North Sea group shows Europe’s growing multipolarity
In the wake of Brexit, the EU has increasingly had to get to grips with a more complex, multipolar Europe. The latest sign of this will come on Monday with the second summit of the North Seas Energy Cooperation group of nations.
Its members are Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and the Netherlands. The UK left in 2020, following Brexit, but in December 2022 it signed a formal cooperation agreement with the group.
These nations are seeking to cooperate more closely, especially on energy, in the wake of Brexit and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. One particular focus for the group is efforts to facilitate the cost-effective deployment of offshore renewable energy and secure a sustainable, secure and affordable energy supply.
The North Seas Energy Cooperation, which was established in 2016, is just one example of the new organizations that have sprung up across Europe in recent years. Another is the European Political Community, an intergovernmental forum for political and strategic discussions about the future of Europe. Its first meeting took place last October in Prague with participants from 44 countries, including the 27 EU member states.
The proliferation of such groups comes in a context whereby Brexit has created a “new” non-EU power in Western Europe, in the form of the UK, and this is already changing the EU’s relationship with other non-bloc nations, including Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and key Balkan states. Each of these has developed relationships with the EU that were, ultimately, intended to be a means to an end for eventual EU membership, or at least closer relations.
Eventual accession to the Brussels-based club remains a key option for these nations but there is also a growing possibility for future relationships centered around continued non-membership, as the founding of the European Political Community highlights.
This was flagged by French President Emmanuel Macron, who asserted last year that the EU, “given its level of integration and ambition, cannot be the only way to structure the European continent.” He has been a leading advocate of the European Political Community as a mechanism to allow countries that might join the EU in the future — and others that might, like the UK, leave it — to deliver “European core values” in sectors such as energy, transport and infrastructure.
Therefore some decision makers in these states have used the Brexit referendum, and other key developments such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as opportunities to raise questions about the future of their relations with the EU.
There has also been some limited discussion as to whether there might be a radical overhaul of Europe’s institutional architecture. Such ambitious plans have faded, however, in part because of the complexities of the UK’s Brexit negotiations with the EU. But they do point to possibilities for future change. This is partly because Brussels wants to evolve on its own terms and time frame, and not be seen to be overly accommodating the now-departed UK.
Three states in particular will be crucial to the shaping of how Brexit plays out with regard to Europe’s shifting geopolitical landscape: Germany, the US and Russia.
Yet such far-reaching reform might ultimately come. This could be catalyzed if the UK continues — following the Windsor Framework recently agreed with the EU to address the issue of the movement of goods over the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the EU — to have warmer relations with the EU, with the significant possibility of the EU27 adopting more “out-of-the-box” thinking as the next waves of negotiations about the future of the relationship come onto the radar.
Such change might be needed not only to deal with the changes that the UK’s exit has brought to European geopolitics, but also to deal with wider global trends, of which Brexit is only one. Europe already feels the pull of various world powers, including the US and China, and is also challenged locally through the geopolitical disruptions of Turkiye and Russia.
This new multipolarity has brought greater uncertainty to Europe. And with Brexit making the UK another of these poles, the geopolitical terrain has become all the more complex.
Three states in particular will be crucial to the shaping of how Brexit plays out with regard to Europe’s shifting geopolitical landscape and a fast-changing multipolar world: Germany, the US and Russia. Other powers, such as France, the UK and China, will influence these processes but it will be the choices of the first three that will most shape the context of European politics in the 2020s, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates.
Regarding the US, greater stability has been restored to the transatlantic relationship following Joe Biden’s election as US president. However, pro-Brexit Donald Trump, who has called for the EU’s further dismemberment, looks set to stand again for election next year, so further policy uncertainty cannot be completely ruled out from 2025 onward.
Meanwhile, Germany, which is the EU’s largest national economy and most powerful state, is in flux. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the international context has changed dramatically for Germany’s Socialist Party-led government since its election in 2021.
What all of this shows us is that Europe’s institutional future is being shaped by several first-order challenges the bloc is confronted with, including ongoing pressures in its relations with Russia, plus the future of NATO and ties with the US.
How the continent responds, collectively, will help frame not only its future relationship with the UK and other non-EU nations but also its broader place in the world.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.