Seventy-three years ago, then French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman presented his idea for a new form of political cooperation in Europe: the Schuman Declaration, which paved the way for the later European Coal and Steel Community. It was supposed to make war between the states of Europe unthinkable.

This has been achieved. At least within the 27 EU member states, war is indeed no longer conceivable today. This historic achievement of European integration can hardly be overestimated in view of our continent’s warlike past. More than a year after Russia’s attack on Ukraine, its outstanding importance has become visible in a tragic way. While the narrative of the EU as a guarantor of peace, which has been used by pro-Europeans for many years, was considered almost old hat that did not quite turn heads anymore, it is now weightier than ever.

We know from our eupinions surveys that 49 per cent of Europeans consider peacekeeping to be the most important task of the EU at present. This puts it in first place on the list of priorities of European citizens. Before the outbreak of war, this figure was at just 35 percent (4th place). One of the EU’s central founding impulses, namely “never again,” has become once again dramatically topical – more than 70 years after the Schuman Declaration.

Irreplaceable as an anchor for collective action

The Russian war of annihilation against Ukraine exemplifies why the EU has become an indispensable necessity today – and at the same time remains a permanent task for shaping the future. Like other challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change, the war is too big, too existential, too complex for a European nation-state on its own to be able to respond adequately.

While NATO may guarantee collective security militarily, it was the EU that proved itself to be the central organ of common war response for Europeans. With remarkable speed and unity, it has provided financial aid, granted Ukraine candidate status, taken in refugees and supplied weapons – always with the consent of European citizens. Furthermore, the EU can only achieve energy independence from Russia by working together if it does not want to harm itself economically.

It is true that some arms deliveries to Kyiv may still come too late and be too small. There are also occasional cracks in European unity, as shown by Hungary’s withdrawal from sanctions efforts. Overall, however, the EU has largely resisted all Russian efforts to divide it and has demonstrated its inestimable value as an anchor for collective action.

At the same time, the war exposes the Union’s imperfections and its immense need for action. Russia’s attack is a (particularly terrible) symptom of a new multipolar world order. China, which supports Russia not with weapons but economically, is clearly pursuing the goal of significantly expanding its influence on the fate of the world and is consequently in conflict with the USA, for decades the only real global power.

Need for action in a multipolar world

The central means by which this conflict is being fought out is geoeconomics. Today, economic policy has become an essential instrument for projecting power. On the one hand, it serves to proactively exert political influence on third parties through the creation of dependencies.

On the other hand, the industrial policy of the major blocs is aimed at defensively strengthening their own capacities to reduce their vulnerability to the foreign economic policy of third parties. The focus is primarily on those technologies, raw materials and products that are particularly critical in the course of the transformation towards digitalisation and decarbonisation – chips, semiconductors, battery cells, rare earths, solar modules and infrastructure, to name just a few examples.

China has been pursuing this strategy for several years with long-term planning and great consistency. With the “Made in China 2025” plan, the People’s Republic is pursuing the goal of becoming the world’s leading technology and industrial power and increasing the share of Chinese manufacturers of “core components and important basic materials” on the domestic market to 70 per cent.

With the Belt and Road Initiative, China set out 10 years ago to create a network of economic interdependence across numerous third countries through investments, loans, raw material partnerships, trade agreements, and, above all, infrastructure projects.

The EU, on the other hand, has only recently woken up and still has a lot of work to do in the geo-economic competition, from which it cannot escape. Recently launched initiatives and instruments such as the European Chips Act, by which Europe wants to strengthen its resilience in the critical field of semiconductor technology, or the Anti-Coercion Mechanism, by which the EU seeks to protect itself against economic blackmailing, point in the right direction.

However, they were launched late, still have to prove themselves in practice and are not yet enough to empower the EU in a way that it can shape the multipolar world according to European values and interests. Even in regions where the EU is already the largest economic actor, namely in its immediate neighbourhood, it is not very successful in exerting political influence in mutual interest.

Building on strengths and potential

Yet Europe’s potential is still huge. Even if Europe’s share of the world economy has been dwindling for some years, the single market, which adds 840 euros a year to European per capita prosperity, gives Europe considerable appeal as well as regulatory power.

A common market with 450 million consumers can set standards that have significance far beyond Europe’s borders (the so-called “Brussels effect”). With the planned AI Act, for example, the EU is preparing to become the first global economic power to regulate the use of algorithms and artificial intelligence in the interests of its citizens. Here and in the area of climate protection, the EU can be a global pioneer.

At the same time, the European Union must ensure that its, justified, striving for competitiveness does not come at the expense of its internal cohesion. If innovation and sustainable productivity growth are concentrated only in a few top regions, others will lose out.

Yet Europe’s external attractiveness and soft power are based on a model that seeks to raise the living standards of all, not just the strongest. It is based on the unique combination of a democratic, rules-based order with a social market economy. The EU should build on these strengths to assert itself as the constructive, powerful or “sovereign” shaper of the rules-based order that it can be.

Seventy-three years after the Schuman Plan was conceived, the EU is far from perfect. It will probably never be completely “finished” either. But it is still normatively “right” and economically and politically indispensable. It deserves to be further developed and strengthened to the extent that is so urgently needed.

About the author

Malte Zabel is Co-Director of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Europe’s Future Program, which pursues projects on the EU’s sovereignty, a coherent internal market, and European public opinion.

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