Michael Grieve

An EU Unprepared for this Century’s Coming Challenge


The European Union (EU) has progressively sought to enhance its international reach over the past three decades. This paper evaluates the success of these measures using Mark Eyskens’ framework depicting Europe as ‘an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm’ in the early 1990s. Subsequent investigations into the EU’s 21st century foreign, commercial and international development policies highlight that this conceptualisation remains broadly accurate. This paper argues that the EU’s progress, whilst noted, is generally insufficient to measurably alter the considerations made thirty years ago despite capitalisation of its ‘economic giant’ status to address limitations as a ‘political dwarf’ or, given increasing securitisation, a ‘military worm’. This highlights an international organisation unprepared for the changing global reality of the increasing influence of emerging economies and the developing world more broadly. In this regard, it is noted that the EU remains rather important in significant areas of global affairs, like trade, and that its influence equally cannot be considered to have decreased since Eyskens’ comment in 1991. The EU is consequently conceptualised as an intergovernmental institution, which has developed supranational characteristics that have generally weathered the disruptions of the early decades of the 21st century, but that has failed to expand its influence to prepare effectively for the further challenges widely considered to lie in the decades ahead.


European Union, International development, Trade, Foreign policy, Institutional capacity, Multipolarity


After the European Union, formerly known as the European Economic Community (EEC), displayed impotence in responding to the 1991 Gulf Crisis, Belgium’s then-Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens coined the phrase “Europe is an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm” (Whitney, 1991) to describe the EEC’s powerbase and role in international affairs. As the balance of power internationally began to shift from the American unipolarism of the 1990s to a renewed competitive multipolarity in the early 21st century, and if the EU maintains the influence that Eyskens identified, it can adequately address these global changes. This paper argues that the EU could deal with the changing balance of power in international affairs more effectively and proactively, but that the EU is still doing just enough to currently maintain its significance. Whilst the EU is considered to have maintained the influence that Eyskens identified, particularly regarding the economy, despite the challenges to the international structure the EU used to build its influence, it is doubtful that this trend will continue far into the future.

This paper evidences the argument mentioned above through an analysis of the proactive measures taken by the EU in response to Eyeskens’ critique, which evolved into the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), to determine their success in a rapidly changing international environment. This is done through reviewing policy areas in turn, firstly the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, examining the increasingly prominent political and military role that the EU plays internationally, even if the EU’s ability to be a proactive actor is doubtful. The structures introduced by the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, like the High Representative, are then shown to have partially addressed these issues. The EU’s common commercial policy is the main driver of what Eyskens described as the ‘economic giant’ but this has previously relied on a Western-centric economic model that is ceasing to exist, primarily due to Chinese competition. The EU’s future economic challenges are further highlighted by the development of the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies and a battle for relevance throughout the developing world. Finally, the EU’s traditionally preeminent role in international development is shown as being undermined by 21st century neoliberal economics and increasingly challenged as a neocolonial imposition of values and policies on the global South. Indeed, policy priorities such as securitisation, diverging from the developing world, only provides further alienation from the EU’s influence. Consequently, the EU has largely failed to develop its military power when contrasted with the growth of its political influence beyond intergovernmentalism following a stubborn initial resistance from the member states, even if the EU remains a predominantly reactive actor. In addition, the EU remains an ‘economic giant’ but one increasingly challenged by rising powers, who look more competitive and relevant for many countries, including in the sphere of international development. 

Historic Reactivity Continues

The Gulf Crisis and Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s exemplified the weaknesses of the EEC/EU in responding to international crises (Lavdas, 1996). Consequently, European leaders made concerted efforts throughout the rest of that decade and into the early years of the 21st century to bolster the EU’s capacity as an effective international actor. However, since the launch of the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) in 1999, the EU has largely failed to achieve any military ambitions held at that time, with the majority of its missions a decade later being civilian in nature (Bikerton et al, 2011). Indeed, the increased international focus on security following the attacks of September 11,  2001, has not been conducive for EU foreign policy coherence and unity. The fundamental split between member states regarding the 2003 Iraq War (Andreatta and Zambernardi, 2017), highlighted how EU foreign policy remained beholden to that of its individual member states. It can therefore be claimed that the EU is generally a reactive actor, arguably necessarily due to its intergovernmental aspects, in international affairs rather than a proactive actor itself.

This reactive tendency has plagued the EU as international affairs have continued to change. Indeed, the rebuilding of EU decision-making by consensus after the Iraq War, whilst leading to an increase in norms-based discourse (Lewis, 2011), embedded at the heart of the EU a process that is inherently protractive and frequently fractious – to the extent that it can be claimed that only a minimalist position is produced to satisfy all interests. This is exemplified by the difficulties that Turkey’s membership application faced, particularly following the Iraq War, as member states emphasised their own national interests (Schimmelfennig, 2011). The continually reactive nature of the EU in international affairs is perhaps epitomised by this act, as spurning the increased influence a Middle Eastern member would provide (Ruacan, 2007), left the EU having to manage increased flows of migration across the Mediterranean following the 2011 Arab Spring, thus upending the region’s balance of power (Müller, 2016). Ultimately the EU negotiated a settlement with Turkey that included financial support alongside visa liberalisation despite 42 of the 72 articles in the criteria for this remaining unimplemented by Turkey (Sönmez and Kirik, 2017). Indeed, in this sense, it is evident that EU foreign policy has failed to develop beyond intergovernmental bargaining between the member states.

External Action is Still Largely Reaction

Sjursen and Rosé (2016) emphasise the key role the European Commission and European External Action Service (EEAS) played in engineering a consensus on Russian sanctions in response to the crisis, highlighting how EU foreign policy has developed beyond mere intergovernmentalism. Over recent years, the role of the EU institutions themselves in foreign policy has become more apparent. In response to the unilateralism of the Iraq War, the EU developed the doctrine of effective multilateralism, and was able to successfully coordinate the United States and Iran into beginning negotiations for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in order to manage Iranian nuclear aspirations (Cronberg, 2017). The JCPOA evidences the evolution that recent decades have witnessed of EU foreign policy away from the lowest common denominator intergovernmentalism that defined it in the period prior to the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam (Friis and Juncos, 2019). Thus, although it remains the ‘military worm’ that Eyskens identified in 1991 due to its inability to increase its military capacity, the EU has made progress towards institutionalising its foreign policy process, which means that it is no longer a ‘political dwarf’. Indeed, the identification of the EU as having provided ‘co-leadership’ with the US regarding the JCPOA negotiations (Matera and Matera, 2019) highlights how the EU’s own institutions have been able to assert themselves politically, shaping the changing international balance of power.

Nevertheless, the EU has primarily remained a reactive actor due to its byzantine institutional processes, making it difficult for it to take proactive action in response to external events. In this sense, the EU is unable to adequately manage changes in the international balance of power to suit its own strategic interests, in contrast with the more streamlined processes that characterise many traditional states, including Russia. Indeed, the EU’s relationship with a resurgent Russia itself illustrates this pattern, with the initial response to the annexation of Crimea leaving member states fractured, with states such as Lithuania and Poland seeking a much more robust response than states largely dependent on Russian oil and gas exports, as for example Greece and Italy (Kuzemko, 2014). However, the EU has been able to use this increase of Russian influence in order to bolster its own capabilities, as the EU was able to depict itself as the standard bearer of a rules-based international order (Sjursen and Rosé, 2016). 

A New Economic Behemoth

The EU has traditionally been recognised as Eyskens’ ‘economic giant’ internationally thanks to its common commercial policy, and consequently, is typically considered to wield its most significant amount of influence in this sector. This can be evidenced through the EU consistently being evaluated as the setting for the largest volume of trade of any global economic area (Gstöhl and De Bièvre, 2018). Therefore, any alteration in the balance of power in international affairs will be of greatest significance to the EU in this sector. Of particular concern to it has been the weakening of the global liberal order regarding international trade and the rise of new powers, such as China, following the global financial crisis of 2008 (Engelbrekt et al, 2020). Indeed, there could be no graver threat to the EU’s status as an ‘economic giant’ than a collapse of the liberal trading order that the EU has itself been instrumental in constructing – yet this is precisely the scenario that international affairs seem to be moving towards.

The starkest example of this disruption of the western dominated trading order is the increased economic significance of China, which in the first decades of the 21st century is preparing to become the world’s economic hegemon (Xia and Wang, 2012). This alteration in the balance of global trade poses a significant challenge for the EU, because other states will naturally gravitate towards the dominant power, meaning that the EU could become perennially weaker than China in this regard. Particularly pertinent, is the coincidence, noted by Aggarwal and Newland (2014), that this rising influence occurred at the same time as the global financial crisis of 2008 reduced the attractiveness of the hitherto dominant liberal trading order, maintained by western interests through institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and, previously, the Quad. Consequently, this poses a major challenge for the EU’s capacity to maintain its economic power in light of the changing international balance of power.

A world dominated by increasing Chinese economic heft provides little compatibility for the EU to remain at the centre of global affairs. The Belt and Road initiative aims to bolster Chinese influence through overseas investments, reorienting the global economy towards China (Shi, 2018) in direct opposition to the post-1989 Western-centric economic system. A country whose political and economic values differ substantially from those propagated by the EU (Milanović, 2019) dominating the international system, even if it remains broadly capitalistic, precludes a significant EU role in this new order, noting the continuing resonance of the Normative Power Europe doctrine. Indeed, with scholars increasingly questioning an assertive China’s commitment to the principles of international law (Johnston, 2019), the threat to an institution, like the EU, that depends upon these principles for its existence is clear.  Eyskens’ ‘economic giant’ conceptualisation highlights the challenges posed by a new power that similarly aims to influence the world through economic means, drastically reducing the EU’s influence from the present regardless of the conclusion of this transition.

The Limits of Inherent Economic Strength

The EU’s common commercial policy has been a cornerstone since the establishment of the EEC in 1957, so the member states can be expected to work in a more coherent manner than when discussing other policy areas. This can be evidenced, with substantive trade agreements made with large economies, including Japan and Canada (Young, 2017); although these agreements are generally concluded with developed countries, the EU is not acting to counter the changing balance of power in international trade. Whilst agreements like the Comprehensive Trade and Economic Agreement (CETA) with Canada entrench liberal, rules-based norms (Schill, 2017), they fail to expand the geographical reach of these norms in a manner that would typify a successful foreign policy. Nevertheless, this longstanding unity of member states clearly serves the EU well, as they increase their leverage compared to a scenario where they are acting alone (Gstöhl and De Bièvre, 2018), with this continuing to be true within any future trading environment.

Indeed, it is evident that the EU lacks a coherent strategy for economic engagement with the BRICS (Hooijmaaijers and Keukeleire, 2020), a group of large developing countries seeking greater influence globally. Whilst there is engagement with each of the five countries individually, there have been no attempts at multilateral cooperation in order to preserve EU interests as these countries’ aspirations and influence grow. While the EU is rightly wary to avoid accusations of neocolonialism, with the disapproval of the inequitable distribution steadily increasing through the 2000s (Gomes, 2013), it is reasonable to expect the EU to address uncomfortable legacies. This avoidance epitomises the EU’s retreat from multilateralism towards bilateral agreements, as the appetite for such agreements elsewhere, where they can be viewed as ‘coercive’ dwindles (Damro, 2015). Furthermore, the EU will be progressively isolated as the BRICS countries negotiate such agreements on their peripheries (Hooijmaaijers and Keukeleire, 2020), thus challenging the influence and relevance of the EU even further. Consequently, we can conclude that the EU has failed to manage the balance of power in international trade as it continues to shift towards the BRICS countries.

Overall, the shifting balance of power in international trade is providing the EU with substantial challenges in order to remain Eyskens’ ‘economic giant’, which it will have to overcome. However, the EU’s history as an ‘economic giant’ has allowed it to at least maintain its own influence as that of developing countries increases. It is increasingly clear, however, that this situation will not continue indefinitely as trade agreements with economic areas such as the East African Community have stalled (Krapohl and Van Huut, 2020) due to the increasing attractiveness of cooperation within the global south. Consequently, the EU will have to rethink its commercial strategy, particularly towards developing economies, likely to increasingly regard compliance with EU regulations and norms as unnecessary to achieve economic growth. This means that the EU has a significant amount of work to do in order to continue maintaining its current economic influence as the balance of power in international trade continues to shift.

Developing Development Policy

Relations with the developing world should be of increasing concern to the EU because international development is another sector where the EU has traditionally been a world leader, through agreements such as the Lomé Convention of 1975 (Drieghe and Potjomkina, 2019). It is a sector where the EU has been able to deploy its capabilities as an ‘economic giant’ to augment its limitations as a ‘political dwarf’, and increasingly even as a ‘military worm’, given the increasing securitisation of this sector. The signing of the Cotonou Agreement in 2000 was seminal for the EU’s international development policy as for the first time, development aid was tied to bilateral market liberalisation, due to World Trade Organisation rulings (Poletti and Sicurelli, 2018). This placed developing countries in a weaker position than the preferential access granted through Lomé’s unilateral liberalisation model. Indeed, as Carbone (2015) noted, these Economic Partnership Agreements (EPA), and the economic conditions attached, proved deeply unattractive for developing countries, who largely spurned reaching agreements with the EU, resulting in just two EPAs being signed.

Nevertheless, the EU remains clearly the dominant international development actor, with the EU and its member states coordinating over half of the world’s aid budget (Whiteman, 2017). The EU’s stature regarding international development has however been increasingly challenged as other policy areas seep into the international development policy area, particularly since the Cotonou Agreement was signed in 2000. Consequently, the EU cannot assume that challenges to its leading position in this sector will fade away, particularly as the attractiveness of its own economic model decreases. Moreover, the normative aims included by the EU in EPAs, such as commitments to sustainable development (LaRocco, 2019) are frequently viewed with a fundamental disconnect at best and as a neo-colonial imposition of European values at worst within developing countries (Gomes, 2013; Langan and Price, 2020). This shows how the EU is failing to recognise the increased influence that developing countries hold in this policy area and is in danger of being unable to effectively transition within this changing balance of power.

Global South Rising

As the attractiveness of the EU’s development model diminishes, emerging economies are developing alternative models of cooperation among themselves. Described as South-South initiatives, these instruments are often particularly attractive for developing countries as they typically come without the EU’s’s normative strings and often stem from states with cultural similarities (Kotsopoulos and Mattheis, 2018). This is an acute challenge to EU supremacy in this area because South-South cooperation is attractive due to factors beyond the EU’s control. Being a particular threat as economic development of emerging economies means this is an increasingly effective method of rejecting market-led neoliberalism (Morvaridi and Hughes, 2018) and the predominance of the western-centric global economic system, with the EU at its heart, that the EU’s actions, like EPAs, have shown it determined to uphold.

Recognising this challenge, the EU has sought to adjust its development policy in recent years to maintain its centrality within the emerging international development discourse. The EU has begun to do this by espousing notions of differentiation in development policy, enabling support to be tailored to specific requirements, whilst increasing funds available by reducing support for middle-income countries (Carbone, 2017). However, European political pressures, including concerns regarding migration, can direct international development policy priorities, even exporting policy implementation to developing countries (Strange and Oliveira Martins, 2019). Whilst migration securitisation has increased in prominence, particularly since 2015, this has not increased the EU’s military power from that of Eyskens’ ‘worm’. Indeed, Olivié and Pérez (2020) explain how securitisation trends are present not in the development strategies of the EU itself but rather in the strategies of certain member states, including France. Therefore, we can say that the EU is resisting the temptation to threaten its own position in this sector further, but that little is being done to reverse the seemingly inevitable decline in influence.


Overall, evidently, any decline in EU influence in the development sector is both a product and a cause of the changes in the global balance of power, gradually reducing the EU from the ‘economic giant’ Eyskens identified. However, the increased political heft of the EU, through commitments such as Policy Coherence for Development (European Commission, 2015) provides better evidence of a strategy to maintain EU influence than in other policy areas. Nevertheless, difficulties in developing such coherence due to the predominance of securitisation discourse have been noted (Furness and Ganzle, 2017). Consequently, increasing the prominence of the EU’s role as a coordinator of its members’ programmes, seeking global complementarity (Koch, 2015) may be the most effective EU strategy in a world of increasing South-South cooperation. Therefore, the EU may be able to maintain its relevance in shaping the global agenda in the way that Carbone (2013) identified that it, through its agenda on aid effectiveness, did during the early years of this century, despite a changing balance of power.

Conclusion: Muddling through is no Longer Good Enough

The balance of power in international affairs has substantially changed since Eyskens described Europe as ‘an economic giant, a political dwarf, and a military worm’ (Whitney, 1991) in the early 1990s. The most evident is that through all of these changes, the EU has largely failed to increase its capacity from that of the military worm, although as Andreatta and Zambernardi (2017) noted, internal division regarding the 2003 Iraq War enabled recognition early in this century. Conversely, the EU has been generally successful in increasing its capabilities from that of the political dwarf, with this being epitomised by the centrality of the EU to the JCPOA negotiations during the first half of the 2010s (Cronberg, 2017). Unfortunately for the EU, however, it has been unable to complete a radical transformation in this area, with the EU remaining a largely reactive actor in response to resurgent Russian influence since 2014 and the increasing prominence of political norms reducing the attractiveness of the EU’s international development schemes from the viewpoint of developing countries (LaRocco, 2019).

Indeed, when one examines the influence of the EU through the prism of Eyskens’ economic giant metaphor, the greatest threat to the EU’s international influence takes shape. The EU is facing the economic development of China and other emerging economies, which, compounded with the global financial crisis in 2008, severely undermine the attractiveness of the EU’s economic model (Aggarwal and Newland, 2014). Furthermore, as these emerging economies begin to deal directly with their peripheries, it becomes increasingly challenging for the EU to interest potential partners in multilateral neoliberal trade arrangements which, as Damro (2015) noted, frequently appear as ‘coercive’ to the rest of the world. The EU’s neglect to develop an engagement strategy for relations with the BRICS group of countries (Hooijmaaijers and Keukeleire, 2020), whilst understandable due to their diversity and current marginal importance for the EU, was, therefore, a critical oversight and emblematic of how the EU is failing to effectively deal with the changing balance of power in international affairs.

Overall, the EU has appeared to increase its political influence within this changing environment but being Eyskens’ ‘political dwarf’ thirty years ago means this increase does not presently represent a substantial role in international affairs. Indeed, due to the EU’s extremely limited capabilities, military influence can be discounted due to being of little relevance in determining how the EU’s international significance has changed throughout the first two decades of this century. Therefore, we return to the EU’s economic influence, which currently remains substantial. However we cannot ignore the global economic trends towards increased influence for emerging economies, which whilst not inherently conflictual with EU influence, presents challenges for the EU’s existing model. In this regard, the EU’s traditional status as an ‘economic giant’ obscures the reality that the EU is failing to deal with the changing balance of global economic power. Consequently, the EU has failed to effectively and proactively deal with the changing international balance of power, although existing influence ensures that this has not yet become fully apparent across multiple policy areas.

It was not within the scope of this paper to investigate the scope of existing or hypothetical EU policy instruments and structures to bolster the EU’s global influence. As this investigation focused on what the EU has done, it was inappropriate to consider what the EU might do in the future, and what it should do. Broad policy aims have likewise not featured in this paper, but the EU’s global role is certainly an academically valid investigation.


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