From Emmanuel Macron to Ursula von der Leyen, many European leaders dream of the European Union (EU) asserting itself one day as a geopolitical superpower in its own right.
There is still a long way to go, however. True, the Europeans manage to play some degree of power politics vis-à-vis Moscow—the EU economic sanctions over the annexation of Crimea certainly help contain a resurgent Russia. But on almost all other geopolitical hot-button issues, Europeans fail to formulate any meaningful foreign policy that can’t be ignored by the big powers.
In Syria, the EU has been AWOL despite millions of Syrians having fled the civil war to Europe. In Libya, EU members cancel each other out. Berlin and Rome back the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, while Paris lends at least diplomatic support to military strongman Khalifa Haftar. In Iran, Europeans fail to deliver on their obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal, as Washington’s secondary sanctions prevent EU companies from trading with Tehran. In the Balkans, Brussels is struggling to uphold its influence, which is further complicated by France, the Netherlands, and Denmark making it clear that they are not keen on allowing EU enlargement into Albania and North Macedonia anytime soon.
And Europeans have effectively decided not to take sides in the Sino-American stand-off. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says that “the pressure to choose sides is growing. As the EU, we should follow our own interests and values and avoid being instrumentalized by one or the other.” The EU is not considering sanctions on Beijing over its Hong Kong power grab. Instead, Berlin keeps pushing for a long-coveted EU-China investment treaty. Germany’s ambassador to Beijing says that “the economic impact of COVID-19” makes a deal “more urgent than ever.” EU diplomats even tried to play down China’s role in COVID-19 disinformation policy in order to keep cooperation with Beijing focused on “win-win” issues.
From an outcome perspective, the EU’s foreign policy might often best be described as “neutral.” Either the EU’s members are simply too divided to agree on clear foreign policy goals, let alone on how to achieve them, or Europeans consciously agree not to take part in geopolitics, as they see no benefit to it.
Neutral by Default
“Neutrality” is a foreign policy doctrine commonly associated with Switzerland. And it is no coincidence that the EU shares some striking similarities with the Helvetic Confederation.
Like the EU’s 27 members, Switzerland’s 26 cantons differ widely in terms of language (German, French, Italian, Romansh), cultural imprint, religion, and economic links. As with the EU, Swiss politics is thus essentially the art of compromise between the cantons. And like the Europeans, this approach of “government by perpetual negotiation” worked wonders in advancing economic integration, but failed in formulating a common foreign policy stance.
Historically, the differences have been just too big to bridge. In the Thirty Years’ War, Catholic cantons wanted to side with the Holy Roman Empire, pitting them against Protestant ones. In World War I, German-speaking cantons trading primarily with Germany were euphoric about Kaiser Wilhelm II. But the French-speaking Swiss viewed Berlin as an aggressor and had no interest in endangering their economic links to France.
Domestic diversity made it impossible for Switzerland to become a geopolitical actor. Instead, in a continuously warring Europe, the Swiss had only one option to keep the peace at home and protect its economy: ignore foreign policy.
Should the notoriously squabbling Europeans—stuck between an inward-looking United States and a rising China—drop their geopolitical ambitions and go Swiss? After all, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck described politics as “the art of the possible, the attainable – the art of the next best.”
It would certainly yield economic benefits, as the Swiss have learned to appreciate with time. In a world that’s once again tending towards a bipolar configuration of power, the biggest winners are the ones who are able to trade with all sides.
Moreover, noninterventionism is popular across Europe. A poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that the overwhelming majority of Europeans would like the EU to stay out of a potential conflict between the United States and China or Russia. The overall picture is strikingly similar from France to Germany. Even in Poland, only 33% would want to join Washington in a conflict with Moscow.
A Swiss-style foreign policy limited to the pursuit of economic interests, multilateralism, and impartial mediation of conflict may be the only doctrine that Europe’s peoples can unite around. And overtly embracing neutrality could also be a genuine source of European collective identity. Originally a result of Switzerland’s geopolitical dysfunctionality, neutrality is today one of the strongest determinants of national identity. Eighty-three percent of the Swiss take pride in the country being neutral, and 95% want to maintain it, recent polls shows.
But fully embracing the Swiss option has one big flaw for Europeans: You can only be neutral if you don’t rely on anyone else for security. This is why the Swiss still maintain one of the world’s largest conscription armies. It also explains why Switzerland is a member of neither the EU nor NATO. The EU’s members would thus have to turn their back on the transatlantic defense alliance.
Of course, Paris is keen on getting serious on European defense. Macron has declared NATO “braindead” and is working towards strengthening Europe’s sovereignty. But Germany, which feels most drawn to a Swiss-style foreign policy of neutrality, shows no signs of wanting to end its reliance on NATO for security. Merkel refuses to attend Donald Trump’s G7 meeting, but Berlin still wants the U.S. to keep troops on German ground, which is being threatened at this very moment.
Moving the EU further towards becoming a more sovereign political entity capable of defending itself is thus a precondition for both Macron’s dream of the EU as a geopolitical superpower and the Bismarckian second-best option of the EU as a giant Switzerland. Until then, the EU’s foreign policy will remain hybrid: transatlantic on Russia, neutral on China, and confused and divided—and thus often irrelevant—on anything else.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.