EU militarisation to equip the EU with hard power for the great power competition
The concept of a geopolitical EU is disputed as much as the term geopolitics is. Since EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen unveiled the “Geopolitical Commission” in 2019, there have been doubts and questions over the EU’s geopolitical goals and leverage.
Another alarming milestone in the EU’s paradigm shift from soft to hard power is the 8 billion euros European Defence Fund (EDF) that was launched in 2021. Its creation marked a turning point for the EU, as this was the first time the EU community budget could be directed to military-related activities. Its main objectives are to strengthen the European arms industry and boost its competitiveness on the global stage, which includes increasing European arms exports. The establishment of the EDF marks a major victory for the industry that has been lobbying persistently for its creation (as is the case for PESCO and CARD). Research by the European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) shows that the ‘big four’ (France, Italy, Spain, Germany) received together almost two-thirds (65.1%) of the total funding of the EDF’s two predecessor programmes  European Network Against the Arms Trade (2022): Factsheet: How the EU is Funding Arms Dealers and Corrupt Corporations.. While 427 different single entities have been receiving funding, the top 15 beneficiaries received 51% of the total funding. These figures indicate the push to strengthen the sectors’ big corporations’ competitiveness to provide the EU with the military-industrial complex to enable its geopolitical ambitions.
Next to the direct funding of arms corporations, the EU broke another taboo with the establishment of the European Peace Facility (EPF) in 2021. This instrument turns the EU into a weapons dealer, as it funds the delivery of military equipment, including ammunition and lethal weapons to states already facing tension or internal conflicts. Since deliveries of that kind cannot be funded via the EU budget, the EPF is an off-budget instrument financed directly by the member states. As such, it evades parliamentary scrutiny at national and European levels. So far, the EU has dedicated 3.1 billion euros of the total 5 billion euros budget for 2021-2027 to its support for Ukraine. This is the first time that the EU organises the delivery of weapons directly to a country in war.
The latest building block of the EU’s growing militarisation is the Strategic Compass. Adopted at the EU summit on 25 March 2022, it is intended to set the direction of future European military policy and bring together the 2016 Global Strategy with the since then created mechanisms PESCO, CARD, EDF and EPF. The strategic assessment of the Compass draft describes an EU surrounded by instability and conflict within a conflictual multipolar world. Power politics have returned to the global stage, and access to space, sea routes and critical resources are increasingly contested. In this “highly confrontational system, the EU and its Member States must invest more in their security and defence to be a stronger political and security actor. […] a lot remains to be done for the EU to raise its geopolitical posture. This is why we need a quantum leap forward to develop a stronger and more capable European Union that acts as a security provider […].”  Council of the European Union (2022): A Strategic Compass for Security and Defence. Available at: https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-7371-2022-INIT/en/pdf (last updated 14.11.2022).
The centrepiece of the Strategic Compass is the concept of strategic autonomy that the EU is supposed to achieve to realise such a quantum leap forward. Championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, strategic autonomy, though a common definition is lacking, is supposed to enable the EU to autonomously decide and conduct wars and military operations with weapons and capabilities developed and produced in the EU.
This first-of-its-kind agreement between an EUCAP mission and FRONTEX highlights the EU’s interest in the Sahel. From the beginning, the control of migration flows, fighting terrorism that would pose a threat to European states and economic interests (such as Niger’s uranium potential) dominated the EU’s agenda. Humanitarian goals that overshadowed these interests are now even further jeopardised as the notion shifts to maintaining presence against Russia to secure the EU’s influence in the region.
The Strategic Compass leaves no doubt that the current EU leadership regards achieving strategic autonomy through expanding military power as the key to strengthen the EU’s geopolitical influence. If one wants to understand the dangers that come along with this approach, a closer look at the Sahel region is telling.
Insecurity in the Sahel: the consequences of a militarised geopolitical EU
The Sahel region and particularly Mali have become synonymous with the failure of the EU and its member states’ attempt to act as a security provider. The region has been dubbed the EU’s “laboratory” for border externalisation and train-and-equip approaches to strengthen military and security forces in unstable partner countries. Furthermore, it served as testing ground of operational and decision-making procedures for future missions under the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy  Christoph Marischka (2022): Mission Creep Mali. EU Europe’s failed backyard policy. Available at: https://left.eu/content/uploads/2022/11/Sahel-V1f-RGB-Web_compressed-1.pdf (last updated 14.11.2022)..
The situation—particularly in Mali, but also in the other Sahel states (Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad)—has worsened since first France and later other member states and the EU intervened. Following the French military intervention in Mali in 2013, the EU has set up a military Training Mission (EUTM Mali). The mission has been supposed to (re)build and train the Malian army to help it to control the territory of the Malian state and to fight terrorist groups. Since 2013, trainers from 22 EU member states have trained 15.000 Malian soldiers—some of whom are accused of committing abuses and human-rights violations against civilians  Laure Brillaud, Ingeborg Eliassen and Leïla Miñano (2022): EU-trained troops committed abuses in Mali. Available at: https://www.investigate-europe.eu/en/2022/eu-trained-troops-committed-abuses-in-mali/ (last updated 14.11.2022).. In March 2022, the EU suspended the mission after France announced the withdrawal of its troops from Mali. By this time, the troops of the former colonial power were not regarded as a security provider any longer, but broad resentment had formed in the population against their presence in light of the deteriorating security situation in the country. Three months before EUTM Mali was suspended, the EU had still foreseen 24 million euros from the European Peace Facility for it.
In February 2022, the Malian government that came to power through a coup d’état in 2021, suspended the planned election and has since then increased the pressure on foreign troops in the country. At the same time, troops from the Russian mercenary group “Wagner” were following the Malian government’s invitation and arriving in the country. The EU stated that EUTM Mali could only be resumed if there would be a clear separation from the Wagner group to avoid that EU-trained soldiers would end up under Russian command. The Malian population now finds itself not only confronted with the threat of terrorism that increased despite the yearlong presence of international troops, but also caught up in the geopolitical confrontation between the EU and Russia.
Despite the failures in Mali, the EU and its member states maintain their presence and continue to fund and expand the security and military apparatuses in the other four of the G5 Sahel states (Mauretania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad). The civilian capacity-building Mission EUCAP Sahel Niger, established in 2012 to train and reform the Nigerien police, signed a working agreement in July 2022 with FRONTEX, the EU’s border management agency. This first-of-its-kind agreement between an EUCAP mission and FRONTEX highlights the EU’s interest in the Sahel. From the beginning, the control of migration flows, fighting terrorism that would pose a threat to European states and economic interests (such as Niger’s uranium potential) dominated the EU’s agenda. Humanitarian goals that overshadowed these interests are now even further jeopardised as the notion shifts to maintaining presence against Russia to secure the EU’s influence in the region.
One has to keep these examples in mind when the Strategic Compass demands the EU to become a stronger security provider to bolster its geopolitical position. In October 2022, Josep Borrell made a statement that shows how the most vocal proponent of the Strategic Compass sees the EU in the world. Addressing future diplomats, Borrell said “Europe is a garden, we have built a garden. Everything works,” citing the continent’s political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion. He then continued: “Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.”  Wilhelmine Preussen (2022): UAE furious over EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s ‘jungle’ remarks. Available at: https://www.politico.eu/article/uae-eu-josep-borrell-jungle-remark-foreign-policy/ (last updated 14.11.2022). Racist statements like this and neocolonial backyard policies to countries in the global south that cater first and foremost for the EU’s economic and migration-related interests to the detriment of local populations are eventually tools to let the EU lose geopolitical influence vis-à-vis Russia and China.
The EU’s military built-up does not only divert much-needed funds from addressing climate, social and health emergencies to the arms industry, but also poses a real threat to those caught up in the EU’s security-first approaches in the global south. The EU is now set to continuing this paradigm shift towards hard power, which began well before the war in Ukraine, with even more ambition.
The Union’s reactions to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did include novelties, but these built on the path the EU took since Brexit. The war has led to unprecedented reactions in the form of lethal weapon deliveries via the European Peace Facility into a war zone, a military training mission for 15.000 Ukrainian soldiers, a far-reaching sanctions package against Russia and offering Ukraine the EU member candidate status. In addition, EU member states undertook significant measures such as Germany with its 100 billion euros re-armament special debt—changing the constitution to this end—and the increase of its defence spending to the 2% NATO goal, referred to as the “Zeitenwende”. This, however, will not affect the course of the war in Ukraine. It will take years until the money will be spent and weapon systems have arrived. While EU member states need the capacities for self-defence, already in 2021 the military expenditures of the NATO states exceeded Russia’s almost twenty times over. European NATO states already have the superiority when it comes to troop sizes, combat aircraft, artillery, battle tanks, and armored vehicles. Leaving numbers aside, the war in Ukraine has brought the limited operational and strategic capabilities of the Russian army to broad daylight.
It is the arms deliveries, the sanctions and Ukraine’s member candidate status that Josep Borrell might have in mind when speaking about the EU’s geopolitical awakening. However, the prospects for the EU’s envisioned strategic autonomy that should enable a stronger geopolitical EU are greatly weakened since the war has begun. The failure of the Normandy Format under which France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia were negotiating before the war also constitutes a failure for the Europeans to take security on the continent in their own hands. While French President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO braindead in 2017, the alliance has, with Sweden and Finland, gained two new European members and is now even more of an uncontested cornerstone of European defence. When it comes to energy imports, the EU is now more dependent on fracking gas from the US. The reliance on NATO and US energy imports are the most effective leverages to demand the EU’s allegiance to the United States’ geopolitical ambitions.
The EU should focus its global ambitions on addressing the three biggest threats that humanity is facing: destruction through nuclear war, the loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis. None of these security risks will be solved with more weapons.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has delivered an unambiguous speech during the opening of COP 27 in Egypt. He warned the global community that “we are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing. […] We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.”  António Guterres (2022): Secretary-General’s remarks to High-Level opening of COP27. Available at: https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2022-11-07/secretary-generals-remarks-high-level-opening-of-cop27-delivered-scroll-down-for-all-english-version (last updated 14.11.2022). In short, we cannot afford to shift resources and attention away from addressing the climate crisis to fuelling a global arms race and a new block confrontation. The consequences of climate breakdown already affect and will affect the very material security of the majority of people on this planet. Providing this security means ensuring access to quality food, water, housing, healthcare, education and energy and enabling prospects for a common liveable future.
It is high time to rethink our understanding of security. We cannot afford to maintain a system of security that safeguards the privileged few at the cost of the marginalised many, pushing the latter into a state of constant insecurity and the planet further down the spiral of collapse. A convincing and holistic approach to security derives from social struggles and serves the need for safety of all, by linking questions of class, climate, migration, militarism, peace, state repression, sexism and racism. To secure a liveable future, we require collective security approaches to oppose the current antagonistic security policies and structures. While antagonistic security policies seek to provide security from the other, collective security seeks to generate security with the other. Collective security means arguing for a form of security that makes us safe, because the others are safe. Demanding safety in all aspects of life for all is not utopian, but rather a realistic response that takes the material interdependence of the world seriously. Nobody is safe until everybody is safe.