When Ursula von der Leyen took over the European Commission’s in December 2019, she declared her intention to create a “geopolitical Commission”.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic was creating new head winds for globalization, exacerbating strains in the global rules-based order, severely damaging world economic growth and accelerating great power rivalries.
For the time being the European Union (EU) is struggling to address numerous crisis, partly because powers remain largely within the remit of EU Member States.
This is why the EU needs to be more courageous in its foreign policy-making and move to qualified majority voting so as to act on more issues without the increasingly onerous process of securing unanimity among the EU27.
A review of recent history clearly shows the opportunities missed after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the USSR and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. George Kennan, former US Ambassador to Moscow, warned in 2000: „NATO’s eastward enlargement may become the most fatal mistake in US policy because there is no justification for it. This decision will harm the development of Russian democracy by restoring the Cold War atmosphere. The Russians will have no choice but to interpret NATO’s expansion as a military action”.
The dream of a liberal world order began to fall apart when it became clear that Russia would not transition to a liberal democracy, as many in the West had hoped in the 1990s. Rather, it did consolidate as a state committed to securing an extensive zone of security and influence. Any residual hope of restoring harmonious relations between the West and Russia was disrupted in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started a conflict in eastern Ukraine.
It also became evident that the rise of hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty would not be accompanied by progress toward liberalization and pluralism. China would combine economic success with one-party rule, disproving the West’s dogma that economic development and democracy were intrinsically linked. Together with Russia, China became the core of an anti-Western coalition that aimed to resist and reduce the West’s regional and global influence.
As a multilateral body with twenty-seven members that decide on foreign and security policy issues by unanimity, the EU has a heavy handicap. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden, and even Macron can send troops abroad within a few hours without many internal or external constraints.
Instead the EU requires a long process that involves multiple layers of preparation and consultation, with a considerable likelihood of getting stuck along the way. In urgent crises, when every hour counts, the EU is simply not a credible actor.
Moreover, one of the main obstacles to a more coherent EU foreign and security policy is the existing divisions within Europe, which are being driven, among others, by political ideologies, national agendas, regional peculiarities, and differences of threat perception. If the EU aspires to play an active role in world affairs, Member States should be more prone to compromise to better harmonize their voices and actions.
The EU can become a credible player only with stronger leadership, both from the institutions in Brussels and – probably more importantly – from the leaders of the big EU Member States.
Covid-19’s Geopolitical implications
Covid-19 erupted into a landscape of change: even before the pandemic unfolded, the world was already grappling with major challenges and the emergence of new geopolitical fissures and trends.
In the face of the economic and societal changes brought by the coronavirus, as well as the structural fragilities that it has exposed, some argue that the pandemic will merely accentuate pre-existing trends and dynamics, while others believe that the crisis will create a world profoundly different than before.
What is surely known is that the pandemic will stay until well into 2021, and quite possibly beyond that.
The state of play
In the opening statement to the European Parliament, the President of the “geopolitical” European Commission Ursula von der Leyen stressed that Europe should have a stronger and more united voice in the world.
In order to achieve that, there needs to be a strategic vision for the further development of the European Project and its role in the world and, not the least, the political will and commitment of the Member States.
In a world of rising geopolitical tensions between global powers, the EU is seeking to define its place and role by creating a “stronger Europe in the world” and by being “ambitious, strategic and assertive”.
But, achieving the same degree of integration on foreign policy as the EU has achieved on trade, where the Commission negotiates on behalf of the entire Union, appears hard for the foreseeable future. The EU’s heterogeneity is too great, and the large Member States remain too committed to their national foreign policies.
A possible way out?
To proactively shape this future, European decision-makers have strategic choices to make. The role Europe wants to play in a world shaped by Sino-American competition and strategic rivalry is the most important choice its leaders will have to make in this setting.
While this choice will depend in part on developments and rhetoric in Washington and Beijing, it is ultimately a European one to make and should, as such, be based on a discussion on what role Europeans want to play in this world, at what cost, and with what tools.
The best that can be hoped for is, for the time being, better coordination of the big European countries’ national foreign policies, which should complement, rather than stifle, the EU’s common policy.
One way to achieve this is to make EU foreign policy more flexible by mandating individual states, or groups of them, to take selected foreign policy issues forward on behalf of the Union. An EU Security Council, as proposed by Macron and Merkel, could also offer a framework in which national policies and collective action could complement each other more effectively.
EU strategic autonomy
The prerequisite for European strategic autonomy is internal unity, strength and resilience. As the Greek etymology of the word suggests, autonomy means the ability of the self (autos) to live by its laws (nomos). The European Union needs anyway to act with others, beginning with its core partners the United Nations, the United States and NATO, as well as regional organisations.
While respecting internally democratic standards, human rights and rule of law the EU must boost its strategic comparative advantages in high-added value sectors and focus on investment in education and R&D, and promoting ecosystems and value chains in critical sectors.
By avoiding fragmentation and improving its capabilities, decision-making mechanisms and strategic culture the EU should pursue, to effectively intervene in the global arena, multilateral solutions reflecting its ideals and preferences.
The United States
The US remains the only major power able to project its influence, including militarily, at the global level, but no longer represents the world’s undisputed hegemon. Economically, notwithstanding its ongoing financial primacy and entrepreneurial vitality, technological edge and academic excellence, the US now stands on a par with, and could soon be overtaken by China. All this suggests that the EU cannot just assume it can rely on the US as it once did.
While asymmetry will remain a structural feature of transatlantic ties, notably in defence, a revamped transatlantic bond will require greater European responsibility and thus, as already stressed, autonomy, first and foremost in the EU’s surrounding regions as well as in the major transnational governance challenges of our age, from health and climate to technology and human mobility.
The US-China relationship
The US-China relationship soured on several fronts throughout 2020. The US expanded export controls and proscribed entity lists, sought to ban certain Chinese social media companies, further restricted Chinese companies in the telecommunications and semiconductors industries .
China responded by placing sanctions on US congressional members, reciprocating the closure of a consulate, sanctioning a US company over arms deals with Taiwan and imposing new export controls .
China and the US will continue to try to disentangle their strategic interdependence with the Biden Administration likely to perpetuate many of the policies pursued under Trump. Competition is likely in trade relationship, 5G, semiconductors and Artificial Intelligence.
The US will also focus on efforts to repatriate manufacturing and supply chains for strategic industries such as medical supplies, pharmaceuticals and semiconductors. Finally, there will be friction in areas of Chinese sovereignty, including its maritime territorial boundaries and its stance on noninterference in what Beijing considers to be domestic affairs.
But the US will seek to work with Beijing on some global issues. The most notable is climate change, with other areas likely to include public health and nuclear nonproliferation.
The geopolitical upheavals we are witnessing today underline the urgency with which the EU must find its way in a world increasingly characterized by raw power politics. Europeans must adjust their mental maps to deal with the world as it is, not as they hoped it would be.
To avoid being the losers in today’s US-China competition, Europeans must relearn the language of power and conceive of EU as a geostrategic actor.
With the recent climate action announcements of the Biden administration, the US joins China and the EU in the club of powers committed to climate neutrality. This year, China, the EU and the US can use collaboration on these agendas as a springboard to increase climate ambition. They should set a clear path towards domestic neutrality goals while kicking off an irreversible net zero transformation globally.
The leader’s summit announced by US president Joe Biden on 22 April offers a chance for joint initiatives. Finally, the three players need to embrace network diplomacy beyond the official channels and (online) summits, in particular business stakeholders and civil society need to be involved in all of these agendas.
The world is becoming more complex and more insecure: the steady decline of Western power and the rise of competing Asian countries, China foremost, increasing political tensions and conflicts in the Middle East and possibly in Asia.
In politics, you have to know what you want, when you want it, you must have the courage to say it, and when you say it, you need the courage to carry it out.
Ursula von der Leyen did maintain recently: “When Member States say Europe is too slow, I say to them to be courageous and finally move to qualified majority voting”. The problem is that, with a global pandemic scrambling everything, a geopolitical Europe is still absent and European strategic sovereignty is eroding daily.
Bilateral relations with the US, China, Russia, or neighbouring states have therefore to be defined. Only when European publics and decision-makers alike know which role Europe is to play in a world that will be irreversibly antagonistic can objectives, procedures, tools and mechanisms be established and evaluated.