To Coerce, Co-opt or Combine: European Power in the 2020s

16 Oct 2020 – Written by Carlos Gomez Elguezabal


  • The EU’s influence on the international stage has inversely waned in recent years in relation to the rise of superpowers like the US, Russia and China. The decline leads to questions regarding the likelihood of the EU regaining elements of its former international prowess, and the type of power that would be best exercised to achieve such a resurgence.

  • To increase its international influence, the EU should strive to improve its military capabilities and its cultural instruments of soft power, but above all should focus on retaining and wielding economic power.

  • This use of economic power, as a tool both to coerce and co-opt, can be seen as an example of ‘smart power’ – a combination of traditional hard and soft power approaches, and one applicable for an international Union that must utilise foreign policy externally and internally among its member states.

From its inception the EU was a conceived as a political and economic union that would foster peace and a sense of unity within the continent. As time went by, the ideological underpinnings of this union became the dissemination of its ideals of liberal democracy, free markets and respect for the ideas of human rights. These lofty ideas however, were not the only motive that drove countries with an extensive history of waring together. The end of the Second World War, the Cold War and the fall of the old colonial empires saw the possibility of Europe, which had been up to this moment the greatest power shaping modern history, fade into obscurity in a world dominated by powers such as the US, Russia or China.  The EU was thus born out of the need of European powers to band together in order to remain relevant players in the political arena. Despite its pretence to the superpower status, the EU is radically different in its nature and operating capacities from other superpowers; which has been displayed in the way that the EU has conducted itself on the international stage. Questions then arise – is the European model strong enough to ensure that Europe remains one of the power players or even rises to a preeminent position as a world leader? Conversely, has the project just delayed the inevitable decline or does the possibility of amending the current trend exist? Indeed, to retain or regain relevance, should the EU pursue an approach rooted more in coercive hard power, co-optive soft power or an economically focussed ‘smart power’ approach with elements of both?

Coercion and Hard Power

Traditionally states have derived their power from their militaries, both by imposing their will directly through the use of force or through coercion using the threat of violence. Whilst the world is certainly a more peaceful place and large scale conflicts are more unlikely; as states have recognised the need for mechanisms and regulations to deal with international issues aside from direct confrontation, military power remains the ultimate source of strength (Nye Jr., 2004). This puts the EU in a unique position, where oddly the EU has little in the way of security forces to enforce its will or intervene on its behalf. Moreover, the EU has not been able to be a major player in international military affairs since the Yugoslav war, although it has seen some minor success. The EU’s unique position and structure can be seen as the driving factor behind this. Unlike other superpowers, the EU is reliant on compliance and support from the member states for its Common Security and Defence Policy. Given the diverse nature of the members and their different outlooks and interests, managing a cohesive policy proves exceedingly difficult as evidenced by recent conflicts such as Libya in which the British and French took the lead, or Syria where the EU remained a fringe player.

The EU’s close ties with the US and the NATO membership of most EU countries may have impaired the military cohesion and expansion of the union as it generated an overreliance on US military support and direction. However, a change of direction in Washington DC has seen an isolationist president in power and the current trends in world politics make American lack of interest in European affairs more and more likely while President Trump is in office. Moreover, most of the EU member states, including large members like Germany, that belong to NATO have not been meeting the agreed military expenditure of 2% of their GDP (NATO, 2019; Biggins, 2020) which further reinforces the view that the EU is heavily reliant on American interventionism and, by extension, US hard power. Moreover, the last decades have seen a real decline in European military expenditure, further weakening the pool of forces that the EU can draw from. Despite these negative trends it would be unfair to say that the EU is a military underdog since many of their members (especially France, UK and Germany) retain strong military capabilities. The EU seems the odd case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Ultimately, if the EU wishes to remain a military powerhouse and have coercive capabilities, it must put in place more stringent cooperation measures, ensure that the agreed defence expenditure is met and expand its own permanent forces if countries are unwilling to fully integrate their own. Doing so will also mean that the EU can avoid another untenable “halfway house” approach (Guerrera, 2016; Stiglitz, 2016) that was identified in relation to the Eurozone, another of the EU’s key cooperation initiatives.

Co-option and Soft Power

Whilst military might remains the traditional source of power, the development of an increasingly interconnected and economically integrated world has changed the nature of power politics. Military interventions have become exceedingly costly, making most campaigns unprofitable both by the direct resource drainage that a military endeavour causes and the negative economic externalities that result from wars such as disruptions to trade or the world supply systems. This has led to countries developing different strategies to co-opt or influence other international actors into doing their biding. In the past the EU has been able to wield its position and resources effectively, portraying itself as the hallmark to which countries should aspire and therefore shaping the development of both international and internal affairs. Whilst this may have been the case during the early years of the Union, Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic have had some profound effects that must be analysed.

The EU has used its cultural pre-eminence to try to present the European project as what all countries should aspire to, promoting democracy, trade liberalisation, human rights and a “Green New deal”. The initial success of the economic block did give way to a surge in similar agreements such as NAFTA, although as the years have gone by this trend has slowed down. Furthermore, the common currency has not been implemented by any of the trading areas that emulated the EU. The increasing economic divergence between the member states coupled with the anaemic growth rates that the EU has displayed in the last decade have greatly diminished its influence in this area. Politically too, the EU’s normative power is waning. The dissension between the members, many of which have experienced a surge in Euroscepticism culminating in secessionist movements like Brexit, has not only weakened its capacity to wield normative power but has brought the very viability of the European project into question. Whilst the EU used membership effectively as a tool to influence the Serbian government during its conflict with Kosovo, its power may be geographically limited (to European or adjacent territories) and dependent on continued interest in joining which is waning (Iceland dropped its bid in 2015). It should therefore be a critical point of focus for the EU to advance its political integration and invest in demonstrating that the Union works if they wish to retain their ability to utilise and wield soft power politics.

Economics and Smart Power

The final and probably most important modern area from which the EU derives its power is through its economy. The EU still accounts for just over 15% of the global economy and for the same percentage when it comes to international trade, making it together with the US and China one of the biggest actors in international trade. This is an area that the EU should focus on if it wants to maintain a preeminent position. The large and rich nature of the European market has translated into a widespread influence that can be seen in areas such as regulation or financial sanctions. As Douglas Webber demonstrated by using access to its markets, the EU has been able to make other countries comply to their standards and regulatory practices in order to have access. Furthermore, the EU is no stranger to using more hard power methods such as financial sanctions to influence other countries and bring them into the ‘European democratic’ fold. However, this ability is waning, and the EU must not rest on its laurels. The rapid growth of economies such as the BRICS bloc means that their growth rate has overtaken the EU’s (especially after the 2008 crisis from which the EU’s growth rates struggled to recover), which in turn has reduced the share of the world economy and trade held by the European economies. Aside from that, the avenues for further expansion of the market are diminishing, as afore mentioned membership interest is on the decline and the number of viable members with sizeable economies that would enlarge the market are limited to Switzerland, Russia and Turkey; out of which only Turkey is interested in joining. If the downwards trend wasn’t enough, the Covid-19 pandemic has further aggravated the dire situation by plunging some of the weaker economies into enormous economic contractions.

In Spain for example, the fifth largest economy in the EU has seen a contraction of 12.8% of its GDP (IMF, 2020), an unprecedented fall. The most optimistic estimations calculate that it will take 4 years to recover the GDP to pre-Covid levels. This seems wishful thinking, especially with the mismanagement of the current Socialist led Spanish government which finds itself with an all time low confidence, embroiled in many corruption scandals, a bloated political class and incapable of passing coherent legislations designed to lead Spain down the path of recovery. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the EU addresses its most pressing economic issues and guarantees policies that are conducive to growth and regeneration. Solidarity will be paramount for recovery, but aside from that it may be time for some greater economic integration which allows for more coherent policies that benefits the Union as a whole and dissipates the doubts about the viability of their economic union. This would be crucial in maintaining the Union’s ability to use economic power as a tool of international diplomacy, both in coersive and co-optive capacitices. Conversely, leaders could terminate the Euro experiment as some economists have proposed and allow member states greater economic freedoms and more economic sovereignty.

Therefore, to regain international influence through the 2020s, the EU should try to improve its military capabilities and its cultural instruments of soft power, but above all it should focus on retaining and wielding its economic power, as most of its international ability to control is derived from deploying its economic and financial resources. This combination of hard and soft power could be seen as an example of smart power, which “underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships and institutions of all levels to expand one’s influence and establish legitimacy” (Centre for Strategic & International Studies, 2007) and was designed in large part by Suzanne Nossel (2004). Smart power is particularly relevant to the EU as a union of independent sovereign states as, unlike many other superpowers and international actors, the EU leadership must not only coerce and co-opt outside of its borders, but also within, between the 27 member states.





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Recommended citation:

Gomez Elguezabal, C. (2020) To Coerce, Co-opt or Combine: European Power in the 2020s, IDRN, 16 October. Available at: [Accessed dd/mm/yyyy].