a powerful answer” from the West that the Russian army would be “annihilated.” Borrell’s off-the-cuff remarks do not constitute official E.U. policy, but his words may reflect an important transformation underway within the E.U.

Once, the E.U. sought to rise above the fray of great power struggles, claiming it offered a peaceful alternative to violence and coercion. Now, key European leaders seem to be trying to remake the DNA of the European Union. Despite some searing criticism of Borrell’s choice of words and skepticism amongst pundits about the entire idea, the E.U. looks as if it is refashioning its identity into something that looks much more like a traditional power player —albeit one that is not a country itself.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is remaking Europe

Many tend to see the E.U. as a weakling

For decades, many in the U.S. depicted the European Union as a weak, passive observer of the high politics of international relations. Observers like Robert Kagan said that the E.U. limited itself to diplomacy and commerce not because of its ideals but simply because it lacked real power. Kagan characterized the E.U. as existing in “a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation.” His claim that the E.U. was “entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity,” a version of the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s proposal for “perpetual peace,” was not a compliment, but rather an epic put-down.

Kagan himself had more in common with the wisdom of another philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, who believed that governments are always hostile and suspicious of each other, and that war is the ultimate decider. Using gendered assumptions about power and weakness, Kagan summed up the differences between the U.S. and E.U. in a phrase that became famous: “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.

Many did push back on this characterization, pointing out the E.U. represented an innovative way to secure peace and liberal values for its citizens, with others noting that the E.U. itself ruthlessly used more subtle methods to get its way than the crude military power that Kagan emphasized. My own research documented the “under the radar” use of power, but it also noted that the E.U. steered clear of the traditional symbols of power.

Borrell’s formal title, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy, is a perfect example of how the E.U. carefully navigated the fraught waters of geopolitics. It’s a deliberate choice to avoid calling him the “European Foreign Secretary” and thus not upstage the national prerogatives of the E.U. member states.

Now, Venus seems to be in retrograde. In an official address to the E.U.’s own ambassadors, Borrell himself stated, “We are too much Kantians and not enough Hobbesians … Let’s try to understand the world the way it is and bring the voice of Europe.” The reference to Thomas Hobbes was a striking and direct call back to Kagan’s dismissive view of the E.U. as a cosmopolitan weakling.

The E.U. is changing how it talks and acts in the world

Although Borrell’s statements last week mark a striking change of rhetoric, scholars have been tracing the E.U.’s changing approach for some time. They’ve looked at many different areas in which the E.U. has become more assertive.

Some examine how the E.U. has come to embrace what political scientists Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman have termed “weaponized interdependence,” the ways in which governments increasingly use global economic networks as tools of power politics. Others have documented the E.U.’s newly aggressive approach to trade and investment, driven by an emerging emphasis on what it calls “strategic autonomy.” Surprisingly, the E.U. has recently developed its own European Industrial Strategy, which includes digital sovereignty, supply chain resilience, innovating toward a green economy, and autonomy in world markets. This new approach strongly resembles the recently unveiled U.S. National Security Strategy putting industrial and innovation strategy front and center under “Investing in Our National Power to Maintain a Competitive Edge.”

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These moves reflect the E.U.’s new willingness to be explicit about the politics inherent in its work, rather than hide behind technocratic jargon. E.U. officials are eagerly and publicly embracing political strategizing, building on the 2015 statement of incoming European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that his would be a “political commission.” Current Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, stated that she was seeking a “geopolitical” E.U. as her key goal. Borrell’s words last week only reinforce this goal.

It’s not clear how deep the change goes

The E.U. still hasn’t figured out how to balance its lack of military clout and traditional commitment to peace and cooperation with its newfound geopolitical interests. The old familiar world of the postwar era is changing, and the E.U. still hasn’t fully found its place. Economic power, wielded according to the logic of weaponized interdependence, may help, but there is no hard military capacity behind Borrell’s threat that the Russian army will be annihilated.

Big questions remain. How effectively will the E.U.’s formidable market powers counteract threats from Russia or China? Will the E.U. enhance its collective security efforts, something long supported in polls across Europe, and finally upgrade its military might — as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s speech after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine suggested? What kind of collective European response will there be to the energy crisis created by Putin’s war on Ukraine?

Some of these questions may divide the E.U. and keep it from cementing its new geopolitical stance through major policy changes. Still, the new rhetoric and new policies suggest that something important is changing in the European Union.

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Kathleen R. McNamara (@ProfKMcNamara) is professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University, where she co-directs the Global Political Economy Project.

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