The European Union: Always on the Verge of Becoming a World Power.[1]

This is the second of a series of four articles devoted to an analysis of current world powers.  It deals with the European Union as an incomplete project at the mercy of events, which it can neither steer, nor control.


How is an object of study defined in the social sciences?  One of my teachers and a great sociologist, Everett Cherrington Hughes, used to say that in the specialty of field work “in order to define a phenomenon do not ask what it is, but instead what it is not and what it is like.”     

The question is important when we try to define the European Union, because nobody really knows what it is.  Is it an alliance?, a super-state?, a federation?, or simply a utopia?

When Henry Kissinger —at the time the US Secretary of State under president Nixon—asked “If I wish to call Europe, what number do I dial?”, he was not joking.

The difficulty consists in the fact that the name of European Union refers to 28 sovereign countries, that it has seven institutions: the European Parliament, the European Council, the European Commission, the Justice Tribunal, the Accounts Tribunal, and the European Central Bank, without making clear in whose name each of them speaks, with what authority, and whom does it represent.

In today’s global world –whether we like it or not—power flows between a multitude of actors on the national, regional, and international levels, between the public and the private spheres, and between governmental and non-governmental organizations.

In the particular case of the European Union, one must observe three levels of action of a multi-state organization that has not yet resolved (1) the issue of its own sovereignty, or (2) the issue of its representative legitimacy at a supra-state level, and (3) the issue of participation at the popular consultative level.  These three levels  of action and issue sometimes coincide, and sometimes they do not.[1]

Because of all this, the European Union suffers from a structural weakness in front of the other powers that today compete for supremacy:  The US, Russia, and China.  For better or for worse, these three are more strongly structured.  In this context, the EU does have important resources in terms of human capital, cultural capital, productive capacity, technological know-how, a significant demographic reserve, and societies that are relatively free and democratic.

Nevertheless, in order for these advantages to converge and produce a true world power, the EU needs popular legitimacy, political will, and a historic project that can mobilize and enthuse the population, and not a mere rejection of a conflictive and controversial past.  It is easy to understand why and how a few statesmen conceived the project of a European union in order to prevent suicidal wars like the ones that plagued the Continent in the 20th century.  As a slogan and battle cry “Never Again” must be supplemented by an enthusiastic and positive vision of the future.

We could easily apply to the European project the thesis that Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset developed in relation to what he labeled an “invertebrate Spain.”  He pointed to the dangers coming from a secessionist particularism (today we would say nationalism and fragmentation).  Ortega maintained that in the absence of an enthusiastic and hopeful popular project that goes beyond narrow borders, a sovereign entity would devolve from the periphery to the center.  In Europe such process started with the economic crises in the Mediterranean countries (e.g. Greece), followed by the reactionary policies of some Central and Eastern European members (e.g. Hungary), and moved to the center with Brexit.  Because of this, we could easily apply to the entire EU the sarcastic apothegm of General De Gaulle in reference to Brazil: “It is the powerhouse of the future, and will always be.”

If we follow the counsel of Everett C. Hughes, we should say that the European Union is not a true union like the United States because it lacks a real central and multi-functional bank like the Federal Reserve (the ECB exists mostly to protect the value of the Euro [2]) The difference is clear[3]. It also lacks a central government with a strong executive, and a system of political parties at the European level, with real participation, and under a real constitution.[4]. The closest analogy of the current EU is the transitional period in the United States known as the Articles of Confederation (1781-1787) before the drafting of the American Constitution.

Furthermore, the European Union cannot be considered a federation like the Russian Federation.  The latter has a central country, a dictatorial executive, and controlled, or sham, elections. Neither is the EU a “popular” republic like China, with a party-state, and a managed capitalist economy in which the communist party controls society in a meticulous techno-authoritarian manner.  The Russian and the Chinese powers openly and officially reject Western liberal democracy and place their faith in other forms of legitimation, such as technocratic efficiency, economic growth, nationalism, or historical revanchism.[5]

If all this is what the European Union is not, what is it like? What kind of conglomerate, or unique set does it resemble?  I would say that it resembles a club with a a set of officers or directors, and a diverse or differentiated membership, split between the more important and the less important ones in terms of economic clout and capacity to make decisions. Moreover, each member is also accountable to its national constituency, for whom the European project looks aloof and removed from their daily interests and activities. The EU is not a like the Club Mediterranee (the Mediterranean members are weak)  but is more like a Northern Club with peripheral subscribers to the South and the East. If we try a sports analogy we could say that the EU is like a league of soccer teams that play with each other but have no fans in the stadiums.  Without the presence of fans, there is no sport, no matter how well televised the games are.[6]

The still weak European Union is not well placed in the current rivalry between the other super-powers. The danger is well known, and the sociological “law” that describes it is even part of popular culture.  In the famous gaucho poem Martin Fierro we read:

Los hermanos sean unidos porque esa es la ley

primera.  Tengan unión verdadera en cualquier

tiempo que sea, porque si entre ellos pelean

los devoran los de afuera.

Brothers be united
because that is the first law;
have they a truthful union
any time it may be,
because if they fight among themselves
will they be devoured by those from outside.

It is time to engage in an exercise of geopolitical fiction. Imagine an advanced and rich democracy, in which all sorts of progressive policies are enacted, notably those measures that are designed to protect the environment and mitigate climate change, in the name of future generations.  The real model for such fictive country does exist.  It is Norway. I invite the reader to watch a Netflix series from Norway titled Okkupiert (Occupied), which first showed on 27 September 2015 in Norway’s TV2.[7] 

The TV series takes place in the near future, when Russia, in cahoots with the European Union (Norway is not a member) invades Norway, to force it to continue its interrupted production of oil and gas, which it used to export to Europe but has decided to replace with a cleaner source of energy.[8]

With such action, the Russian power seeks to secure access to the North Sea oil.  It is not an Anschluss like Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938 or the German invasion of Norway in 1940.  There are no tanks in the streets or air bombardments.  The Russian occupation (with the connivance of the EU) is relatively “calm” and life under occupation seems “normal.”

This dystopian fiction prompts two observations.  The first is how weak the EU is, and how it surrenders to Russian pressure and is willing to betray Norway (which although not a member of the Union is a member of NATO).  The EU puts its short-term interests ahead of anything else.  The second observation is how the nature of war has changed and moved beyond the classic On War by von Clausewitz.  It is possible to engage in more “peaceful” forms of aggression and supremacy –a different form of violence.[9] 

These two observations point to a strategic scenario that was drawn in the distant past by Sun Tzu (The Art of War, produced five centuries before our era) and in a less distant past by Etienne de la Boetie (A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, published in 1576).  The strategy consists in a systematic occupation of space (real or symbolic) in order to obtain the submission of the enemy without an open fight.  Such scenario is worth considering these days (e.g. Ukraine, Taiwan).

In short: Europe has a grand destiny as a potential power, but faces grave dangers in its present condition of poor design and multiple disagreements.

[1] The best study I know on such issues is by Luuk van Middelaar, The Passage to Europe.  How a Continent Became a Union.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020, 2nd edition.

[2]  The single currency is the main reason why European citizens have rejected leaving the Union, in such countries as Spain, Italy, and Greece.  Their savings are in Euros.

[3]To appreciate the difference, see

[4] A review of its often confusing functioning is in it

[5] The Chinese leadership does not seem to understand or appreciate the fact that an open society is not a mechanism of capital accumulation but a form of life in relative freedom, with all the interesting “disorder” that it entails.   In Churchill’s words, democracy is the worst political system, except for all the others.

[6]  It is worth noting that a demagogue like Donald Trump has always gone beyond his notorious tweets and made sure to organize in-person rallies in order to maintain his followers in a state of permanent mobilization. 


[8] Norway is a net exporter of oil and gas through the state enterprise Statoil, but inside the country, the main source of power is hydroelectric.

[9] The strategic vision is actually very old when we examine certain oriental arts of warfare.

[1] I am retaking some of the themes developed in my E-Book Why Europe?

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