Viva l'Europa: The prospects of the EU as a global security actor after the State of the Union Address

24 September, 2021

‘’ Honourable Members:

This is the soul of Europe.

This is the future of Europe.

Let’s make it stronger together ’’

“Viva l’Europa.’’

-European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen,


On September 15th, President of the European Union Commission Ursula von der Leyen delivered the annual State of the Union Address. Noteworthy key priorities were the continuation of the fight against COVID-19, climate change,  migration, respect for rule of law, and a European defence policy. After the speech, many were left with further questions, be it from a public health policy perspective or from a security standpoint. A recurrent question in the field of foreign and security policy is: what is next for the European Union and which transformations does it have to undergo for it to become a real global security actor?

SOTEU2021, Afghanistan, and justifying an enhanced scope of European Defence

The Afghan crisis was one of the central concerns outlined by President von der Leyen in her speech. The abrupt outcome of the mission brought to the surface the need for a reevaluation of the NATO-EU joint partnership, within the new EU-NATO Joint Declaration framework expected before the end of the year. However, in the new narrative proposed by the President, the idea that ‘Europe can – and clearly should – be able and willing to do more on its own’ became agreeable, to the extent to which there is a plausible justification in the shift.

According to the President, three pillars, or conditions that would justify and serve as a foundation for the repositioning of the EU to become a stronger global actor are:

  • to provide stability in the close neighborhood in order to prevent the spill-over of crises;
  • the evolving nature of the contemporary threats;
  • the uniqueness of the European Union as a security actor.

All three pillars culminate in the pledge for a European Defence Union, which would serve as a continuation of the formerly developed ‘European defence ecosystem’.

The European Defence Union (EDU)

‘What has held us back until now is not just a shortfall of capacity – it is the lack of political will’.

President of the Commission highlighted a recurrent problem in the debates surrounding the rather sensitive matter of the European Defence: the dividedness and oftentimes concurring stances of different EU member states, which are a barrier in achieving homogeneity as a Global Security Actor. The President proceeded to highlight three examples in which the EDU would serve:

  • The uniform information and know-how sharing, which would allow better collective decision-making, through the establishment of a Joint Situational Awareness Centre;
  • Improved interoperability of different assets- with outstanding examples of drones and other technologies;
  • The Union becoming at the forefront of cybersecurity, through the development of a new and improved European Cyber Resilience Act. 
Enhanced capabilities or overambitious targets?

We must do everything to avert the real risk of a major famine and humanitarian disaster. And we will do our part. We will increase again humanitarian aid for Afghanistan by 100 million euros’.

All of the abovementioned needs for demarches toward enhancing the security capabilities and fortifying the EU‘s position as a Global Security Actor are not, by any means, new. However, it is for the first time when such a strong narrative becomes embedded in the broader policy scheme. For one, there will be a lot of pressure on the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union to come up with concrete steps to elevate the security and defence realm of the EU. President Macron is known for his positive outlook on the EU as a potential stronger security player. On the other hand, if there is no plan devised to deal with the underlying problem highlighted by von der Leyen- the lack of political will, the chances of the EU progressing to a more congruent security and defence player will remain relatively unchanged.

The crux of the discussions  has to do a lot with the emergence of other global players, which could justify the urgency of the EU to level up its strategic behavior: “If Europe is to become a more active global player, it also needs to focus on the next generation of partnerships”. Having China as an impossible-to-ignore geopolitical actor, and the increase of the complexity in the geopolitical landscape might be the exact reason why the EU must ‘be able and willing to do more on its own’. 

Building a Stronger Spirit

The EU was previously criticised for being unable to clearly pick a stance against China amidst its tensions with the US. Hence, von der Leyen’s mention of the EU’s new Indo-Pacific strategy which “reflects the growing importance of the region to our prosperity and security” was of great geopolitical significance. The US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia came in 2011 with the Obama administration, so the EU is not necessarily quick to change to new geopolitical realities, as their strategy comes a decade later. However, the mentioning of the new Indo-Pacific strategy was important because von der Leyen gave two reasons for EU’s interests in the region; that it is important “to our prosperity and security” but more crucially, “that autocratic regimes use it to try to expand their influence”.

This is an indirect direct jab at China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) activities, as the term “Indo-Pacific” itself has been defined by some experts as a political term used against China’s rapid security and economic enlargement. The second reason alludes to a threat posed by China to current international norms, whereby economic development and foreign investment by the West is usually used as a carrot, and therefore is dependent on, steps towards democratisation and improved human rights conditions in a particular country. China has repeatedly challenged this model by promising investment and loans on infrastructure without any “interference” in countries’ domestic politics. In addition, it promises large loans that force Indo-Pacific countries into a debt-trap and hence dependence and obedience to China. This is counter to the EU which self-proclaims to be using a “values-based approach”.

The EU’s development of such a strategy, and its mention in the State of the Union speech, also reveals the EU’s growing desire for independence in foreign policy from the US’ security architecture, as it formerly relied on the American allies’ security policies. Von der Leyen also claimed that stronger ties to the Indo-Pacific region will follow a framework of: “deepen trade links, strengthen global supply chains and develop new investment projects on green and digital technologies”. The latter point was repeatedly emphasised by the President of the Commission; that the EU must reduce its digital dependency on China, by investing more into its own digital capabilities and resource needs such as semiconductors. In another jab at China, von der Leyen announced that it will propose a ban on products in the single market that have been made by forced labour, alluding to China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority: “Human rights are not for sale – at any price”. Countering China’s geopolitical expansion in the region has therefore for the first time been so clearly outlined in a State of the Union speech.

Hence, Global Gateway. The term and strategy may be perceived as a response to BRI, as its main aim is to build partnerships with countries through “investments in quality infrastructure, connecting goods, people and services around the world” by not creating dependence, but “links”. Instead of building a “perfect road between a Chinese-owned copper mine and a Chinese-owned harbour” the EU must be “smarter” in its investments, and “connect institutions and investment, banks and the business community” all over the world by making the Global Gateway a priority in regional summits. Von der Leyen therefore signals that the EU is not just going to provide some assurance to the Indo-Pacific countries under China’s gaze, but also aims to construct a bigger global purpose that reflects its values as “doing business around the world, global trade – all that is good and necessary. But this can never be done at the expense of people’s dignity and freedom”. The aim is therefore to “turn Global Gateway into a trusted brand around the world”.

Concluding remarks

In comparison to the previous two State of the Union speeches by the Presidents of the European Commission, this speech, in particular, was remarkable in its unprecedented signaling that the EU aims to stand amongst other geopolitical powers and not just as the US’ shadow. This is a testament to how quickly the Union is expected to evolve and adapt to a rapidly changing geopolitical reality. It will do so by working on improving its tech sovereignty, reducing its dependence in this regard on China, building its own strategy independent of the US, and by providing financial assurance to other nations under China’s watchful gaze, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Until the dividedness and the fragmented political wills converge, the European Union‘s ambitious goal of becoming a global security actor will rely on the toolkit provided by this year‘s speech.

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