Is the West going global? The EU in a new security environment

By Jürgen Dieringer

In the new global disorder, the West has to rethink security and welfare. The newly multipolar world faces a show-off of dictatorship and democracy, and the front lines are not always clear. How can the West reorganize itself, and how should the EU balance widening and deepening. I suggest a flexible EU with different layers of integration, some of them open to countries like Ukraine and Turkey, and a “global West” that interconnects European and Indo-Pacific security.

Deepening and widening: European schizophrenia

Since its establishment in the 1950s, European integration was driven by deepening and widening as two sides of the same coin. Deepening the Union meant establishing a single currency (the Euro), a single market, and freedom of movement (Schengen). When the speed European integration took accelerated, meeting the criteria for accession became more challenging. Taking over European legal provisions (the acquis communautaire) meant hitting a moving target, and accession processes stretched over years and decades. Acceding countries often adapted to European standards hastily to be able to jump on the moving train. They feared veto positions of EU member states more than incompatibilities of European norms with national traditions. This resulted in several postponed conflicts concerning national sovereignty. Some populists started to call Brussels the “new Moscow“. The range of conflicts stretches from comedy-like discussions like the Hungarian wish to be able to feed moslék (biological kitchen disposables with an unfortunate appearance) to pigs, to deep-cutting disputes, for example, about a European quota for the distribution of migrants. Such European infighting resulted in post-accession blues and enlargement fatigue, leaving both sides disillusioned and dissatisfied.

Russia’s war in Ukraine: the turning point?

The war in Ukraine fueled the discussion. The domestic argument (safeguarding the inner functioning of the Union) got challenged by a geopolitical one about preserving Western civilization, which contenders from the authoritarian-totalitarian camp challenge (namely China and Russia). The new multipolar world order is much more competitive than the hegemonic Pax Americana, allowing Europe to free-ride conveniently through three decades, buck-passing the dirty jobs to the US.

Some fiction for fun!

The attempt to strengthen the West in the upcoming conflicts with major or rising powers requires coalition-building. That means that we have to conceive the integration of regionally significant middle powers like Ukraine and Turkey and geographically and strategically crucial countries like Georgia or Israel from a new angle. They have to be integrated – somehow!

Still, the argument is valid that widening too far by countries with uncertain democratic status would put at risk what we have achieved so far. How to bring geopolitical ambition and domestic stability into harmony? How can the conflict of objectives be organized as a trade-off creating synergies? One central component is to rethink the institutional setting in which the West manages mutual relations.

Establishing a global security order: “Global” NATO or “global West”?

NATO is a defensive organization. Initially, the scope of NATO’s action was limited to the Atlantic area North of the tropic of cancer. The end of the Cold War and new challenges like asymmetrical warfare and terrorism urged reform. There was a massive discussion about out-of-area actions, that finally materialized in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11.

NATO must go “(…) out of area or out of business” (US Senator Richard Lugar, 1993; Source: Indiana University Bloomington)

Still, NATO lost a bit of scope, and internal conflicts (Greece-Turkey), democratic backsliding (Turkey, Hungary, Poland), and Donald Trump, made the Alliance’s future not shine in the brightest colors. At least until the game changer popped in and the Russian war in Ukraine boosted the relevance of NATO back to Cold War levels. But is NATO the right institution to frame the West’s global ambitions?

The challenge to the Western world is both local and global. It is local, as war happens at the Eastern borders of NATO and EU. It is global because we enter into a competition of ideologies where Western liberal democracy faces Eastern illiberal authoritarianism. Some call it “systemic competition”. Solving the local conflict will not solve the global clash, and this is why NATO alone is not the right vehicle for tackling the Far East. But what else? There exists nothing comparable to NATO in the Indo-Pacific region. Many European powers are reluctant to get engaged beyond trade and technological exchange. Only the US, and on a lower scale, the UK, have built considerable military alliances in the East. They did so, historically, with ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, US), recently with AUKUS (Australia, UK, USA). Such multilateral security regimes are far from the depth of political and military integration in NATO, not to speak of economic integration in the EU. And what about Japan, South Korea, Taiwan? Here we find bilateral treaties that have hardly any depth regarding the grade of institutionalization.

The West – countries that share an idea about civilization, thus including countries Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand – must recognize that security is best provided globally, and that European security and Indo-Pacific security are interlinked. Therefore, a “global West” should sit on three pillars: North America, Europe, and Austral-Asia. Such a triangular security shield can be either organized as a new international organization, succeeding NATO, or with the Europeans (the EU) and Japan plus South Korea participating in an enlarged and institutionalized AUKUS (AUKJEUS). But here the EU is the problem.

Regional flexibility: A multi-depth Europe

For the EU, a “Global West”-model would require speeding up the development of the European Foreign and Security Policy and European Security and Defense Policy, not at the cost of NATO but complementary to it. Deeper integration in this area may not be manageable with coercing all 27 member states into it, especially as unanimity in voting procedures (the consensus principle) makes finding compromises and agreeing on package deals very difficult. We will make fast progress here only if we allow a multi-speed Europe.

What we need is flexible integration and enhanced cooperation. A multi-speed Europe is already possible according to the Treaties the EU settles upon. The method is in use, for example in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO, Article 42.6 Treaty on European Union), where armies of EU member states cooperate in predefined areas. This is enhanced cooperation, Denmark and Malta opted out, but non-European states are about to opt-in: the US, Canada, and Norway participate in some areas. It is a beginning. Still, a core of European countries should start to set up a fully-fledged European army, as it was suggested not only once by France but never boosted by a reluctant Germany. A European army with a European military budget and composed of France, Germany, and the Benelux countries, may attract countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, or Poland and create spill-over. Military integration might be a pacemaker for further dynamic integration, both with respect to deepening and widening. If it is successful, the others will follow.

An inner security core of the EU should be concentrically accompanied by making economic gravity stronger in every new circle. From bottom to top, level 1: Customs union; L2: Single market and basic freedoms; L3: Monetary union/European currency; L4 2: Social and transfer union; L5: Security union. The more the policy is located in “high politics” (security, finances), and the higher the grade of integration in the respective circle, the stricter the rules on fiscal and democratic accountability should be. This linkage between security, accountability, and transfers is crucial. In such a setting, unanimity voting and veto power are unnecessary. The European Parliament would be the decisive lawmaker (voting only with those members representing a country integrated on the respective level). Every government decides upon the level of integration, and if Warsaw or Budapest claim challenges to their sovereignty at a certain level, they don’t have to be there. This way, countries like Norway and Switzerland, the UK, or Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, could find their place without “old members” fearing disintegration. Even for countries like Israel and Iceland, this could be interesting.

Challenges ahead

The suggested structure for the EU is far away from being unproblematic. Policies in the EU are already profoundly integrated, and cutting them artificially into levels might produce features of disintegration. Anyway, we already have different speeds: with Schengen, the Euro, with the European Public Prosecutor’s Office, to name but a few. Let’s face reality, the present intergovernmental institutional structure in EU’s foreign and security policies – with nation states in the role of gate keepers and bottlenecks – prevents the European Union from becoming a global power. Why should the slowest ship in convoy define the speed? It is better if someone pulls.


European Parliament: Flexibility Mechanisms in the Lisbon Treaty, 2015

The author

Dr. Jürgen Dieringer is a Brussels-based political analyst. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Brussels School of Governance and Honorary Professor of Andrássy University Budapest. He has published widely on European Integration and East- and Central Europe.