A stronger Europe in the world? The role of values

Science Works 4 min.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is raising questions about Europe’s role in the world. Will the European Union become more unified as a geopolitical player? If it does, what will that look like? And what role will values play in it? We talk about this issue to Martijn Groenleer, Professor of Public Governance at Tilburg University. He also spearheads the theme A stronger Europe in the world – one of the key themes on which the recently established Center for European Values will be focusing in the coming years.

Why a stronger Europe in the world?

“For a long time, the European Union played no significant role on the world stage, at least not in terms of classic foreign policy. Of course, the European Commission represents the EU member states when it comes to foreign trade. As an economic power bloc, the EU matters. Europe also plays an important role in providing humanitarian aid and in development cooperation. Moreover, the EU persuades other countries to accept European rules, norms and standards, such as those relating to food security. The fact that the EU exercises international influence cannot be disputed. Some would even say that the EU is not only an economic power, but also a normative power.

Despite this, the EU generally fails to reach agreement. In terms of security and defense, and on such themes as human rights, the member states are often hopelessly divided. Just look at the war in Syria, the crisis in Venezuela, the negotiations with Iran and Yemen, the talks with the Balkan countries and with Turkey, the attitude toward China and even the United States (under Bush and Trump) and – until recently – the relationship with Russia. There is always one or more member state thwarting any EU decision, leaving Europe out of the picture geopolitically.”

Why is that?

“The reasons for this division are varied. Although the EU may have taken on many of the member states’ tasks and powers, and developed into much more of an international organization, that still doesn’t make it a state. Foreign policy encroaches on the sovereignty of individual member states and a role for the EU in that area is an extremely sensitive issue as a result. Member states also have divergent economic interests and domestic priorities, not to mention the differences in terms of their security cultures and historic bonds. There is of course also the role that NATO has played for decades in guaranteeing European security, which meant that – at least until Trump – there wasn’t any need for further integration anyway.

This has changed in recent years. Slowly perhaps, but it has changed. For example, there is now a minister for foreign affairs (although with a different name, of course) and a European diplomatic service, and the member states have started to cooperate more closely on security and defense. Does this mean that we can now count the EU as a real player on the world stage? Is the EU now speaking with one voice more than it did before? Is it doing so more or less independently of the member states and therefore not merely acting as their mouthpiece? Perhaps equally importantly, does anyone listen to the EU? The answer to these questions is: only partly.”

Is the war in Ukraine now set to change something?

“The European Commission led by Ursula Von der Leyen certainly aspires to being a ‘geopolitical Commission’. However, its initial efforts have proved rather faltering. The low point came when Josep Borrell, the EU Minister of Foreign Affairs, was publicly ridiculed by his Russian counterpart Sergej Lavrov at a joint press conference in 2021 and dismissed as an ‘unreliable partner’ with double standards. This failure of diplomacy – as you might call it – is an illustration of the impossible position that Borrell is in: caught between the member states who are willing to give him little room for maneuver and countries like Russia who relish exploiting the EU’s weakness on the world stage.

In that respect, the EU’s actions in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have proved more united than many probably thought possible, including Russia. The EU not only decided to offer humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but also to impose strong sanctions against Russia. For the first time in its history, the EU also pledged a substantial amount of funding for military support, ironically from the so-called European Peace Facility budget. But it has to be said: these sanctions have little or no effect on the energy sector yet, an area in which the European countries are heavily reliant on Russia. Equally, the EU is sending no arms or troops of its own, but it is the individual states doing this, as part of NATO. As ever, the EU remains ‘short on armed force’.”

Is the current European consensus permanent?

“Member states realize that they can exercise more influence working together with other member states, via the EU. Basically, there are advantages of scale, making it attractive to surrender some of their sovereignty. We also know that more subtle mechanisms are at play in this. As member states increasingly cooperate via the EU, they gain a better mutual understanding, not only in terms of each other’s interests and priorities, but also their values and norms. Their relationship is growing closer and they are beginning to speak the same language. The member states’ foreign policy is becoming ‘Europeanized’.

Having a common enemy certainly helps. This is something we’ve seen previously, for example in the European attitude toward the establishment of the International Criminal Court. The United States’ active efforts to undermine the Court only strengthened the EU’s determination to support it. At the same time, internal EU conflicts, such as those relating to democracy and the rule of law, currently matter slightly less. Especially when a country like Poland, whose government the Commission claims is flouting the European values of freedom and democracy, shows itself to be a leading member state in terms of providing refuge to Ukrainian refugees.”

Martijn Groenleer

Europe must not be naïve

Martijn Groenleer - Professor of Public Governance


“At the same time, the EU has finally realized, albeit late in the day, that countries like Russia and China, but also Turkey and others, insist on upholding different values, are adopting a more aggressive attitude on the world stage and above all are speaking the language of power. Look at the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, part of which involves China investing in developing countries especially, but also in European countries, in such areas as railway lines, bridges and ports, increasing its influence as it does so. Europe must not be naïve. Other countries are not going to stick to the rules that the EU member states have agreed among themselves on such issues as competition and state aid.”

Can the European Union also speak the language of power?

“There has been some discussion recently in Brussels about ‘strategic autonomy’. There are calls for the EU to become less reliant on other countries, Russian energy and Chinese materials, but also the technology of American tech companies. But it needs to happen in a European way that reflects European values. For example, the Global Gateway project recently proposed by the Commission will aim to include a ‘value-based option’ and an ‘ethical approach’ for infrastructure development. The focus is on international stability and cooperation, together with fairness, equality and sustainability. This is the EU’s effort to position itself as an alternative to China, although it is not saying this out loud.

But even if the EU is successful in presenting a more united front on the world stage, there is still the question of whether it can prove a match geopolitically for other power blocs in the future. And whether it would even want that. Certainly not in the same way, in my opinion. That would have consequences for the community of values that the EU claims to be and the importance we place on our freedom and democracy.”