European Autonomy Under Germany

Recently Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined the key topics concerning German and European politics. She is preparing to hand over the baton not only to her successors in Berlin, but also to give clear signals to the EU’s new leaders and to her external partners in Washington, Beijing, and Moscow.

She reaffirmed her firm, principled position – “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands”, which she expressed in May 2017 after the first European visit of US President Donald Trump, who at the NATO summit demanded that the Allies cover the expense for American guarantees, and at the G7 summit, when he rejected the Paris climate agreement. Against the background of Brexit, which Trump welcomed, Merkel extended her hand to the recently-elected French President Emmanuel Macron, resuscitating the German-French engine of European integration, which had stalled after the crisis in Libya. A political platform is ready: the 2016 EU Global Strategy set a goal to achieve strategic autonomy and to develop “hard power” tools, and the Bundeswehr White Paper confirmed the need and readiness of Germany to take the leading role.

So, now Merkel has confirmed the chosen course, as well as the stated goals and intentions, but amid new conditions. Over the past two-three years, policymakers have become more certain about previously-observed vectors. Europeans’ fears about Trump’s “unpredictability” gave way to conviction of his predictable one-sidedness, which destroyed the “fundamental faith” in the post-war “multilateral” order. Merkel saw America’s loss of interest in Europe as inevitable, and under Trump this became an acute geopolitical challenge. London crossed the Brexit finish line, forcing the Europeans to look at cohesion issues from a new perspective – freeing themselves from the British “rear car”, which was loosening and slowing down the EU and its “defence” ambitions. But without Britain, “European defence” is also impossible, and the EU is looking into options for Britain’s inclusion, and the Aachen treaty of 2019 strengthens the Franco-German integration pillar. The EU has initiated PESCO and other practical projects for moving towards “European defence.” The EU and Germany made it clear that they can show their teeth in response to the “America first” battering ram. The EU has not withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and has introduced a special INSTEX financial instrument, bypassing the renewed US sanctions. Merkel was able to achieve victory both within the EU and in confrontation with Trump regarding the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline. The ultimatum regarding increasing NATO member military expenditures to two percent of GDP by 2024, primarily directed at Germany, has now hit Trump himself like a boomerang. The Chancellor admitted that even this may not be enough, but she came to the anniversary NATO summit in December 2019 with the position that Germany would not overcome the two percent threshold before the beginning of the 2030s.

Euro-Atlantic relations emerged from the acute phase of “response to the Russian challenge” and entered a new, electoral phase amid a changing of the guard among the political elites (in the EU, the USA, and Germany). On the eve of the US presidential election in November 2020, Donald Trump can no longer include “victory over Germany” among his list of accomplishments and is now hardly interested in raising the stakes in the game with the Europeans. But Germany (which, incidentally, will keep the EU presidency in the second half of 2020) will not cut corners while waiting for the US elections. The EU will take their results into account when determining the nature of its foreign policy in the future, as well as the political situation in Germany on the eve of the 2021 federal elections. Berlin has every reason to count on the support of the German line within the EU, its independent policy, which, as Merkel emphasized, is now in the “good hands” of Michel Barnier (Brexit negotiator) and Ursula von der Leyen, former Defence Minister of Germany, who took the office of European Commission President.

All this leads to the next question – an assessment of the future, taking into account the new political context: can strategic European independence, or a “sovereign Europe” (Emmanuel Macron), or a “geopolitical Europe” (Ursula von der Leyen) be achieved at all? The response of the European officials is clear – we formulate the goals that we intend to fulfil, and the statement of Ursula von der Leyen corresponds to this logic. But the technocratic “plan” for “European defence” differs from it as much as computer games do from reality. Even in the “digital world”, to which Angela Merkel persistently appeals, the task itself may not be as daunting as the development of Europe’s scientific and technological potential, the formation of a common high-tech defence sector. But this is precisely the EU’s weakest link, given that Europe lags behind the USA and China, and given its dependence on American guarantees and the US military-industrial complex. For European to achieve defence autonomy, the EU must not only initially rely on a strategic partnership with the United States (and NATO), but also become a US competitor in the defence sector. There is no doubt that Washington will do everything to prevent such a development, relying on its Euro-Atlantic leadership. The EU itself remains internally fragmented, and European autonomy implies a new quality of internal solidarity, which is even more problematic than before Brexit, especially amid the conditions of the shaken Atlantic alliance.

If the EU wants to achieve greater independence from Washington, which is strengthening its leverage, the Union needs to formulate a positive programme of relations with other world powers and key players. An attempt to build an independent Brussels-Beijing partnership has not yet been successful, and the United States has even managed to tie Europeans to the “Chinese threat” within NATO. The Russian issue, despite the positive developments in the Ukrainian settlement and the Normandy 4 summit in December 2019, remains a strategic challenge for the internal unity of the European Union. The desire of the EU “grandees” and some other member countries to unlock a mutually beneficial dialogue and cooperation with Russia (also taking into account the importance of partnership with China) meets the understandable resistance of Washington, which seeks to block Russian-European relations and set the conditions regarding relations with China.

Moscow understands both the European interest in changing the status quo and the relative restrictions. It is probably ready to support the European team in the world tournament for the prize of independence, but with the right pitch on its part. If Brussels considers its relationship with Russian to be a resource which will assist it in gaining strategic autonomy, it will show reciprocal interest and invest in better Euro-Russian relations. But if the EU countries see European autonomy in different ways, and PESCO is motivated by the selfish national interests, rather than by common goals, then European Defence only describes the new rules of the game, rather than an alternate strategic perspective. Should we expect increased stakes from Moscow in this game? The fragmentation of European politics is a reality that wasn’t Moscow’s doing, but one which it should take into account, no less than the undefined Euro-defence perspective.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.