Opinion: European Union must define its spheres of influence

Foreign ministers of Germany and Saudi Arabia at Jeddah airport
Jeddah, July 3, 2017: German Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel (3-R) is received by his Saudi counterpart Adel Jubeir (R) during his tour of the Gulf region (picture: dpa)

Italy's recent desperate threat to close its ports to vessels carrying migrants has been greeted with expressions of nervous support from other European Union member states. This reaction, which runs in opposition to Brussels’ reflexive policy of trying to accommodate the incoming masses as best as possible, unmasks a deeper strategic malaise at the heart of the current EU strategic thinking and doctrine.

This malaise can be described as the absence of any recognition, definition or articulation of a basic element of geopolitical reality: that the EU, as a bloc, has strategic spheres of influence that must be defined, promoted and defended.

The polite pretense that the EU is only a benign, inward-looking economic, social and political construct seeking the integration and well-being of its members should have been put to rest with the events in Ukraine. It ignores the simple truth that once created, a geographically coherent bloc with 500 million inhabitants, located at a geopolitical crossroads, must have a profound impact on others.

Mature bloc

This bloc’s borders stretch from Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean (only 500 kilometers north of the Egyptian coast), to Spain’s African land borders at Ceuta and Melilla, to the Baltic region and Russia’s former buffer zone in Central Europe, and from the Atlantic coast reaching out toward the United States.

As the EU matures as a bloc, the pull of its prosperity and civilization and its sheer weight create some displacement in the surrounding regions. As a result, enhanced are its practical policy challenges in such areas as immigration, energy, international affairs and trade.

Present EU policy, focused on technical details such as migrant quotas, completely misses the big strategic picture

The role granted to regional parliaments in accepting free trade agreements (FTA), for example, is an anachronism, a leftover from the EU’s earlier era of inwardness. Today, it works against strategic interests of the bloc as a whole. The recent vote of the Walloon Parliament against the EU-Canada FTA, for example, stood clearly at odds with the community’s need to define its common interests and delimit its sphere of influence.

Paradigm shift

As 65 million Africans are currently estimated to be on the move north, it is high time for the EU to recognize a little-noticed German foreign policy shift in two key areas and adopt it urgently on the bloc level. Present EU policy, focused on technical details such as migrant quotas, completely misses the big strategic picture as Europe gears up for the next tidal waves of migration. If you fail to deal with the problems "out there," they tend to wind up on your doorstep and in your living room.

Recognition of this simple wisdom seems to be behind German diplomacy’s first paradigm shift in decades. Berlin has moved from focusing almost exclusively on "regional" European and transatlantic issues to redirecting its policy priorities toward global challenges.

German Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel's proactive initiative in the Gulf, dealing from a German-EU perspective with the different protagonists, is a good example of Berlin’s new approach. The initiative has recognized that stability and security in the Gulf region are of interest and importance to German and European security. Another indirect acknowledgement of Europe’s sphere of influence is clearly visible on the issue of African development. The problem is rapidly acquiring priority status as a strategic German foreign policy objective.

In the medium and longer terms, helping African nations to overcome their inability to foster economic and social development is the only realistic option left to Europe, if it is ever to find a sustainable solution to the migrant problem washing up on its shores.

African migrants on board a ship in the Mediterranean
Salerno, June 29, 2017: Within 48 hours of this ship’s landing, some 12,000 migrants have reached Italy’s shores on 22 costal guard and nongovernmental organizations vessels (source: dpa)

Africa has become, once again, a continent of direct strategic interest to Europe. It should be recognized as vital to the bloc's definition of its spheres of influence. The criminal-terrorist-migratory enterprise operating right now in northern Africa, to Europe’s huge detriment, represents a challenge to the entire bloc, not just to the member states on the continent’s southern flank.

Neglected Mediterranean

Of equal urgency is the EU’s need to re-engage in the Mediterranean. It is not a “southern problem” to be dealt with on an ad hoc basis by local member states, perhaps with some support from the rest of the community. Throughout Europe's history, from Rome to the Crusader states, from Italy’s maritime republics to World War II, the Mediterranean had always been at the heart of the continent’s security.

The "Mare Nostrum" concept of that sea as a strategic “internal lake” has been largely forgotten by the Europeans following decolonization in the postwar period, when the Cold War's bipolar realities focused their attention on potential battlegrounds farther north. In today’s multipolar world, global problems such as mass movements of people or dislocations resulting from changes in trade flows make it urgent for the EU to identify, promote and defend its strategic, long-standing interests in the Mediterranean, including North Africa.

The EU, as a bloc, needs to define its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean to develop a workable long-term accommodation with China

This is particularly true in post-Brexit Europe, where the north will find it indispensable to forge closer ties with the south, including a more effective and realistic bloc-level engagement with Turkey. For now, the EU seems more intent on ignoring Turkey’s return to its old, tried-and-tested geopolitical role, commensurate with its size, history and location. But a great deal of Europe's energy security, for example, will continue to depend on decisions made in Ankara.

In addition to mass migration from Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, it is not a trifling matter that China is busy building a trade “superhighway” with its One Belt, One Road strategy. Beijing has envisioned an infrastructure system stretching from the South and East China Seas, through the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, all the way to northern Europe, and particularly to Germany’s ports. The EU, as a bloc, needs to define its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean precisely in order to develop a workable and sustainable long-term accommodation with China.

No alternative

The Balkans also loom large as a sphere of influence in need of being defined by the European bloc. Since the wars in the former Yugoslavia, it has been mainly the EU’s gravitational pull that has kept the region’s volatile politics and clashing territorial claims in check. Europe has performed this task as a bloc rather than a collection of individual member states. Its interests in the region will continue to be challenged by waves of migration, the criminal-terrorist nexus and internal, Balkans-specific fissures.

If the EU fails to actively manage these spheres of influence, it will suffer consequences that go far beyond undermining its cohesion as a geopolitical bloc or weakening the positions of individual member states. Such institutional failure would, over time, generate a cascade of setbacks as the bloc struggles to cope with problems generated by its own size and prosperity. The EU can no longer sustain itself by being simultaneously prosperous and weak: that is a recipe for disaster.

The potential damage would be multipronged and probably irreversible in the long term. Sociopolitical friction over inabsorbable numbers of immigrants would inexorably weaken the EU’s cohesion. Stability in Central Europe would be jeopardized by a vacuum in the bloc’s relationship with Russia, as these states tend to be the biggest losers from East-West confrontation and winners in times of cooperation.

Reigniting the Balkan tinderbox and ceding to China Europe’s unique geohistorical advantage in trade and naval power in the Mediterranean are other manifest dangers of the EU’s failure to define and defend its critical spheres of influence. The matter is urgent and the time to act is now. Abandoning the pretense that the bloc has no external geopolitical interests would make for an excellent start.


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