Three main threats and three possibilities of geopolitical evolution of the EU after Angela Merkel

A brief exercise in futurology

“The European Union needs to continuously justify its existence” Jean Pisani-Ferry

Four mandates, i.e., 16 years as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany Angela Merkel [1], coincided with a period of a state of multi-crisis in the EU – from the institutional, financial, and migrant crises to Brexit and the pandemic. However, the withdrawal of the second most economically powerful country from the EU (United Kingdom), with all its tensions and upheavals, did not lead to the disintegration of the Union, which, among other things, is largely attributed to the wise long-term influence of the head of the German administration, who often compromised, but, when needed, acted both decisively and effectively in the EU.

The question of further evolution of European integration arises with the departure of Merkel, who was more inclined towards minimalistic, small steps approach policy in diplomacy than to the search for ambitious and visionary solutions for the European Union. Regardless of who will be the new German Chancellor, no significant deviation can be expected in relation to the legacy of the long-standing Chancellor, who firmly anchored Germany in the centre of decision-making in the Union, as an “indispensable nation”. Germany may not be able to achieve everything in today’s EU and Europe, but it is not possible to achieve anything at all against its will. With the changes that occurred in Europe in the recent decades, on which German Chancellors Cole and Merkel have left a significant mark, Germany has grown into a kind of “discreet European hegemon” who bases its position of “force in the middle” and soft power and influence primarily on its vast economic and financial capacity (the world’s fourth largest economy). Moreover, this evolution came with the development of a strategic alliance with France and cross-Atlantic ties with the United States, as well as the position of a key EU mediator ready to seek a compromise solution in various debates, with smaller and medium-sized countries included.

In which direction will the Union evolve after the departure of A. Merkel? What are the main challenges? What are the possible geopolitical perspectives of its position by the end of this decade or later?

Three existential dangers to the survival of the Union

Stories about the possibility of a complete disintegration of the EU due to an unexpected political and economic coup, have so far proved to be completely unfounded. For more than a decade, the EU has confirmed its enviable resilience to crises. However, the possibility of its transformation to the point of non-recognition and loss of any political significance is still possible, although it is unlikely for now.

We can list three main threats to the existence of the Union as we know it today:

  • Erosion of the legal system (“EU becoming the dark dwarf“), i.e. the abandonment of the basic legal principles of the EU

As is well known, the functioning of the European Union is based on the respect for the rule of law, i.e. the “Acquis Communautaire” which is harmonized at the level of the entire EU in a manner that is interpreted by the Court of Justice of the EU (EUSR). One of the key legal principles, based on the long-standing practice of the EUSR, is the principle of “primacy” of EU norms over the national norms of EU member states in case of their non-compliance. According to the interpretation of the EUSR, this even applies to cases of conflict with constitutional national norms, which should recede in relation to the application of Union rules and regulations [2]. This extensive interpretation of the validity of EU law has often been criticised by certain legal and / or political circles in some EU Member States, including occasionally France (the Council of State, and extreme right-wing or left-wing political forces), Germany (some Constitutional Court decisions), Poland, Hungary, and others. Abandonment of this principle in practice would mean the gradual dissolution of a single EU legal system based on the authority of the EU Court of Justice and thus turning the Union beyond recognition into a classic international organization instead of a single integrated legal system as it is today – a quasi-federation with still significant political ambitions.

  • Dissolution of the eurozone due to the exit of some of the large member states, such as Italy (“winter of our dissatisfaction”)

The creation of the European and monetary union (and creation of the Euro itself), as is well known, was accompanied by serious criticism for the “incompleteness” and structural problem of this Union. What is meant by this is the vast discrepancy between the position of the central German economy – which enjoys a privileged position in relation to the peripheral and/or less developed economies of other countries, especially the Mediterranean ones, including Italy, Spain, and partly France. The decades-long stagnation of the over-indebted Italian economy, which has lasted almost since the founding of the Eurozone (and whose roots are, however multiple and related to insufficient structural reforms and lack of modernization of the Italian economy, etc.), is one of the main arguments of such populist and right-wing rhetoric in Italy. Once a very pro-European nation, Italy has become one of the most Eurosceptic in the entire Union (which, by the way, addition to economic issues, was largely due to the problem of illegal migration from Africa).

However, the consent of A. Merkel, after years of refusal, that (with certain, superficial reforms of the Eurozone, adopted due to Macron’s initiative) during the pandemic, the European Union and its member states jointly and severally borrowed to create a large economic recovery fund, (the Next Generation EU) has reduced, for the time being, the current dissatisfaction with the effects of the “eurozone” in the member states [3], which does not mean that this structural issue will not return to the centre of debate again, and in some “winter of dissatisfaction” threaten the entire economic, political, and institutional architecture of the EU.

  • France’s withdrawal from the strategic alliance with Germany (“partial Fregsit”).

The European Union was created due to the strategic alliance between France and Germany, whose cooperation is the strategic “backbone” of this organization – as shown by the relatively limited political effect of Brexit (which shook but did not “bury” the Union). At the time of the creation of the European Communities, France dominated politically and internationally in relation to Germany, which is no longer the case today (except for the military-nuclear aspect). In the context of the EU, France has long since become only a “junior partner” to Germany. Although the German and French economies are extremely integrated today, which, with great negative political effects, would greatly raise the costs of a possible “divorce” of these two key European countries, latent dissatisfaction in some political circles in Paris and (still small) dissatisfaction of public with France’s current position, it can also be the basis for, for now, very unlikely disentanglement of this country from the almost inseparable embrace with Germany. However, size, geographical location and historical heritage provide space for France to redirect its strategic ties to natural geographical and economic partners, including the United States and the United Kingdom, in the event of major political and economic disruptions. [4], but also with Russia [5].

Of the three “existential threats” mentioned above, the first is the most realistic, while the last is very unlikely for now. However, in politics, as well as in futuristics, anything is possible. In the last two centuries, almost every three or four decades, the international order has undergone radical and mostly unpredictable changes. Who, today, can predict how European cooperation would develop in the event that, for example, in both countries – France and Germany – representatives of the extreme right came to power?

Three possible options for the geopolitical evolution of the European Union

“The main question is whether the European Union is a great power or an optical illusion” George Friedman

In the strategic geopolitical sense, the position of the EU space is determined by the membership of most member states in NATO, the presence of US military bases and nuclear weapons in Germany, Italy, and some other countries, as well as the nuclear autonomy of France. The position of EU members is influenced by their environment in the form of a geographical semicircle in which numerous “fire crises” last. Examples of such semicircle are open and frozen conflicts (Ukraine, Moldova, Caucasus, Syria, Libya, etc.) and the existence and actions of various influential (military, economic, etc.) powers (partly partners, partly competitors or rivals) such as the United Kingdom, Russia, Turkey, as well as the distant but economically and technologically increasingly present China. Given that the transatlantic alliance is no longer what it once was and that the United States are increasingly turning to the Pacific and Asia in various ways, rather than Europe – which we will not deal with in more detail in this text [6] – the question has long been raised in which direction would evolve the global international policy of the European Union which is a kind of increasingly autonomous international factor, but in  the same time – in the strategic sense is still a “younger partner”, dependent on the United States. From De Gaulle’s “Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals”, Mitterrand’s “European Confederation”, to Macron’s initiatives to develop a defence union and a “sovereign EU”, the foreign policy and military identity of a truly independent EU is still very questionable and distant. European countries have failed to impose themselves as the single international factor that could counterbalances other major world actors, such as the United States, China, or Russia. At the same time, the EU is a real international factor that often acts independently and effectively on a variety of specific international issues – especially economic and technical – from climate issues, digitalisation, and regulation of international standards to trade, energy or health policy during a pandemic. All in all, European integration remains, according to Z. Brzezinski, an “unfinished business” where neither the Franco-German axis has sufficient integrative power nor the influence to often overcome very different national and international interests of member states, especially when it comes to defence issues and strategies, or relations in the immediate neighbourhood (Eastern Europe and Russia, the Mediterranean and Turkey, etc.).

Although European countries – EU members and others – have a natural interest in grouping, integrating and promoting their common interests, and in some cases protecting them in relation to the immediate environment and the rest of the world (migration, terrorism, etc.), it is difficult to expect the EU in the medium term, to overcome its essentially confederate character of an organization in which decisions are made slowly, with great compromises and on the basis of the lowest common denominator (i.e. interest) and which has limited geopolitical influence. The United States, as a de facto “invisible European state”, has a long-term interest in maintaining stability within the EU, but that (especially) German influence does not fully prevail in Western Europe, nor that the EU becomes a real and independent geopolitical competitor. Therefore, the gradual strengthening of the “sovereign EU” is likely to remain limited and gradually evolve into one of three possible versions, which we could simply call “Greater Switzerland”, “Greater Sweden” and “Greater Ukraine”.

  • “EU as Greater Switzerland” would mean an evolution towards an increasingly closed EU, focused mainly on itself and its many internal problems, aimed at maintaining its own prosperity and protecting itself from external negative influences such as illegal migration or terrorism, reluctant to enlarge or to become more energetic and efficient, in international issues it does not see as part of its immediate interests. This sinking into “geopolitical irrelevance” may be accompanied by a policy of restraint towards world powers, including Russia or China, and a focus mainly on economic issues in which the EU sees its immediate interest. Today’s EU essentially pursues policies that are largely similar to the above description, which indicates the most probable direction of its future evolution during this decade, as well as later on.
  • “The EU as a Greater Ukraine.” Inability of member states to overcome narrow national interests and to agree and realize a broader vision of EU action in the interest of the whole of Europe and the world, and especially inability to realize some clear goals, such as enlargement to the Western Balkans, i.e. to articulate necessary bases for better cooperation like Russia or Turkey, can gradually, with new and different internal crises and conflicts (as well as further disturbances in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean, North or Central Africa or the Caucasus) lead to complete erosion of the position of European countries. This would lead to a kind of permanent geopolitical crisis in Europe, not only around, but also within the EU, which, like an “EU-Ukraine”, would gradually sink into various internal conflicts and become the subject of constant competition from outside forces.
  • “The EU as Greater Sweden.” The EU will hardly – even in the case of the ideal development and evolution of future cooperation in the areas of common foreign and security policy and defence policy – turn into a kind of extension of today’s France (as Paris would like: EU as Greater France). Instead, we can imagine a stronger, more organized, and more efficient international action of EU member states in the way that Sweden has done in certain periods – a country that is both militarily neutral but also very engaged and visible in many international issues. This is the direction that was outlined in the last strategic document of the EU called “Global Strategy of the EU” from 2016, which for now has remained only a letter on paper in many issues.

With the departure of Angela Merkel, it can be predicted with some certainty that the German leadership within the European Council will not act with the same authority as before. Nevertheless, Germany will continue to be an indispensable nation that will (regardless of the composition of the coalition government) naturally strive for a status quo with regard to the Union policies and a restrained foreign policy (something between “Greater Switzerland” and “Greater Sweden”). If, however, the German leadership in the middle is more seriously shaken in the near future, it could happen either due to the pressure of various “currents” that would come from the German West (French elections and their outcome) or from the eternally turbulent East (primarily Poland, etc.).

Torn between centrifugal and centripetal movements, between push and pull factors, between integration and fragmentation, the European Union remains a unique political and legal structure – a source of hope but also of a disappointment for the peoples of Europe, whose prospects are as uncertain as the age of even faster technological, social, and other transformations which stands before us.

[1] Merkel served as Chancellor from 2005 to 2021.

[2] This principle is not codified in the founding treaties of the EU, but is included in the treaties of accession of all states that joined the Union after 2004 and which undertook to adapt their legal system, including the constitution, to this obligation.

[3] Italy is expected to receive around € 196 billion from EU economic recovery fund.

[4] In both world wars, France sought protection from attacks from the east in the Anglo-Saxon alliance.

[5] By the way, we should not forget that turning to Russia is one of the frequent options that geopolitical futurists reserve for Germany.

[6] Suffice it to recall that the United States had recently an openly Eurosceptic president and that points of misunderstanding or tension were not completely overcome with the Biden administration, as evidenced by the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan and tensions with France over sales of nuclear submarines to Australia.