Growing pains? The long teenage years of European strategy

As part of our Challenges series, Damien Helly asks if 2016 could be the year we witness the beginning of a renaissance in European strategic global action. From the pain of teenage years, Europe might just be reaching its formative ones.. or committing political suicide.

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      In Spring 2016 the European Union is expected to adopt a new Global Strategy to replace the 2003 European Security Strategy following several months of consultation. Thirteen years after the adoption of the European Security Strategy, the EU is still a teenager in strategic terms.

      Applying psychological concepts to social bodies, such as the European Union, might look strange but it is not new. Psychoanalyst Gerard Haddad recently did it to better understand religious fanatics and Cornelius Castoriadis has looked at collective autonomy.

      There is no clear definition of a teenager, yet experts focus on a set of common features associated with a certain stage of growth and change in a human's life. I have selected a few of these changes that I feel characterise where European societies, EU institutions, Member States and their leaders are right now.


      First the EU, as is common in many teenagers, has experienced physical and mental changes. This is characterised by enlargement for the former and treaty changes and the Charter of Fundamental Rights for the latter. Both these changes have happened since its 2003 strategic exercise.

      Recent studies show how different parts of teenagers’ brains develop at different speeds, resulting in a reduced ability to listen to and bond with others. The EU Preparatory Action on Culture in External Relations project showed how the EU is very often perceived to be patronising and most definitely not in a listening mode.

      It’s not fair!

      During their teenage years, young people show unstable emotional behaviour without strong reasoning abilities. The EU has been strongly criticised for not being able to cope with its own crises - be it Brexit, Grexit or large migration flows.

      Outside Europe, the EU and its Member States use diplomacy and cooperation to follow and react to crises (though usually with a very controlled - if not constrained - rhetoric) without being able to really prevent them. Their societies are influenced by the media and as we have seen Europeans can become very emotional in the case of the migration to Europe or the conflict in Ukraine. 

      Teenagers live in the illusion of autonomy, feeling they are able to shape their own lives and be the masters of their own destiny while they (usually) rely heavily on their parents and siblings.

      EU Member States behave with the same kind of illusion - of autonomy from the United States, NATO defence alliances, global development commitments and other elderly siblings like Russia.

      Teenagers usually learn to acquire enough maturity to take responsibility for hard choices and become autonomous. But they are usually influenced by immediate gratification and don’t think about the future.

      “Am I ready to be accountable?”

      “What do I lose if I join the adult crowd?”

      European societies and their leaders are struggling to define their collective autonomy. They don’t manage to design their own visions of the future. They don’t define Europe’s political and geographic boundaries. What kind of society and economy do we want to be built together, and where do Europe's borders stop?

      Europe needs to establish and comply with common rules and be realistic in acknowledging that local and national frameworks will not be enough to cope with globalisation. Europeans need to ask themselves what they gain or lose by transferring sovereignty to a supranational body.

      European decision makers are struggling with the symbol of their political and institutional parents and siblings in asserting their maturity, autonomy, self-confidence and self-awareness as a collective entity.

      Growing up?

      2016 might be, with the adoption of the #EUGlobalStrategy, an enthusiastic time for those still hoping that Europe can become more autonomous as a collective in Castoriadis’ terms.

      Hope is probably another missing ingredient in a European strategic renaissance. Options for more efficient, integrated and coherent external action towards global development are well known and have been put forward already by numerous think tanks including the European Think Tanks Group.

      Some of these options already considered in the Lisbon Treaty are not really implemented: it is the case of European Defence. Other options, such as the banking union, are a reality. Others are in the making. It is the case of the energy union. They all require a shift in mentality and a transfer of sovereignty. Sovereignty transfers are justified by a shifting subsidiarity - the most relevant level of decision making and strategic initiative to foster global peace and development is not exclusively at the national level anymore.

      One measure of this mental shift would be to steadily widen and systematically use qualified majority voting in European foreign affairs. Another one is to entrust smaller groups of Member States to handle specific policies and initiatives on behalf of others with the support of EU institutions.

      National diplomats and politicians obviously prefer being in an attitude of denial. If, as Ambassador Pierre Vimont recently stated at the Genshagen Forum, Europeans continue to be masters at “fudging the real issues”, Europe’s political teenage years might end badly.

      The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

      Video courtesy of BBC Worldwide.

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