Europe on the International Scene: A Union of Necessity After a Union of Choice?

Cesare Merlini
Cesare Merlini Former Brookings Expert, Chairman, Board of Trustees - Istituto Affari Internazionali, Rome

December 8, 2009

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Cesare Merlini’s chapter in The European Union in the 21st Century: Perspectives from the Lisbon Treaty (Brussels: Center for European Policy Studies/CEPS, 2009), a volume edited by Stefano Micossi and Gian Luigi Tosato.

Thus far the role of the European Union (formerly, the Community) on the international scene has been largely passive, in the sense that it has been less the outcome of policies or political will than the consequence of its very existence. The EU has been a conspicuous and expanding reality, an area of prosperity and the sum of important or at least not irrelevant states. Moreover the Union has been an atypical player in the world system, because of the implicit, irreversible peace among its member states, and because of its unparalleled and unprecedented hybrid of federal and intergovernmental institutions – a model possibly to be copied in other contexts. The magnetic effect on neighbouring states has been remarkable and has led to the view that the EU has so far exerted its geopolitical influence mostly through enlargement, in particular with the latest accession of ten plus two countries.

With respect to enlargement to include Eastern European countries formerly belonging to the Soviet empire or even the Soviet Union itself, it may be noted, by the way, that it has taken place while the West has seen its global presence and influence shrinking and/or declining. This applies particularly to the Asian continent, with the unsuccessful wars the US has fought in it, following the historical demise of the European empires. In other words a sort of counter-cyclical Western expansion has been achieved through the attractiveness of its institutions, above all the EU but also NATO, rather than through the action of its armies.

The perception of the EU as an international player by its shear existence, not only in economic terms (the euro, trade, competition law) but also, at least potentially, in political terms is also gaining ground abroad. Robert Kagan, for instance, an analyst not generally known for his softness vis-à-vis the Europeans, who he famously said are from Venus while the Americans are from Mars, subsequently wrote that the European Union is a “geopolitical miracle” that “in its own way, expresses a pan-European national ambition to play a significant role in the world, channeling German, French and British ambitions.” Former Italian Foreign Minister D’Alema likes to recall a meeting he had, together with two other European leaders, with Chinese President Hu Jintao, who told them, “We are a great power that will be called upon (during the first half of the 21st century) to manage Chinese-American bipolarism” – at which point, realising he was addressing a group of Europeans, he added, “Obviously, Europe will also be there,… if it is united.”

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