• Tuhina Anoop

Can The European Union be Considered a Superpower?

A superpower can be defined as an entity with a dominant position in international relations, characterised by its unparalleled ability to exert influence on a global scale. While some highlight the great political, economic, and military influence of the union, others may point out the EU’s lack of unity as a key barrier to superpower status. On balance, this essay will argue that the EU can only be compared with the USA in terms of economic influence as this is when member states tend to be most united.

Firstly, we will consider the EU’s political significance on the global stage. It is considered paramount by some, for example, its unique position at G7 summits in addition to the presence of EU member states France, Germany and Italy, suggests that the EU holds influence equivalent to, if not greater than, the USA on the international stage. However, a significant barrier to this would be its status as a non-state actor. For example, the United Nations Security Council is widely regarded as the most influential platform, and any superpower comparable with the USA would be expected to hold veto power as a Permanent Five member. However, the extent of the EU’s influence over the UNSC is France (and previously, the UK) being one of the P5 members. While greater European integration has led to member states having common goals and solutions, this is not significant enough representation to deem the EU a superpower in a political sense.

Furthermore, the EU’s lack of unity is often emphasised as the greatest barrier to reaching superpower-level influence. This is primarily because member states, especially larger ones like Germany and France, would seek to obtain individual goals rather than prioritise EU aims. This is consistent with the realist perspective that states ultimately seek to further national interests, suggesting that the EU may never achieve the unity required to level with the United States. However, supporters of the EU may highlight the recent surge in collective action in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For example, the €500 million in humanitarian support, exclusion from SWIFT, and sanctions against Russian individuals and entities suggest an appetite for coordinated action. However, critics may point out that cooperation tends to be the exception rather than the norm, with some predicting that as sanction-led price rises hurt economies, unity is likely to falter. Even soft power initiatives, such as the Eastern Partnership, which aims to regulate relations between the EU and the ex-Soviet states, appear to have failed terribly, with most countries covered by this initiative being involved in conflict. This suggests that the EU has not become a political superpower and is unlikely to be in the near future, primarily due to the prioritisation of national interest. At the same time, the US is able to act more decisively in foreign policy matters.

Contrastingly, a more plausible view is for the EU to be an economic superpower. The EU is the world’s second-largest economy with trade within the Union accounting for a third of global trade. It is less prone to disunity as free trade within the Customs Union is likely to benefit all member states. This may be resultant of the liberal idea of absolute gain as competitive advantage through free trade maximises productivity and output for both parties. The outer protectionist border shields against international competition, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy shelters local agricultural industries, further benefitting EU member states and their economies. Such bold economic policy is in line with economic superpowers such as the USA as reflected by the ongoing trade war. Furthermore, the EU acting as a trading bloc with access to such a large market allows for greater leverage when negotiating trade deals. For example, the EU has engaged in collective trade disputes at the WTO with economic superpowers like the US and was better able to stand up to the major powers collectively. However, previous criticisms over the lack of unity over policy also exist in the economic sphere to a certain extent. Member states disagree on fiscal and monetary reforms, especially during recessions like the 2008 Financial Crisis – a direct consequence of the loss of economic sovereignty from greater European integration. For example, joining the Eurozone resulted in an inability to tailor monetary policy to support the national economy, with Italy unable to devalue its currency in a recession. This has led to countries in the Economic and Monetary Union relying on fiscal policy, possibly contributing to the Eurozone Sovereign Debt Crisis. However, despite internal challenges, the EU remains an economic powerhouse as trade agreements and sanctions act as leverage during negotiations, allowing for influence on the global stage at a level comparable to the US.

A third reason for recognising the EU as a superpower is its military power, with EU countries spending a total of €200 billion on defence in 2020. If not led by the United States, military interventions and peacekeeping operations tend to be led by EU member states. For example, EULEX Kosovo was the largest civilian mission ever launched under the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) of the EU to support local institutions in the rule of law in Kosovo. However, the EU’s influence is significantly diminished in comparison to NATO. With most EU members also being part of NATO, any EU-led military initiative is often redundant, for example, EULEX Kosovo being supplementary to NATO’s KFOR operation. Furthermore, the EU’s prioritisation of national interest has proved to be a barrier to the EU’s stance as a military superpower. In the same year, as total defence spending increased, the EU’s collaborative defence spending dropped to €4.1 billion. Appetite for a collective EU defence is low with many states not even joining NATO in order to hold a politically neutral status. Therefore, while Europe, as a collection of states, can be considered a military superpower by many measures, the European Union fails to reach the same status.

In conclusion, the EU can only be viewed as a superpower in comparison to the US in relation to economic influence. While economic incentives can be used to impact political and security matters globally, lack of consensus between member states over foreign policy has shown to be the primary factor diminishing the EU’s influence. This is most significantly the case for military power while political influence can be comparable to the US when member states hold consensus, as seen in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022.