Mask Off: Implications of the EU’s “Geopolitical Awakening” for its Relations with the MENA Region

February 2024


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced European foreign policy-makers to reassess their view of international relations and reconceptualise the European Union (EU)’s approach to it. A broad consensus has emerged that the foreign policy of the EU needs to become more geopolitical. A sentiment echoed and championed by Ursula von der Leyen, who, since assuming the role of President of the European Commission in December 2019, has actively advocated for a more assertive and strategic EU presence on the global stage (Bayer, 2019). The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has labelled these developments as “the awakening of geopolitical Europe” (Borrell, 2022). He further insisted that a more geopolitical European outlook on the world should not be temporary but should become the “new normal” (Borrell, 2022). This suggests a fundamental and lasting shift in the EU’s approach to external relations. Given the ambiguity of the term ‘geopolitics’, which has at least five different meanings (Kundani, 2023), many questions about the EU’s new normal remain to be answered:

What does a more geopolitical foreign policy entail? What would be the implications of such a new approach regarding the European Neighbourhood, in particular the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region? And how can such an approach be reconciled with the EU’s liberal principles?

This paper aims to assess these questions from a realist perspective. The article proceeds as follows. The first part examines the different conceptualisations of geopolitics and assesses which of them EU policy-makers refer to. The second part examines whether a more geopolitical EU foreign policy towards the MENA region can be seen as a paradigm shift or rather a continuation of existing policies. The third part considers how the “geopolitical awakening” can be reconciled with the EU’s liberal principles. The paper concludes by drawing on the findings to develop concrete recommendations.

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