28th May 2023


The geopolitics of a post-growth EU

  • One dogma remains unquestioned: that of economic growth. Yet, a 'slower' economy would allow the EU to reduce its over-reliance on imported energy and materials (Photo: Nareeta Martin)
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More than a year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU still imports natural gas and uranium from Russia, adding to Vladimir Putin's war chest.

The response to the Ukraine war, which includes an accelerated transition to renewable energies, has made the EU more dependent on China. This country dominates the supply chains for critical raw materials as well as the solar panels, batteries and magnets made from them.

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Thus we are stuck between two aggressive autocracies.

To break free from this Catch-22, European policymakers have jettisoned a number of dogmas, such as unlimited free trade. One dogma still stands however: that of economic growth. Yet, a 'slower' economy would allow the EU to reduce its over-reliance on imported energy and materials more rapidly. For instance, a push for active and shared mobility as well as public transport, driving back private car ownership, would significantly temper European demand for critical metals.

There is an even more powerful reason to stop pursuing growth. Science is increasingly expressing doubt as to whether continued GDP growth is compatible with a liveable planet. "It is unlikely that a long-lasting, absolute decoupling of economic growth from environmental pressures and impacts can be achieved at the global scale", according to the European Environmental Agency.

'Green growth' seems an illusion. Hence the recent popularity of the 'Degrowth' movement — which advocates a shift from accumulating material wealth to living within planetary boundaries in a more equal society focused on well-being, including through the provision of high-quality public services.

It makes sense for the EU to be a frontrunner in the transition to a post-growth society. Firstly, as a matter of ecological justice. EU countries bear the greatest historical responsibility for the crises of climate and biodiversity. Abandoning economic growth would free up natural resources for the Global South, where growth still contributes to well-being.

Secondly, a post-growth EU would gain in resilience. It is better to manage the end of growth through democratic deliberation than to have it imposed on us by ecological breakdown or resource conflicts.

However, a resilient EU must be able to withstand not only ecological shocks or trade disruptions, but also military aggression.

Today, the conflict between democracy and autocracy plays out grimly before our eyes in Ukraine. Critics of economic growth cannot look away from the threat posed by militant authoritarianism, as there is no doubt that the transition beyond growth must be democratic.

Will a post-growth EU be able to defend itself, its allies, democracy, human rights and a rules-based international order against attacks by the likes of Russia or China?

The power of countries and alliances is usually measured by their GDP and military capabilities. The Ukraine war largely confirms this metric. Without billions in western support, both money and arms, Ukraine would not be able to hold out against the Russian aggressor, who is intent on destroying the European security order. Seen this way, a post-growth EU makes itself vulnerable.

The first way to increase resilience in matters of war and peace is to reduce the waste of resources in external action.

Too often, European diplomacy is a cacophony of national self-inflation. European defence is plagued by fragmentation, duplication and lack of interoperability between national armed forces. A post-growth EU would need to set off for deeper integration.

This includes robust oversight of democracy and the rule of law within its borders, no more vetoes in foreign and security policy, speaking with one voice and getting serious about defence integration. The better the member states' military forces fit together, the more bang we get for our buck.

In the global confrontation between democracy and autocracy, the US may defect from our camp at the next presidential election, if Trump or a Trumpist prevails. Either way, the US will increasingly focus on threats from China rather than Russia. The EU has no choice but to reduce its security dependence on the US.

Plugging defence capability gaps through the joint development and procurement of new weapon systems requires fresh money. So do sustaining Ukraine's defence, decarbonising the armed forces and upholding a comprehensive security approach, including support for climate action and poverty reduction in the Global South.

For an EU without GDP growth, this would be a large bill to foot, but the degrowth movement rightly places the common good above excess private consumption.

A post-growth EU would do well to include defence, diplomacy and foreign aid in the list of high-quality public services it pursues.

For an EU beyond growth, finding allies would be all the more important. They bring more resources and legitimacy. Enlarging the Union would become an even stronger geopolitical imperative. Such an EU would have to accommodate a 'green growth' policy for acceding countries seeking to narrow the prosperity gap with the older member states, or rebuilding after war.

Ukraine, if it survives the Russian onslaught with our help, could be a formidable EU partner, both in terms of civil courage and military strength.

Abandoning GDP growth can and must provide a strong impetus for strengthening and enlarging the EU. Such an EU might well be 'spartan' in more than one sense. But if we keep social equity in mind, that is not too high a price for protecting our democracy and enhancing our ecological and geopolitical resilience. The EU would still be one of the best places in the world to live in.

Author bio

Richard Wouters works at Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks (the think tank of the Dutch Green party) and is project leader of geopolitics of a post-growth Europe for the Green European Foundation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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