6th Dec 2023

Report details what 'middle powers' really think of EU

  • Timothy Garton Ash, co-author of report, said: "Europe's soft power must be complemented by more investment in the military and security dimensions of ‘hard power’" (Photo: European Commission)
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The EU must adapt to the geopolitical reality of an "à la carte world," according to a new report published by the London-based think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) on Wednesday (15 November).

Policymakers in the West should come to grips with a world "where you can mix and match your partners on different issues, rather than signing up to a set menu of allegiance to one side or the other," write authors Ivan Krastev, Mark Leonard and Timothy Garton Ash.

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Their report is based upon a global opinion poll conducted by the ECFR and the University of Oxford.

The poll focused on attitudes towards the West in the so-called 'middle powers' — including India, Turkey, Brazil, South Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

The survey results show that the West continues to hold considerable attraction and influence within these countries, despite widespread pessimism about their future trajectory.

However, the continuing influence of the West varies significantly across different topics.

In terms of soft power, the poll indicated that Western lifestyles are still far more attractive, with the US and EU being overwhelmingly more popular as emigration destinations.

US dominance in the military terrain seems to have remained relatively unchallenged, with nearly all countries except Russia preferring security cooperation with the US over China.

The survey also suggests that increased international influence in China has been mostly limited to the economic realm, with respondents in most countries preferring closer trading ties with the Chinese over the US.

"If you try and force people to choose between the West and China or Russia they will still pick the West," said Krastev. "But the most important finding of the report is that they don't want to choose".

The results evince a new "à la carte" geopolitics, according to the experts.

"For these countries, the new definition of sovereignty is to have choices," Krastev said. "They are seeking opportunities, not looking for alignments".

Despite the return of open rivalries reminiscent of the Cold War, this explains the very different dynamics of contemporary geopolitics, according to Krastev.


In particular, the ECFR report warns about the failure of the West to control the narrative about the war in Ukraine, arguing that most countries want Ukraine to accept territorial concessions to quickly end the war.

The West should stop expecting middle powers to care for this "European war," especially after the eruption of the war between Israel and Hamas, Krastev warned.

"We should instead approach middle powers on agenda points that matter to them".

Similarly, Indrani Bagchi, director of the New Delhi Ananta Aspen Centre, also explained these views are shared in India. "Not that we believe that Russia is right, it is just too far away"

The "à la carte approach" is deep-rooted in Brazilian politics "from the elite to the people" said Feliciano de Sá Guimarães, a professor at the University of São Paulo, adding that BRICS are a clear exhale of "the à la carte strategy for a middle power."

BRICS is a group of states, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa.

'Strategic independence'

The new à la carte world is spells trouble for Europe, according to the report.

"Strong is not a word that comes naturally when people think of the EU," said Krastev.

Despite its power of attraction, a considerable number of respondents believe the EU will collapse within 20 years.

This is highly correlated with the belief that Russia will win the war in Ukraine — which suggests that the outcome of the war is crucial to the credibility of the EU.

Garton Ash, co-author of the report and professor of European Studies at the University of Oxford, said: "Europe soft power must be complemented by more investment in the military and security dimensions of 'hard power'".

"Further enlargement of the European bloc, eastwards, after helping Ukraine to victory, would make the EU a more powerful and credible global player," he also said.

The report recommends the EU to pursue a strategy of "strategic interdependence," arguing that the ideal of the so-called European strategic autonomy would be unrealistic and counterproductive.

They argue that the old relationship of reliance on the US does no longer suffice either, especially given the turmoil in American domestic politics.

Instead, the EU should build flexible coalitions over different issues, while simultaneously improving its military capabilities, the report says.

The head of the ECFR and co-author Leonard said: "Rather than clinging to the eirenic world of yesterday, the EU needs to understand the new rules of an 'à la carte' game, with respect to international relations, and seek new partners across crucial issues facing our war-torn world."

Author bio

Piet Ruig is a Brussels-based journalist who previously worked for the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO.


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