sven biscopACUNS Member Dr. Sven Biscop  is Director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont – Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, and teaches at Ghent University and at the College of Europe in Bruges. He has written many stories, but sincerely hopes that one day some of them may come true. The author thanks Brigadier-General (Ret.) Jo Coelmont (Egmont) as well as Daniel Fiott, Prof. Dr. Alexander Mattelaer and Prof. Dr. Luis Simón (all at the Institute for European Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel) for their help in telling the tale.


European foreign policy: the words do not conjure up any grand images. In the absence of any real ambition, there are neither triumphs to celebrate nor disasters to mourn. There is only gentle irrelevance to contemplate. Such is the image of Europe as an international player today in the minds of those who make and study foreign policy and strategy, in our own as well as in foreign capitals. Gentle irrelevance, for Europe proclaims to wish the world well and is generous enough with its money to prove it. And it presents no cause for fear, only for irritation, in some corners, with its inconvenient insistence on universal values. But irrelevance nonetheless, for Europe lacks the unity and sense of purpose for resolute and sustained action to uphold these values, and continues to liberally spend its money quite regardless of values or effect. Increasingly irrelevant even, for in the wake of the financial crisis Europe struggles to maintain its own social model, which undermines the legitimacy of its value-based narrative and erodes the will as well as the means for external action.

Even if the image was false (and alas it is not, at least not entirely), because of it Europe is treated with benign neglect, by those that take our money, by our supposed “strategic partners” among the emerging powers, and even by our allies. All of them go through the motions of meetings and summits without really considering Europe a force to be taken into account. Many have been quick to exploit the absence of purposive action on our side to occupy the ground (the seas, the resources, the hearts and minds…) that we have abandoned or not cared to occupy. Europe, in sum, is not perceived and therefore not treated as a strategic actor, as a pole of the multipolar world, as one of the great powers.

And yet there is ground for optimism, because this unsettling story is mostly of Europe’s own making. The emerging powers are emerging and the world has become multipolar, so Europe’s relative weight has declined. But its absolute weight in world politics could be much greater. The story could still have a happy end, if only the governments of Europe would see through the seven fallacies that stop them from being the player that collectively they could be.

The Dwarfs

There are only two kinds of countries in Europe, Belgian statesman Paul-Henri Spaak is reputed to have said: small countries and those that have yet to realize that they are but that – small countries. Alas, the latter far outnumber the former. To believe that on the world stage any European state is more than a dwarf is the single most damning fallacy for Europe’s global role, for it creates the illusion in many capitals that they don’t need the other Europeans.

It particularly stimulates bilateral wheeling and dealing with the great powers to the detriment of collective European engagement, seen as no more than a the detriment of collective European engagement, seen as no more than a between Europeans to appear the most attractive to investment by and trade with the great powers; in practice that often translates as being the most compliant. Divide et impera: Europeans divide themselves and the great powers rule. For the great powers would not long remain great powers without a certain degree of cunning: of course they play off one European against the other, since we offer them the opportunity on a silver platter. We even go to the extent of acting collectively to undermine our collective institutions: since 2012 e.g. we have allowed for the emergence of a separate diplomatic track between China and Central and Eastern Europe. What the 16 European states involved stand to gain, apart from the fleeting illusion of importance, is not quite clear – that China stands to gain from this arrangement need not be doubted for a moment.

This fallacy is understandable, for some dwarfs do carry a big sword or a big purse. But dwarfs being dwarfs, it is either/or: no single European state today can claim global reach in all dimensions of power, military, economic, and political. Therefore no single European state can defend all of its interests on its own all of the time. Surely no European country assumes it can deal alone with all the ramifications of the Arab Spring, to name but the obvious example. None has the military clout: Britain and France could initiate the interventions in Libya and Mali (and deserve our appreciation for it) but could not see them through without assistance from the US and other Europeans. Nor does any European government have the financial means.

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