European sovereignty in global competition

Europe can ill afford to farm out its foreign and defense policies to Brussels. Europe will come back as a global actor only if the continental European member states and the United Kingdom join forces and coordinate their actions.

A cartoon that shows smallish Europe facing the shoes of bigger global powers
European states are rich but too small to become global players individually. © macpixxel for GIS

After World War II, European states lost their role as global powers – a wake-up call, especially for the United Kingdom and France.

However, a handful of visionary statesmen and organizations realized the gravity of the situation and began working toward European integration, as early as the late 1940s and 1950s. The first phase was the successful economic integration that led to the common market. But some individuals were planning further ahead. Half of the continent was under the tyrannical rule of the Soviet Union and the other half required military protection from the United States to assure its freedom. Europe’s geopolitical role was in decline. 

Some forward-thinking leaders, such as French President General Charles de Gaulle, envisioned Europe as a fatherland of fatherlands – not a centralized European state. The new Europe would derive its strength from the continent’s diversity and come back as a global actor through European member states’ joint, concerted effort.

Europe’s strength and weakness

Archduke Otto von Habsburg, another great European, the former heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, active politician, author and member of the European Parliament, outlined the same reasoning in his remarkable 1966 book, Europe – Great Power or Battlefield. He warned that if European countries failed to coordinate their foreign and security strategies, the continent would become a pawn in the great power competition as individual states were too weak on their own.

Without military deterrence and political energy, Europe could not back Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

Europe very successfully developed its common market, turning it into an economic powerhouse. The implosion of the Soviet Union brought freedom to Central Europe and the Baltic states, and allowed them to join the European Union. Each accession rewarded the new members with security and generous development aid, but also invigorated and strengthened the entire European project. This new dynamic was particularly evident following the EU’s quantum expansion in 2004, when the three Baltic states and the so-called Visegrad Four – Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic –  became member states.

Despite all that success, neither individual European countries nor Brussels has managed to develop the foreign policy capacity needed to defend Europe’s geopolitical and security interests. During the decades of the Soviet threat, Europe heavily leaned on the U.S.: the transatlantic alliance was the foundation of the continent’s security.  

Lately, regaining sovereignty in the globalizing world is a new buzz phrase in Europe. The EU has created the High Commission for Foreign Affairs and there is arguably more collaboration than before. However, results have been mediocre. Without military deterrence and political energy, Europe could not back Ukraine in its conflict with Russia – other than with ineffectual sanctions. The European intervention in Libya has been disastrous. And these are only two of many examples close to home. 

Europe must strengthen its neighborhood policy, especially with  Russia, Turkey, the Middle East and Africa, while prioritizing its relationship with the U.S. 

Incoherent policies

The EU has decided to prolong and ramp up its sanctions on Russia. Still, the impact of these measures remains dubious. Whether we like it or not, the Russian annexation of Crimea, previously a part of Ukraine, has become a fait accompli and is realistically irreversible. Europe’s responses are contradictory. On one hand, it imposes sanctions and constantly criticizes the Russian governance system. On the other, Germany, the biggest European economy, is only too happy to increase its dependence on Russian energy. This has led to an estrangement with the U.S. – which is still expected to defend Europe in the case of Russian aggression.

Europe could redirect Moscow’s attention from Russia’s Western border.

Russia is an important neighbor. Europe has vital stakes in deterring Moscow from further violating its neighbors’ territorial integrity and making an economic pivot to the East, mainly China. To avoid this outcome, the continent should develop a partnership with Russia. Tellingly, Japan and South Korea see Brussels’ sanctions as an opportunity. Foreign policy is a matter of long-term interests. It requires a carrot and an effective stick. Europe lacks both. Meanwhile, Washington’s policy toward Moscow fails to take into account that today’s Russia is not the Soviet Union.

A consistent European foreign policy could turn Russia’s Achilles’ heel into an opportunity. Russia must develop Siberia, lest it become overly dependent on China and even at risk of becoming vulnerable to annexation in the long run. A determined Europe could redirect its attention from Russia’s western border and instead, lend Moscow know-how, capital and capacities to shore up its far-eastern flank. This may seem a far-fetched strategy at first, but its geopolitical merits are sound.

Alienating Turkey

For many years now, Europe’s relations with a vital partner and once trustworthy ally, Turkey, have deteriorated. Tensions continue to build up. The latest conflict revolves around exclusive economic zones claimed by Greece and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean. It only takes one look at the map to see that some of Ankara’s grievances are justified. However, many European governments and the European Commission have developed the habit of treating Ankara with condescension, which hampers conflict resolution. With Greece and Cyprus on the one side and Turkey on the other, Brussels is understandably supporting the two EU members, but dispatching French and Italian navy ships to the Aegean Sea hardly brings us closer to a solution. Brussels has made matters worse by formulating conditions for opening negotiations that are unacceptable for Ankara. Europe’s only response so far has been to threaten Turkey with sanctions, which, of course, will lead nowhere.

European policies toward Africa and the Middle East are similarly incoherent. And Europe’s handling of the transatlantic relationship is alarmingly inadequate.

A coordinated foreign policy, conducted outside EU institutions by continental countries and the UK, could work well.

We keep hearing that U.S. President Donald Trump has ruined the partnership; alas, it had started to fray earlier. Naturally, such an association is bound to loosen over time, but it should remain strong. The Trump administration displayed more interest in Europe than that of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Mr. Trump’s problematic style notwithstanding,  European officials have not shied away from criticizing the president, his team and policies. Such behavior lacks the pragmatism necessary in foreign affairs. The German government’s postelection congratulations to the U.S. in 2016, for example, can only be described as paternalistic and arrogant. 

One way to go

Europe’s weak neighborhood policy is nowhere near sufficient to regain a global position. Brussels’ centralization drive is hardly the answer because technocratic principles are not conducive to diplomatic pragmatism. Effective foreign policy requires a practical approach, a long-term perspective, flexibility and experience.

With Brexit, the EU has lost its member with the most experience in global matters. But the Union is not Europe. Britain remains a European country.

In global affairs, London makes a prized partner. A coordinated foreign policy, conducted outside EU institutions by continental countries and the UK, could prove successful. The arrangement would allow Brussels to focus its energy on preserving the common internal market and its “Four Freedoms.

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