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The European Union in an Age of Geopolitical Rivalries: Political Developments and Policy Responses

IEP/ Marlene Pfau
IEP/ Marlene Pfau

The IEP Annual Conference 2023 took place on 28 and 29 September at the Representation of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia to the Federation in Berlin under the title "The European Union in an Age of Geopolitical Rivalries: Political Developments and Policy Responses".

Pictures of the Annual Conference 2023

Drawing together the numerous insights from this year’s IEP Annual Conference, a shared understanding stands out: the EU finds itself in an increasingly multipolar world order defined less and less by rules and cooperation but by power and alliances. There is no way back to a status pre-ante comparable to the immediate post-Cold War order. The EU, a child of the rule-based global order, needs to adjust quickly and substantially to be able to function in the new order, including in the policy areas of enlargement, economy, and security. The central message of the keynote by Director Christoph Wolfrum (Federal Foreign Office) was that if the EU increases its capacity to act through parallel processes of institutional reform and enlargement, if it becomes more resilient through building new partnerships, and if it does not compromise on its fundamental values, it can embark on this challenging journey with some confidence.

Enlargement: No if, but how and when?

One stop on this journey will be the enlargement of the EU to probably more than 30 Member States. This requires managing reforms of the EU itself, reforms in potential member states, enlargement time frames, and, crucially, expectations and public opinion in all involved countries. To manage these complex processes, the EU must support potential member states in their reforms as best as possible, address and strengthen their civil society, and clearly define and communicate time frames. These are substantial challenges, but the momentum for enlargement both within the EU and in potential member states is the strongest it has been in a long time.

Promoting, Protecting, Partnering in Global Trade?

The EU’s successful journey into its future also depends on the right company. The EU faces the challenge of promoting free trade while protecting its industries and reducing its own dependencies. Its economic security strategy published earlier this year is a first step that needs to be followed up with building alliances for WTO reform, harmonizing views among Member States about strategic relations with third countries, further diversifying trade relations through FTAs, and bolstering the EU’s economic security toolbox e.g. through anti-coercion measures and foreign investment screening. In this, sustainability and the green transition must not become an afterthought, but should guide and harmonize EU economic policy.

Ensuring European Security

The singular event most strongly reflecting the changing global order was the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. The EU has developed unprecedented tools, such as the European Peace Facility, to assist third countries and in particular Ukraine either directly or to enable Member States to do so. However, the EU is still very much adjusting to having been placed on the map of global security overnight. Its relationship and cooperation with NATO, especially given the uncertainty over future US leadership, differing threat perceptions between its Member States, as well as its capacity to act swiftly and substantially, are all ongoing challenges. Finally, Member States and the EU do not have the luxury to only address military security but must address several further security threats, most prominently climate change.

What is the nature of the beast?

Throughout its journey, the EU does not remain unchanged. The old question about the kind of sui generis polity that the EU is – or should be – still captures the interest of researchers. Having long been characterized as a regulatory state, the EU can also be thought of as a reinsurance state, ensuring the Member States that in turn ensure citizens, an interventionist state that directly engages in markets beyond redistribution and regulation, or a regulatory security state, that regulates unchartered waters of security policy. Reflected in the concepts is an EU that expands its policy toolbox. While the scope of these concepts still needs to be tested, one message is clear: the EU is again in transformation.


The IEP Annual Conference 2023 took place on Thursday 28 and Friday 29 September 2022 in Berlin in cooperation with IEP’s Academic Advisory Board. It was kindly supported by the German Federal Foreign Office, the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) Programme of the European Union and the Otto Wolff Foundation.

Team & authors

About the Annual Conference in Cooperation with the Academic Advisory Board project: The IEP Annual Conference offers a space to promote the exchange between academics and practitioners and to discuss scientific analyses of the EU in a practice-oriented way.

Image copyright: IEP/ Marlene Pfau