19 January 2022

Is Europe becoming a world power?

The world order is shifting. Putin continues to taunt Europe. China’s global expansionism seems limitless. And how to respond to the United States’ renewed desire for cooperation? The European Union’s answer should be greater strategic autonomy, says Sophie Vanhoonacker, professor of Administrative Governance and Jean Monnet professor. “Europe has to become less idealistic and stand up more for its own interests around the world.”


The EU is not a state and is, moreover, internally divided. “That’s a big difference with the other major powers. The member states often act in their own interests, and these interests don’t always coincide. For the Baltic states, Russia is a serious threat, while France and Germany want a dialogue on European stability.”


This division may go some way to explaining Putin’s aggressive stance. “In the EU, there was too little awareness of the trauma caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Russia feels humiliated. Putin wants to make the country great again and play a role on the world stage. He knows perfectly well that Europe can barely put up a fight militarily, and is exploiting its lack of unity.” Nonetheless, Vanhoonacker believes continued dialogue is crucial. “Russia is on our doorstep, we have common interests and depend on their gas. But it’s a compromise. It’s still an autocratic regime that ignores human rights.”

They respect the EU as a trading power, but when it comes to the geopolitical game it’s not taken seriously. Europe is militarily dependent on America and NATO.

Political model

China, the EU’s largest trading partner, is a different story. The country is fast becoming an empire with an unprecedented global role in information technology, capital provision, and logistical, diplomatic, military and cultural power. With its Belt and Road Initiative, a colossal global infrastructure programme offering investments and loans for high-speed links, airports and shipping routes, China is currying favour with individual countries, including in Central and Eastern Europe. “And it’s succeeding, because there are no political strings attached to its aid, not even for dictatorial regimes. This way China is able to increase its influence all over the world, and with that, its political model.”

“That’s a concern,” Vanhoonacker continues, “but we can’t afford to put China in a corner. We export a lot to them and are highly dependent on Chinese imports for medicines, certain raw materials and other products. China is also a major player in the context of climate change. But Europe is becoming more cautious. The EU’s new global strategy of 2016 talks about ‘principled pragmatism’. Europe has its principles, but we mustn’t act like some sort of naive missionary; we have to defend our interests and industry.”

Hard men


In Vanhoonacker’s view, the new world order demands a different type of power play. “It’s a rougher world, with hard men like Putin and the Chinese president playing the power game. They bang their fists on the table, spare nothing and nobody. Europe is still learning that. We’re a peace project, used to discussing and resolving our conflicts peacefully. That’s worked well within Europe, but it doesn’t work geopolitically.”

In other words, Europe must learn to exercise coercive power. “Internally, this is a first step towards less fragmentation and more cooperation in military mobility and innovative defence. As for foreign policy, relations with Russia are seen as consisting of three components: push back, constrain and engage. Push back on human-rights violations. Constrain by improving our own security. And engage on issues like the fight against corona and the climate crisis.” Whether unanimity can be achieved in terms of security remains an open question. Will the EU ever form a joint power bloc? “That’s far from certain. But the pressure to act together is increasing. The urgency is high.”

Liberal democracy

Even as a major world power, Europe will need alliances. “And that’s what the EU wants. Strategic autonomy doesn’t mean excluding other parties. On the contrary, it’s vital to work towards our goals with partners who share our liberal-democratic values, such as the US and institutions like the WHO and the UN.” Perhaps the biggest concern is not the intertwining of trade and economics with autocratic countries, but the threat that their political model poses to the free world. “Biden is right when he says that Western countries set a moral example for the world. When I think about the future and the next generations, I hope we continue to defend liberal democracy and the welfare state.”

‘UM & Europe’ in the spotlight
2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty; time to take stock of European integration. Moreover, a special conference on the future of Europe is scheduled in Maastricht from 11 to 13 February 2022. Plenty of reasons for the European university of the Netherlands to launch a new series of stories, and to publish an overview of all of our 'UM and Europe' information. Read more.

We’re a peace project, used to discussing and resolving our conflicts peacefully. That’s worked well within Europe, but it doesn’t work geopolitically.
By: Hans van Vinkeveen (text), Ted Struwer (illustrations)