Why the EU has a ‘soft power’ problem and how to fix it07 Jun 2023 - 11:24
As Europe is securing its energy supply in the absence of Russian oil and gas, countries like Germany are redeploying fossil fuels both at home and abroad to make it through the energy crisis. Yet, at the same time, EU delegates have called on African countries to stop the development of fossil projects for their own electricity needs, since this is not in line with global climate ambitions.1
This has fuelled accusations of blatant double-standards. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, for example, stated: “Now with Europe reinvesting in its own fossil fuel industry to bring mothballed power plants back online, in a truly perverse twist we are told new Western investment in African fossil fuels is possible – but only for oil and gas resources that will be piped and shipped to Europe.”2
It is remarkable with which ease Europe is greenwashing fossils for its own needs, while pointing fingers at countries who would like to make use of their fossil resources too
In an equally convenient move, the European Union has declared natural gas to be ‘green’ to tackle Europe’s acute energy insecurity without violating its own climate laws.3 It is remarkable with which ease Europe is greenwashing fossils for its own needs, while pointing fingers at countries who would like to make use of their fossil resources too.
In short: the EU has a ‘soft power’ problem. “Soft power is the power of getting others to want the outcomes you want”, as Joseph Nye famously said. It requires persuading others of the normative righteousness of your interests and goals. Given its identity as a global norm- and standard-setter, the EU has made soft power the quintessence of its diplomacy abroad: by externalising its ‘political peace project’ built around democracy, the rule of law, human rights and climate protection, the EU tries to convince foreign publics of its normative appeal.
However, in challenging times, this self-presentation abroad seems to hold serious reputational risks. The EU, for instance, acts with mind-blowing hypocrisy in the global energy transition; its narratives are profoundly disconnected from the policies it pursues.
How to fix this? Firstly, disguising ‘hard’ (geo)political interests as ‘soft’ values-driven politics will do more harm than good. Europe cannot preach to others about climate change and the necessity to only invest in renewables when it clearly is security – not sustainability – that is currently driving the continent’s own politics.
Contrary to proclamations about “partnership at eye-level”, the reality is that the EU’s listening activities abroad are profoundly limited
Yet policymakers call for further strengthening Europe’s self-presentation as a soft power to pursue international climate cooperation. Such recommendations ignore that an energy diplomacy exclusively built around the EU’s identity as a ‘green power’ generates expectations abroad that are largely decoupled from the actual policies Europe pursues. Emphasising soft ecological and societal values in its energy diplomacy does not sit well with the fact that the EU’s energy policy is driven by the hard political and economic realities of its member states. Less hubris and more realism in the narrative driving its diplomacy is vital if the EU does not want to lose face.
This relates to the second, more fundamental piece of advice: Europe would do best if it remembered that credibility is essential to soft power. Credibility is not something you ‘have’, but requires an ongoing effort to maintain; it resides in the minds (and hearts) of the audience at whom your narrative is directed. Credibility therefore presupposes listening to those you try to persuade, to understand how they perceive your message.
Contrary to proclamations about “partnership at eye-level”4 , the reality is that the EU’s listening activities abroad are profoundly limited. European standards in the green transition, its technical expertise and financial support are portrayed as the best solutions to African needs – but the specific terms of this assistance are exclusively for the EU to decide on. European policies on carbon border taxing or green technology transfer, which strongly affect climate and energy security in Africa, are designed single-handedly rather than in close consultation with partner countries.
The European Union cannot privilege its own strategic goals over the needs of the region itself, and demand credibility and respect as a partner
Genuine listening efforts, which would grant African countries agency in determining their policy priorities themselves, are lacking. Instead, the EU mostly focusses on what others can ‘learn’ from Europe. This is no partnership at eye-level.
Soft power requires that norms and standards are applied without hypocrisy if they are meant to be appealing. This presupposes being upfront about the fact that trade-offs are inevitable in the balancing act between economic reality and political ideals. The European Union cannot privilege its own strategic goals, such as securing gas fields in Africa, over the needs of the region itself, and demand credibility and respect as a partner.
After all, cooperation in a multipolar world rests upon the ability to compromise; something that the EU – itself the result of decades-long negotiations and trade-offs – should know best. If not substantiated with genuine listening and sound policy, the EU’s self-presentation as a soft power, and its insistence on taking the moral high ground, might prove counterproductive in tackling one of the most pressing global challenges of the 21st century.
This column was the winning contribution of our student column competition and was written by Hannah Lentschig. Hannah holds a BSc (honors) degree in Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics (PPLE) with a major in Politics from University of Amsterdam. She is currently wrapping-up her Advanced MSc in International Relations & Diplomacy at Leiden University, with a particular research interest in the geopolitics of the energy transition in the context of the European Union (EU).
- 1Hanna Knaepen, ‘A reality check for Europe-Africa climate diplomacy’, Centre for Africa-Europe Relations (ecdpm), 24 October 2022.
- 2President Museveni cited in David Blackmon, ‘Europe’s Energy Hypocrisy Attracts Increasing Notice’, Forbes, 21 November 2022.
- 3European Parliament, ‘Taxonomy: MEPs do not object to inclusion of gas and nuclear activities’, Press Release, 6 July 2022.
- 4European Commission, ‘9 months after Summit: European Union and African Union Commissions take stock of the implementation of the February Summit commitments’, 28 November 2022.