The European Union’s phase of power

Ricardo Borges de Castro
Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World Programme
European Policy Centre

Russia’s war on Ukraine and its consequences for Europe’s security order usher the European integration project into a new chapter: The phase of power.

After the phase of ‘peace, reconciliation, and consolidation’ (1951-1991) and the phase of ‘progress and reunification’ (1991-2021), the European Union needs now to adapt to a new context of permacrisis that is more uncertain, volatile, and unpredictable than before. ‘Hard power’ has become a key currency of international politics and the EU should adjust to this evolving reality.

Although the EU has attempted unsuccessfully in the past to become a more credible geopolitical actor, the events unleashed by Russia on 24 February 2022 are a watershed moment for Europe, and the Union can only thrive if it learns and speaks the language of power in this new environment.

Challenges lie ahead. The EU’s crash course in geopolitics will be shaped by key structural changes to the global order and adverse trends. A clear understanding of these framing factors along with foresight, unity, and political will, can be the difference between EU mastering or not the coming decade.

Structural changes

The nature of power has changed. Traditional elements of power – population, territory, GDP and military might – are no longer sufficient to wield influence in today’s world.

Relationships, connectivity, technology, and soft power are as important to navigate the 21st century. Hybrid threats, including the weaponisation of mundane goods and events such as information, energy, or movements of people, are on the rise.

The number of global players has increased. Non-state actors (malicious or not), private foundations, civil society, networks, cities and regions, as well as influential individuals have joined nation states, international organisations, and multinational corporations on the world stage, making it more complex. Additionally, actors that have been dominant until now, such as Europe or the United States, are being challenged by emerging powers with the ability to re-shape the international system and propose alternative governance models, like China. Russia’s war on Ukraine is now the most serious test to the order that emerged after World War II.

The pace of change is accelerating. The speed of the technological and digital revolution is increasing, a trend further bolstered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Governments – especially democracies – lag when it comes to adapting to disruptive technologies and offsetting their potential negative effects. More robust anticipatory democracies are needed to face this growing challenge. If European democracy can’t be faster, it needs to be smarter.


Digitalisation and climate change – can be considered ‘meta-trends’ because they affect all global players and all EU policies, as well as other key drivers of change. The remaining four are not exclusive to Europe, but they play a determining role in its future: demographic dynamics; the shift of economic power to the East; the decline of democracy; and the return of great power politics.


Digitalisation and the tech revolution were accelerated by the pandemic. Today, digital tech is an integral part of how countries govern or fight, as well as of how people work, learn, consume, socialise, and access services. The tech revolution increasingly shapes geopolitics too. When compared to the ongoing race between the US and China on Artificial Intelligence, robotics, 5G, chips, quantum, and other cutting-edge technologies, the EU is behind and that undermines its global standing.

Following current trends, the global temperature is expected to increase by 1.5°C by 2040, and even earlier, if emissions are not drastically cut in the coming years. This will likely accelerate the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, droughts, forest fires, and loss of biodiversity, with important implications for everything from food (in)security, global and local governance to displacement of populations and conflict. The EU will be called to step-in and step-up in responding to the effects of climate change.

 Key trends

While demographic patterns are mixed within Europe, the overall trend shows that there will be fewer Europeans, and they’ll be older in general. By 2030, 25.5 per cent of Europe’s population will be over 65. There are many implications, but by far the most relevant is the future sustainability of Europe’s welfare state (already strained by the pandemic). Yet, only a strong and resilient social fabric can support a credible EU in global affairs.

Not only will Europeans be fewer and older, but Europe’s economic power is also waning. The economy matters to Europe’s role in the world, and it is projected that by 2030, the EU27 will become the world’s third economic power after China and the US. What is more, the centre of economic gravity is likely to progressively shift to the East. The pandemic and Russia’s aggression on Ukraine revealed EU global value-chains’ dependencies and vulnerabilities likely to lead to a transformation of the current model of globalisation and free trade.

Europe’s (and the West’s) governance model is also being challenged worldwide. Until 2005, democracy and freedom were on the rise. But, according to FreedomHouse, for the last 16 consecutive years, the adherence to fundamental rights and freedoms (of expression, religion, press, etc.) and the rule of law has been steadily declining. COVID-19 made matters worse. In Europe too, democratic backsliding is spreading and that should be an eye opener for policy-and decision-makers when they consider Europe’s place in the world.

The global decline of democracy may also be a result of the return of great power (strongman) politics, which is testing the international, rules-based multilateral order, resulting in a more challenging environment for the EU. The outcome of Russia’s illegal war of aggression on Ukraine may well determine the future of the post-World War II international system.

 Keeping the eye on the ball

Supporting Ukraine and making sure that Russia does not get away with a brutal war of aggression, as well as all the crimes committed against Ukrainians should be at the top of the agenda of any European leader.

But to eventually master the permacrisis the EU and its member countries need to understand the ongoing structural changes and key trends shaping the EU’s global role and adapt to this new ‘phase of power’ in the European integration project.

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