EU's Soft Power in the Age of European Disarray
Michael Lambert
Michael Eric Lambert
Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century
The soft power of the European Union (EU) has been the first to be impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, as recent developments have compromised the free movement of citizens by disrupting the Schengen area for more than a year and a half already. This comes at a critical time for the Union, as other events have lately undermined the unity of the countries, the two most famous being the BREXIT and the European migrant crisis that started nearly a decade ago.

Overall, it remains questionable where the EU will be in a few years from now as there seem to be no ambitious plans on the table, the same goes for the Eurozone which is missing the transition to blockchain technology.
If we take the example of France and Germany, Brussels' policy has proved harmful in recent years as it often fits nations with a regional influence but less to international powers.
If the EU seems to have lost its sparkle and is unlikely to ever be anything more than an economic union, leaving behind any prospect of a Federal state based on the American example or a Confederal state based on the Swiss model, this does not mean that Europe's soft power is doomed to fail. On the contrary, the downfall of EU's soft power can be an opportunity for sovereign states to (re)build their own sovereign capabilities, as we saw after Brexit when the UK regained its global soft power by concluding ambitious bilateral agreements with Japan and the United States (UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and the United Kingdom–United States Free Trade Agreement both in 2020).

As a matter of fact, the collapse of EU's soft power may be an opportunity for some old and new states, such as France, Germany, or even Estonia, to shine on the international stage, as the way they develop domestically is a valuable alternative to Brussels' current policies which undermines their respective soft powers.

If we take the example of France and Germany, Brussels' policy has proved harmful in recent years as it often fits nations with a regional influence but less to international powers. Thus Paris and Berlin have proved to be the underdogs of the Schengen Area and the Eurozone, the former because Schengen does not allow Paris to select the most talented workers and students, which the UK now does and accounts for rising wages and falling unemployment since 2020.

Joblessness in France and overcrowded universities with foreigners paying the same tuition fees as nationals is a major concern to Paris as it has been proven in the post-Brexit UK that first hire salaries have risen in a less open economy, while British universities are now able to select the best candidates and give more academic opportunities to national candidates. In addition, it proved to be an asset for the hiring of nationals, as some other EU citizens moving to the UK were prepared to accept a lower starting salary, as they expected to return home and not become full British citizens and live in the UK. In short, taking the benefits without the duties.

It is also unfair for France, as it was for the UK before Brexit, to accept citizens from across the EU, given that France has some of the highest-ranked universities in the world, such as the prestigious Sorbonne, and offers almost free education to students from other EU countries who have no equivalent to offer to French students in exchange.

This seems to be a rather sensitive issue as education and knowledge, in general, should be accessible to all, as it is a gift for mankind, but no (almost) free education can be done without a stronger selection of non-national students, as it has been proved in the Quebec university system (almost free and accepting only the best non-Canadian candidates).
While France will have much to gain, like the UK, from regaining more autonomy from the EU, so too will Germany with its membership of the Eurozone, which has proved detrimental to the economic empowerment of its citizens.

Prior to Eurozone integration, the Deutsche Mark was one of the most widely used currencies in the world and had a reputation as one of the world's most stable. Given Germany's economic performance since reunification, a return of the national currency would allow German citizens to leverage their economic power, as it would make them wealthy, following a trend similar to that of Switzerland.

Germany would also benefit from following the UK's example, as German soft power is a reality often undermined by European politics, especially when it comes to EU nationals coming to the country from Eastern and Southern Europe, leading to unfair competition on the job market. Moreover, this policy of allowing EU citizens from poorer states is detrimental because it does not push the Eastern and Southern European governments to change their own economic and political systems and question themselves (e.g. fighting against corruption in an efficient way in Italy), since they can live on the money sent from relatives living in Germany.

As such, the lack of selection of foreigners in universities and workplaces has led to a large number of EU citizens coming to earn a living in Germany before returning home, with no interest in settling in the country and becoming citizens with the duties associated with it.

The debate about Germany outside the EU thus remains, but critics arise, recalling the time when Germany closed itself to the rest of the world. Let's be clear, a sovereign Germany does not mean a closed country, but rather a Canadian-style state policy of only allowing people if they are talented and willing to contribute to the national effort.
During the yearly "Festival of Lights" in Berlin, the facade of the house of the European Commission is getting illuminated. With this projection, the Liaison Office of the European Parliament and the Representation of the European Commission in Germany want to draw attention to the importance of Europe. Photo by Maximalfocus on Unsplash
Does this mean that the European Union has to disappear? Certainly not, but a call for change can only be made if we agree to start a debate on the future of the Union, not on its past merits. No political system can improve without honest criticism, and History has shown that a system that is not open to scrutiny is doomed to failure.
There are many examples, but the restoration of national autonomy does not only concern well-established countries such as in Western Europe but also applies to nations like Estonia. The small Nordic country has managed to become a worldwide cyber-leader over the last decade, and while the euro and Schengen were valuable assets at the beginning, there is little or no point in maintaining this approach, as today Estonia is an attractive country with global companies like Bolt and Wise and leading universities such as the prestigious University of Tartu.

Tallinn would benefit from adopting a strategy similar to that of Norway, another well-off Nordic and non-EU country. This strategy will also be fair, as other EU countries and Brussels itself continue to deny Estonia's Nordic identity despite EU membership, which is a lack of respect for your partner. If Norway were to inspire Tallinn, NATO membership could be maintained (the same goes for France and Germany), but less EU influence might not be detrimental overall.

The purpose of this opinion piece is not to argue for the dismantling of the European Union, which has done much for peace and prosperity on the continent after the Second World War and even more so since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but to show that the EU is not an end in itself.

When talking about the Union, member states often tend to forget that another way is possible and perhaps more suitable for some. At present, EU countries such as Sweden and Denmark are thriving without the euro, while some non-EU countries are likewise members of Schengen, such as Switzerland, Norway, and Iceland. An à la carte Europe has proven to be possible, even more since Brexit.

Moreover, there can even be free movement of people without the EU, as the Nordic Passport Union has shown. In 1952, decades before Schengen, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland agreed to abolish passports for travel between them and to readmit citizens of other countries who had illegally entered one of the four countries from another.

Does this mean that the European Union has to disappear? Certainly not, but a call for change can only be made if we agree to start a debate on the future of the Union, not on its past merits. No political system can improve without honest criticism, and History has shown that a system that is not open to scrutiny is doomed to failure.

In this sense, the EU has a lot to learn from Switzerland, a country that has proven that it is able to take the best aspects of the Union by adopting the "Schengen agreement with a twist," while remaining outside the EU.

While some people who are pro-EU will read these lines and see them as a provocation, don't take them as such, but rather as the sentences were written by someone who has lived along the French-Swiss border since his childhood, hoping that one day the EU will adopt the Swiss model to become a direct democracy (also called "pure democracy", which the EU is not), and who has seen the growing difference between the two sides, with friends and family moving to Switzerland because the EU has not been able to swallow its pride and be inspired by the Swiss success.

Like many young Europeans, I also believed in the collapse of London in a post-Brexit order, which has not happened so far, and I have seen colleagues across the Channel become wealthier in a couple of years. This has raised questions about the EU itself, its soft power, which seems to be crumbling to this day.

Again, the EU has been a fundamental part of achieving Peace on the continent, but Switzerland has also managed not to go to war without being a member of the EU. The same is true of the EU's economic prosperity: the post-Brexit UK has managed to remain wealthy since leaving and remains a destination of choice for EU elites, who continue to use its language in Brussels and enroll in British universities. This raises some questions about when your elites were and are being educated by the country that left you.