The EU wants to compete with the US and China on trade and innovation. The problem? Its 1990s-style bureaucracy.
Since December 2019, the European Union has been defining itself and the broader continent as “geopolitical”. Arms of the European Commission have been renamed, ostensibly to propel the continent — including countries that are not members of the EU — towards becoming a global geopolitical force, from energy, research and education to trade and finances.
Among the biggest early proponents of the vision of a “geopolitical Europe” has been French President Emmanuel Macron.
A central part of that vision is Macron’s idea of a European Political Community (EPC), which includes the EU’s 27 nations and 17 neighbours — some of whom want to join the EU, including Ukraine and Turkey, and others like Britain, which have left it.
However, the reality of what on the surface looks like an enlargement policy is rather underwhelming. The second EPC meeting, held in Moldova on June 1, 2023, was an occasion to once again express support for Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, while promising North Macedonia, an EU candidate for 18 years already, that it will finally join the Union – by 2030. This is far too slow and careless, considering the growing influence of Russia in North Macedonia.
At the end of the day, the EPC sounds and looks like a pompous name for a series of international events, conferences, cultural festivals and gatherings of leaders from the 44 participant countries. It is not an entity of any sort but a platform for this “community” to meet. Expecting anything more from this initiative would be as naïve as expecting the EU’s investment and funding schemes to, by themselves, meaningfully energise Europe’s “global competitiveness”.
To understand why, look no further than the European Research Area (ERA), an initiative that seeks to integrate the scientific resources of the EU. Its strategic document offers a road map for achieving geopolitical relevance through “technological competitiveness”.
The document underscores how innovation, economic growth premised on technological competitiveness and global geopolitical relevance are inextricable. The ambition is clear: to become an independent competitor to China and the United States as well as to the rest of the rising global forces in the realms of technological innovation, digitalisation and green energy.
Yet the results, at least so far, have once again been underwhelming: Technocracy, bureaucracy and presumed expert (academic) oversight delay every effort to become a geopolitical force to reckon with. The EU remains far behind the US and China when it comes to tangibly transforming itself into a competitive geopolitical player by building an innovation-based economy.
Bold ideas and research plans are dragged down and suffocated by review panels that look for NGO-styled project proposal writing and follow grant-awarding models of the golden era of neoliberalism in the 1990s. Ambitious proposals under the EU’s leading innovation initiatives are looked down upon as unrealistic. This fosters a research environment totally lacking in the go-getter approach of the EU’s global competitors.
Unless all of this changes, the idea of a geopolitical Europe driven by research and development will stay stillborn.
At the moment, project proposals are scored through a technocratic process that takes almost a year on average. And at the end of that cumbersome process to seek funding, the money on the table is also far from competitive: the European Commission invested €100bn in research and innovation for 2021-27, below the US, China and even multinational companies such as Amazon.
All the talk of a geopolitical Europe will remain toothless if the political community it seeks to build is an NGO-styled platform to meet, greet and talk — rather than a political force and legal entity that can actually transform the union and the commission into a global power.
If it remains a club that a country can join or leave – it is neither political nor geopolitical. Geopolitics is territorially defined; it requires citizenship that can identify with a social and political system – its imagined political community.
Likewise, competition through innovation must be executed at an ever-accelerated pace whereby an idea that can transform reality is not beaten down by the sophistry of technocrats and professors in ivory towers, detached from the stampeding speed of global transformation. Without that, the ambition to compete with Silicon Valley or China is a joke.
In other words, the “geopolitical commission” is but a dream imploding under the weight of the EU’s stifling technocratic grip on the continent’s social, economic and territorially shaped reality.
If Europe is to compete — in geopolitics and technology — the technocrats need to step back.
Katerina Kolozova is a professor of philosophy and political theory and author of The Cut of the Real: Subjectivity in Poststructrualist Philosophy (2014).