Sven Biscop (1976) is a political scientist and one of Belgium's leading thinkers on geopolitics. He directs the ‘Europe in the World’ programme at the Egmont  Royal Institute of International Relations in Brussels. At Ghent University, he is professor of strategy and foreign policy of Belgium and the European Union. His most recent book is Grand Strategy in 10 words – A Guide to Great Power Politics in the 21st Century (2021). Biscop lives in Brussels with his husband Aberu, amid lots of books, military paraphernalia and chinoiseries.

Has the discussion about degrowth already reached the circles of experts on international relations?

"Not really, I think. People who, like me, have a background in strategic studies do engage with the economy more than before. Firstly, because today's geopolitical players are deliberately using economic instruments to pursue strategic goals. Secondly, because of the climate. A failure to mitigate climate change is going to exacerbate existing security problems and will probably create new ones. But the concept of 'degrowth' is something I've only come across a few times."

Sven Biscop
Sven Biscop

The EU bears the greatest historical responsibility for climate change and the depletion of natural resources. The EU is also one of the most prosperous parts of the world. If we have to say goodbye to economic growth, is it natural for the EU to be at the forefront?

"In the abstract, yes. In geopolitics, economic growth is seen as something positive, but I recognise that you can look at it differently. When concretely implementing degrowth, though, you have to be careful not to erode your power base in relation to other players too much. The EU is not alone in the world. There are competitors and rivals. All states pursue their self-interest, so they are competitors. Rivals, on top of that, actively undermine the interests of others. The EU has rivals, so it cannot afford too great an imbalance of power.

You can say: we are building the perfect society in Europe, but if you don't have the power to defend it against rivals, what good is it? Then your model will be eroded.

There is also an internal dimension to it. With the green transition, and certainly with degrowth, we have to be careful not to create a new imbalance even within our own borders. There is always the risk that the measures you take can easily be borne by those who are already well-off, while the less well-off are hit hard. I always say: security policy is external as well as internal. You cannot be an effective external player if you don’t have internal stability. We guarantee that internal stability through the welfare state, with a certain degree of equality and democratic control. Without that stability, in times of crisis, extreme solutions suddenly become attractive.

Ultimately, the biggest threat to our security is internal. It is very difficult for an external actor to bring down the EU. But if we start voting en masse for non-democratic parties – which are already in power in Hungary and Poland – we can bring down ourselves. To avoid that, we need to preserve internal balances. A functioning welfare state must redistribute what is available.

People often say: the EU is a peace project. Thanks to European integration, starting in the 1950s, the participating countries no longer wage war against each other. That is only half the story. The other half is that in those same 1950s, great strides were made in building the welfare state, in order to keep peace within each of those countries. For me, these are the two halves of the peace project: integration between member states, social security within member states.

The challenge now is that we have to make social security partly a European project as well, because we have a single market and a single currency, with labour mobility and so on. Some minimum conditions have to be agreed within the EU to keep all that manageable."

Public services such as social security and healthcare are pillars of the welfare state. The degrowth movement advocates high-quality public services. Should these include defence and diplomacy?

"Yes. It is often suggested in the public debate that we have a choice: guns or butter. That is a false contradiction. Why do we need defence? Because we have something worth defending. A model of society whose core is the combination of a welfare state and democracy. If that model cannot withstand external pressures, it will not survive for long. So we need a real but realistic defence: strong enough to defend us without consuming astronomical sums of money. In addition, of course, we need diplomacy, because the defence instrument alone will never suffice in international politics. Ideally, we need defence only for deterrence."

If the EU stopped pursuing economic growth, would member states cooperate better on defence?

"Hard to say. Even now, there is a strong argument for more European cooperation. The size of national armed forces has been greatly reduced and their equipment has become much more expensive. We are seeing total fragmentation, which is not cost-effective at all. Yet that economic argument, endorsed by all, is insufficient to achieve true defence integration. Governments still want to protect their own defence industry, and the armed forces are seen as a symbol of sovereignty. So although we have had a European defence policy since 1999, we still haven't made the big leap. I doubt the end of growth would trigger it."

Is the Russian invasion of Ukraine the big gamechanger?

"No, it isn’t. Rather, the war deepens the divide between EU member states. One camp says: in a crisis like this, we cannot do without NATO and the US, so what is the point of EU defence? The other camp says: if we want to exert influence in times of crisis, we can only do so through the EU. The result is stalemate.

Admittedly, the EU is now doing things that are unprecedented, such as jointly buying weapons for Ukraine. But supporting Ukraine's armed forces is not the same as accelerating the integration of our own forces. Of course, if joint arms procurement works for Ukraine, that is an argument for doing it for our own militaries as well. So I keep hoping for a breakthrough, but I’ve been disappointed many times over the past 25 years."

And what if Trump or a Trumpist returns to the White House?

"We had four years of Trump making crazy statements about NATO. That did not lead to a breakthrough in European defence integration. So I don't expect that either if Trump were to become president again, or one of his followers. Unless he were to say, 'We're disbanding NATO.'

The problem is: European countries don't trust each other. If you ask a Pole or even a Finn, ‘If Russia invades now, whom do you trust to come to the rescue?’, they will answer, ‘The United States’. So not France, Germany or the UK. Historically, this is strange: when Belgium was invaded in 1914, and Poland in 1939, who declared war on the aggressor? France and the UK, not the US. Those only came into the war much later.

“ If France and Germany were to merge their military-industrial complexes, it would set a lot in motion ”

I see two scenarios that could produce a breakthrough in European defence integration. The first is if a major crisis occurs just outside Europe, with the US saying to the EU: deal with it yourself. The second is if France and Germany, which are at the heart of European integration, really start doing what they announced in 2017: that they will jointly implement all their major defence projects, including a new type of battle tank and a new fighter jet. Such a merger of the military-industrial complexes would set a lot in motion, as other EU member states would be forced to join in. Otherwise, they would be pushed out of the defence market. The French and Germans also need those other member states, because it is not cost-effective to jointly develop a weapons system that nobody else buys."

How much can we gain from defence integration?

"That is difficult to quantify. There have been estimates of the potential cost savings, for example by the European Parliament. These range from 20 billion to 120 billion euros a year, depending on the degree of integration. The current fragmentation is not cost-effective, that much is clear. An example I often use is the air force. Whether a country has a hundred aircraft or ten, it needs an airfield. Plus a school to train pilots and technicians, a military air traffic control etc. The smaller the armed forces, the larger the share of these support services – the shaft of the spear – and the smaller the share of combat units – the tip of the spear. When countries pool parts of their armed forces or divide military tasks among themselves, they can shift resources to the tip of the spear. In this way, they increase their combat power.

In Belgium and the Netherlands, we already do that with our navies. The ships are still national, flying the Belgian flag with a Belgian crew or the Dutch flag with a Dutch crew. But all support tasks, from command and supply to training and maintenance, we have either divided – one country does it for both – or merged. So we only have one headquarters. That makes it possible for our countries to generate more deployable capabilities with the same budget."

Suppose all EU countries followed the example of the Belgian-Dutch navy, would a defence budget of 2 per cent of our GDP be sufficient?

"NATO’s 2 per cent rule has become a kind of fetish. Actually, countries should first determine what their ambition is, what military tasks they want to be able to perform. Even if governments choose to do as much as possible together, that does not immediately produce savings. There are upfront costs. Investment is needed to build a new organisation, to harmonise the equipment of the armed forces. I think 2 per cent of GDP will be about the minimum amount required."

In the EU, we have ‘communitised’ a number of policy areas, such as trade. Decision-making takes place at the European level; member states have no right of veto. Should the EU also communitise defence?

"In my view, that is indeed the ideal. It requires an amendment of the EU treaty and that is a difficult process, but I see no objective reason why it couldn’t be done. In my opinion, the EU can decide on everything by majority vote, even on the deployment of troops. I would make only one exception: a member state that voted against should have the right not to participate in the military operation. A country cannot be forced to deploy its military if it does not want to, as long as the military personnel is on that country's payroll. Should it ever come to the point where the military is on the EU payroll, we will no longer need this exception. Then we will have a real European army. But that will take a long time.

Another form of communitisation is through the European Defence Fund, which supports research and the joint development of military capabilities. It allows the European Commission to steer the defence market. But this fund is now very small – a billion and a half euros a year – if you compare it with what the EU countries spend on defence in total – more than 200 billion a year. I would like to shift a larger part of the defence budget from the national to the European level. The Commission can then spend the money with the common interest in mind.

I am also in favour of the EU buying its own military hardware. Talking about EU-owned assets is taboo at the moment, but I can imagine an intermediate step where a number of countries decide together to buy the same equipment, for example drones. Instead of dividing them between these countries, you could then operate them as one big drone fleet with one command centre."

Sven Biscop - Grand Strategy in 10 words

Allies bring more resources and more legitimacy, you wrote in your latest book. For a post-growth EU, would it be all the more important to find allies?

"Yes, but I would make a distinction between potential member states, allies and partners. EU enlargement involves the Western Balkans – they are already surrounded by EU countries – and Ukraine, which was granted candidate status last year. If Norway or Switzerland ever asked to join, they would soon be members. These will pretty much be the EU's borders for a long time, because I don't see Turkey joining.

In addition, we have allies with whom we have established a collective defence guarantee. These are NATO countries like the UK and the US.

Finally, the EU should aim for strong partnerships with countries in South America, Africa and Asia. In doing so, we should not demand exclusivity, but recognise that it is in their interest to cooperate with all major players and not rely too much on any one of them. In fact, this is what the EU's Global Gateway strategy is aiming at.

We put an investment package on the table, link it to a political partnership and – if there is a need – offer security cooperation as well. All this without forcing countries to choose between, say, China and us."

The EU is highly dependent on imported raw materials, especially for the energy transition. If we implement a degrowth programme and, for example, reduce the role of the private car in favour of cycling, public transport and shared transport, we will need fewer scarce metals for the electrification of our mobility. Would that offer a geopolitical advantage?

"It might make our dependencies more manageable. But we will still need raw materials, we are not autarkic. Sourcing raw materials from abroad is not necessarily a bad thing. Much depends on how resource-rich countries organise extraction: is it done in the most environmentally friendly way possible and do the proceeds benefit the population? Unfortunately, in many countries this is not the case because they are poorly governed.

But in the end, the most important thing is that we all continue to realise that everyone remains dependent on everyone else. That realisation contributes to stability. Interdependence is not a sufficient condition to prevent war, but it does help: it creates an additional threshold for warfare. Therefore, we need to foster connectivity so that the world economy remains globalised.

Dependencies can be weaponised, but that is always a double-edged sword. Even before the Ukraine war, I said: we must make it clear to Putin that if he turns off the gas tap, it will never open again. Now that the Nord Stream pipeline has been blown up, it won't. So stopping the supply of energy or raw materials is a weapon you can only use once. It is not as strong a weapon as people often think."

Some Green realos advocate that the EU should seek a global alliance of democratic states to counterbalance authoritarian powers such as Russia and China. Is that a good idea?

"I am sceptical about that. A club with only democracies, what global problem is it going to solve? Climate change? Migration? Nuclear proliferation? To tackle the big problems, we also need the non-democratic countries. We need to keep them involved in the institutions that shape multilateral cooperation, without that implying approval of their domestic practices. To me, that is realpolitik.

“ A new Cold War, with the US and Europe on one side and China and Russia on the other, is really not in our interest ”

World politics is about interests. Every state pursues its interests and ultimately cooperates with every other state if it serves its interests, regardless of the domestic political system. By presenting world politics as a confrontation between democracies and autocracies, you would push China into the arms of Russia, while now you see the Chinese trying to hold the middle ground regarding the war in Ukraine. I would say: play a nuanced diplomatic game to make sure China stays in that middle position. A new Cold War, with the US and Europe on one side and China and Russia on the other, is really not in our interest."

The EU is working on legislation to ban products made with forced labour from the internal market. This particularly involves products from Chinese factories where members of the Uighur minority work under duress. Do you support that law?

"Yes. The question is where we draw the red lines. If we say: we cannot trade with countries that violate human rights, we won't be left with many trading partners. But we can say that we don't want to become complicit in human rights violations. So buying products made by Uyghur forced labourers, we won't do that."

Drawing red lines for China but working together to tackle the climate crisis, is that compatible?

"It will have to be. If we link everything to everything, we won't agree on anything anymore. So we have to separate issues, 'compartmentalise' relations. My general principle is: work together where you can, push back where you have to. It is precisely by having the courage to push back or strike back when our red lines are crossed that we lay the groundwork for equal cooperation in those areas where interests coincide."

If China attacks Taiwan, will that change everything?

"If China were to start a war to change the status quo, it has a lot to lose. The country has an export economy heavily dependent on the global economy, much more so than Russia. Therefore, we have to say clearly to Beijing: if you do that, our economic relationship will never be the same again. That is the only deterrent we have as Europeans, because we are not in a position to intervene militarily.

“ The status quo between China and Taiwan is best for everyone ”

My husband is Taiwanese, so we often visit the island. There you see: it is a democratic society, really different from the one in mainland China. The status quo between China and Taiwan is best for everyone. The EU should underline that. And it should therefore not tamper with that status quo itself."

Do the Chinese threats against Taiwan keep you awake at night?

"I don't think China will invade Taiwan tomorrow. The Chinese regime is currently focusing on consolidation and stability at home. So it does not want to cause a big stir abroad. But Taiwan is a highly ideologically charged, highly symbolic file, which makes it unpredictable.

If there’s one thing that makes me lose sleep, it’s this: I try to develop a subtle view and I come to conclusions that I don't always feel comfortable with. For example, when I say that we can do little for human rights in China. At the same time, I think: I have studied it and this is my objective analysis. I'm not going to say something else because that makes me feel better. It’s painful, but that’s realpolitik. You shouldn't promise anything you don't think you can deliver."

This interview appeared in the Green European Journal. It is also available in Dutch and Spanish.


Video plays via YouTube Afspelen op YouTube

European Thinkers, Budapest, 2021: Sven Biscop


16 augustus 23

chris peeters

EU strategy

The interview says a lot about an EU strategy. But I feel in reality the Germans are very self-centered.

Take the visits of Scholz to China, the subsidies for production of microchips and batteries in Germany, the way Germany protects its car industry. I feel the SPD defends many connections with the German industry, and the Greens have no clear vision on German/EU industrial strategy.

Any discussion about a European defence production hangs in the air as long as Germany does not change course towards a European strategy. Alas the AfD is now growing fast with a rabiate anti-European discourse. 

If we want to talk realpolitics we have to confront the developments in Germany very openly...

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