Hamid Bahrami

Does the EU have the foundations to emerge as a superpower in the 21st century?

The European Union Flag

As one of the major economic blocs in the international community, the European Union tries to cohere its internal relations in economic, cultural, and social fields in order to increase its international influence and credibility. The Union uses such privileges to develop its political convergence to establish a single voice aiming to become a superpower in the 21st century. One of the main goals of the European Union is to promote multilateralism by playing a pivotal role in resolving international issues. 

During the Cold War, the European Union wished to play as a polar. However, the bipolar conditions of the world and the hegemon power of the United States in the West prevented the Union from playing an active role in international politics. Since then, the EU has tried to exploit its geo-economic and geo-cultural identity to achieve a geopolitical identity by forming common foreign, security and defence policies.

Zielonka (2006, p. 161) writes that the European Union is fundamentally opposed to the idea of the American unipolar World Order, viewing itself at the level of China and Japan, and the US. In this context, the European Union has attempted to redefine its situation by forming new strategies and focusing on convergence, stabilisation, cooperation, economic growth, strengthening military capabilities, media and cultural power. 

Based on the above argument, the relationship between the EU and other international actors is decisive because the Union’s main members significantly influence political, economic, cultural and scientific international organisations. While examining the status of the European Union based on the above factors, this essay focuses on the EU’s role in the international system comparing the US and China with Europe, whether it has the five foundations of the population, economy, politics, military, and cultural powers to become a superpower.

In the form of convergence and integration strategy, the European Union tried to achieve part of its initially declared goals, including seeking peace, the single market, Europe without borders, multinational parliament, geographical expansion and eurozone currency. Friedman (2009, p. 114) sees the EU as a schizophrenic entity while highlighting its primary purpose as the preface to a federation of EU countries, in which a central government, with a parliament, would govern a federal Europe.

After the end of the Cold War, the European Union tried to rethink its role in the international system. During this period, Europeans, through economic integration, aimed for political integration. From the beginning of the 1990s, the Union showed the green light to former Soviet republics to gradually join the EU. Such a policy not only helped promote peace, stability and prosperity within a framework of diplomatic deterrence but also revived the idea of a united and federal Europe. 

Considering the expansion of the European Union in the last two decades, it seems that more problems are expected, as the question raised: how can unity in the EU be preserved with increasing the number of member states? Zielonka (2006, p. 157) also questions if a ‘civilised’ Europe can survive in a largely ‘uncivilised’ world. 

In order to cope with the challenge of increasing the number of members as an obstacle to further convergence, European leaders drafted a constitution for the continent in 2004. However, this initiative was rejected by the majority of the people of France and the Netherlands. The failure of the constitution process entered the Union into a new era and overshadowed the unity and integrity of the EU. As a result, European societies showed a tendency toward nationalist policies. Friedman (2009, p. 114) believes that the old European nationalisms continue to assert themselves. 

In such a situation, the scepticism of the European public opinions towards the efficiency of the Union has increased. In addition, the growth of right-wing ideas has had harmful impacts on the European transnational integration process. Brexit is just the tip of the iceberg of such a crisis. 

Following these developments, the European Union has faced identity and leadership crises, indicating that European institutions still lack the necessary political legitimacy. The concept of European citizenship has not yet been formed, and Europe is still in the concept of the national government and its values. Friedman (ibid) views all arguments considering the EU as a single entity like the United States or China as illusory. Indeed, national governments still form the highest decision-making centres of the Union.

Although the Union has increasingly become an important global economic player, its political unity has recently suffered. The lack of full political integration has left the image of Europe as a geopolitical power ambiguous. Pursuing sensitive security and defence issues through national policies has also faced serious obstacles to the European idea of a multipolar international system. It seems that the perspective of Europe in the coming decades will be similar to the current status, i.e. a mixture of national and transnational governments.

After World War ll and the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and finally the formation of the European Union in its current form, the shadow of the classical wars have disappeared for almost eight decades. However, the War in Ukraine proves that the fear of war not only never left Europe but the Union needs to think about its role in the future.

 Weinzierl (2021) writes that the dependence of European military forces in Afghanistan on American forces has added to the ever-louder calls on Europe to find its role in the 21st century. In recent years, some European countries have initiated a plan to form the Union army. The EU High Representative Josep Borrell addressed the Union Foreign Affairs Council in Jun 2020 and stated, “Strategic autonomy is a way of framing our choices: we must be able to defend our interests, by ourselves if necessary”. 

The idea of forming a single European army has supporters and opponents politically both in the world and within the Union. The US is the most prominent opponent arguing that forming a European army weakens NATO. A challenge in forming a single European army is the technical issues and the variety of military types of equipment. European countries currently use three types of warplanes, seventeen types of tanks and six types of frigates, which makes this variety of military equipment even impossible to cooperate between armies. (Official Journal of the European Union, 2017)

Another existing challenge is the internal laws of EU countries. For instance, the president of France can send the army to foreign operations, while the German chancellor does not have such authority. Therefore, if the European Union member states aim to form a single army, they must have a common and extensive foreign policy apart from changing some of their internal laws. In addition, Weinzierl (2021) believes that military forces have a cultural, identity-related aspect on the national level, namely protecting and defending compatriots and fellow citizens. This is while some European nations like French and German still differentiate themselves from each other. 

After the failure of the constitutional initiative, such a level of cooperation seems unlikely. In order to become a geopolitical power, Europe needs to form advanced nuclear power and a unique hypersonic missile system with a single military force, which Weinzierl (ibid) believes can create a constitutional moment. Considering the withdrawal of the UK, as a military-nuclear power, the War in Ukraine and Nato’s upper hand in the EU defence policy, there are many uncertainties about forming a European army. 

Currently, the “Treaty of Lisbon” is the de facto constitution of the European Union. According to the treaty, the “common security and defence policy” not only opened the way for establishing special military forces for the European Union but also talked about the structural convergence of the current national armies. Proponents of forming the European Union army argue that a military power equal to the United States, in the long run, can transform this Union from a “regional entity” into an active international actor and one of the world’s superpowers. Within the Union, however, distrust, regional rivalries, historical grudges, and even conflicting geopolitical interests between member states are other obstacles to forming a European army.

Due to the financial crises in the eurozone since 2008, the European Union’s plan to become a geopolitical power is expected to be challenged internationally. The root of this analysis is that in order to overcome the 2008 financial crisis, the Union needed the International Monetary Fund and the financial resources of emerging rivals such as China, India, and Brazil. 

The European Union’s failure to prevent financial crises and its dependence on the International Monetary Fund {as Goddard et al (2009) wrote that The terms of the IMF package impose obligations on EU governments in the areas of currency stabilisation and inflationary control, bank restructuring and fiscal retrenchment} and the United States in coping with challenges showed that it is unable to overcome its internal crises. 

Dependence on the US and the economic power of other rivals has had significant negative impacts on the Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s ability to become a geopolitical power. Patrick Müller (2016) writes that such “crises triggered policy responses and secondary effects that impacted on EU foreign policy”. 

Based on my understanding, the financial crises have at least impacted the European Union’s foreign policy and its geopolitical ambitions in the following two fields: 

  1. A) Reduction of transatlantic cooperation

America has gradually reduced its focus on Europe and turned to Asia, as I believe the Asia-Pacific region has become more important than Europe in American foreign policy. The European Union’s sinking in economic crises, allocate insufficient military budgets to take more international responsibilities, and the economic rivalry between the European Union and the United States over East Asian markets are some of the important factors that harm the transatlantic partnership. 

  1. B) reducing the influence of European countries in international institutions

The economic growth of emerging powers like China, Brazil and India,  parallel with the economic crises in Europe, has provided these powers with the opportunity to expand their influence in international institutions. Moreover, the financial crisis in the West has caused a mechanism like the G20, which is a manifestation of the presence of emerging powers, to replace the G7 in resolving international crises. 


Indeed, the Union’s progress in national integration in the last two decades strengthened the theory of a federal Europe. Prior to the first signs of the financial crisis in the EU, the integration process grabbed lots of international attention and became a successful pattern for many regional institutions for convergence. The common foreign and security policy promised the idea of a single Europe, and the single currency indicated the formation of a developing single market.

However, with the emergence of the first signs of the financial crisis in the EU, the full convergence process has been interrupted for an unknown period. Although the Union of European countries will continue to survive, such a flawed union is insufficient to cope with challenges and become a geopolitical power. Müller (ibid) highlights that several EU member states cut their spending on foreign policy, security and defence following the 2008 financial crisis.

 As long as the European Union is immersed in the financial crisis, the ability and desire of that Union to play a pivotal role in world politics will be significantly affected. In addition, cutting the military budget resulting from economic crises can weaken the EU’s capability to protect its interests in critical areas like the Middle East, North Africa and geopolitical contest with China.

Another reason the EU will face enormous challenges to become a geopolitical power in the 21st century is its declining population. Europe’s ageing and declining population will cause this continent to have only 6.5% of the world’s population by 2025. (Langenhove, 2010, p. 7). This declining population trend has pushed the European Union to accept millions of new immigrants and the subsequent cultural challenges. 

The growth of far-right groups is one of the implications of such challenges. Langenhove (ibid) highlights that the declining population is a factor for future economic crises, and such challenges affect the EU’s strive to become a global power as “the EU will have neither the people nor the economic weight for it”. 


In the last three decades, the European Union has achieved political stability through economic and cultural integration, which has become a successful model in forming a regional block and a powerful actor in the international arena. However, Europe has been under the shadow of the United States hegemony after the end of World War II and particularly during the Cold War. Due to the Ukraine war, Europe’s dependence on Washington in self-defence (politically, economically and militarily) has deepened. 

Considering power components, including economic, military and political power described in this essay, the European Union has a long way to become a geopolitical power. Today, the Union has not formed a credible military force. Although the majority of NATO members are European countries, they are under the shadow of the United States.

The Union has been sunk in several economic crises and unable to form an efficient administrative structure. Europe’s ageing population has led to the acceptance of millions of immigrants from countries that do not consider themselves European culturally. This issue has weakened the structure of European society from a cultural point of view and has also caused the far-right groups to gain strength, groups that oppose the existence of the Union. Brexit, Marie Le Pen in France and far-right groups in Spain and Italy are only the tip of the iceberg.

Amid the international conflicts, hesitant Europe faces several economic and security dilemmas linking to North America, Russia, Eurasia and Indo-Pacific. Europe can neither cope with challenges without the historical and strategic alliance with the United States, nor can it constantly challenge Russia’s military power and the main energy supplier to the continent, nor can it confront China’s growing economic and military power.




Friedman, G. (2009) Next 100 Years, The: A Forecast for the 21st Century. 11th edn. United States: Allison & Bubsy.

Goddard, J. et al. (2009) ‘The financial crisis in Europe: evolution, policy responses and lessons for the future’, Journal of Financial Regulation and Compliance, 17(4), pp. 362-380. Available at:

Langenhove, L. (2010) The EU as a global actor in a multipolar world and multilateral 2.0 environment. 1th edn. Brussels:Egmont.

Müller, P. (2016)EU foreign policy: no major breakthrough despite multiple crises’, Journal of European Integration, 38(3), pp. 359-374. Available at: DOI:10.1080/07036337.2016.1140157

Official Journal of the European Union (2017) Common Military List of the European Union. Available at:

Weinzierl, J. (2021) ‘An Army of Peoples? A Demoicratic Perspective on a Future European Army’, European Papers – A Journal on Law and Integration, 6(2), pp.1050-52. Available at:doi: 10.15166/2499-8249/513

Zielonka, J. (2006) Europe as Empire: The Nature of the Enlarged European Union. Available at: (accessed 30 Mar. 2023)

About the Author
Independent Middle East analyst and commentator for various media platforms.
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