Judging by the comments of the brightest and most sincere European observers, in 2019 the Old World accepted the idea that Europe is no longer the core of global politics and the economy. It is gradually turning from an active participant in politics into an object of competition, first of all, on behalf of the real giants – the United States and China. Apparently, their confrontation will determine world politics in the first half of the 21st century.
Having been through three geostrategic catastrophes in 100 years, Europe cannot simply restore what European politicians consider a befitting place in international affairs. The only chance for the Europeans is to find a new place and a new role. But to do this they must critically assess their somewhat conventional ideas about their importance in world politics and adopt a new approach to the issues that seemed obvious only recently. This primarily applies to the prospects for and aim of European efforts to create a European identity in defense and security. Europe has been looking for its identity for several decades now but its efforts have not been crowned with success so far. Maybe it is looking for it in the wrong place?
It is necessary to realize that Russia is the only potential enemy for a confrontation with which Europe needs its own common defense policy. Not a single large country can claim this role even in theory. Preventing flows of illegal immigrants or countering cross-border crime require something quite different than common defense policy, notably, the effective cooperation of the secret services, the exchange of high level confidential information and real teamwork between police services.
The same applies to Europe’s potential role in the Middle East. Considering the active military role of the United States, Russia, Iran and Turkey, Europe is unlikely to go beyond symbolic participation. As for the elements of European colonial legacy in Africa, the French Foreign Legion can well take care of this.
So, European defense, strategic self-sufficiency and real military efforts are all needed to deal with the mighty neighbor in the east. Historically, this neighbor is such a great military power that Europe cannot hope even hypothetically to defeat it in a direct military confrontation without a decisive US contribution. This is a fundamental conceptual obstacle to all efforts to create a European autonomous identity in security and defense. Europe simply does not need a common defense because it makes no sense.
The outgoing year, 2019, was important for Europe in regard to realizing its own difficult position in world affairs and discussing ways of how to rectify the situation. The May elections to European Parliament were the first in many years that were taken seriously both by European politicians and the public. It does not matter at all that eventually this parliament turned out to be almost useless as a driver of reform. During the election campaign societies noticeably split and opposition to the right-wing parties and movements became a major unifying factor for the elite.
In practical terms, the elections resulted in the appointment of new personalities to the EU’s top executive positions, not a very democratic procedure. Colorful and vigorous Emmanuel Macron played a leading role in this respect. He managed to promote his protégés to key positions.
Such success, combined with the gradual shift of Brexit to the periphery of the political scene allowed Paris to engage in its historical hobby – appeals to increase the independence and role of Europeans in global affairs. The French leader believes that to achieve this it is necessary to more or less settle relations with Russia and take advantage of the ongoing complicated transformation of US policy for Europe’s benefit. Abrupt moves by President Donald Trump really open a window of opportunities for the Europeans. When he is replaced with a less eccentric but equally nationally-oriented leader, the positions of supporters of the unreserved union with the United States will become so strong that it will be altogether impossible to shake the Europeans.
In the past few months Macron has made a number of statements. The most striking were his August admission that Europe is no longer the center of world policy and the November observation that NATO has become brain-dead. Although denounced by all of his colleagues, these escapades gave them food for thought and considerably livened up the general discussion.
That said, it is abundantly clear that the practical consequences of these bold statements are fairly remote if feasible at all. Obstacles to the French President’s sentiments exist inside Europe itself. President Macron believes that to preserve its role in world affairs the EU must become strategically independent in the military-political area. This is why it badly needs a common defense policy. At this point he is completely at variance with his main European partners – the Germans. The German idea for Europe ended with the country’s unification under Helmut Kohl.
According to Berlin, after this, all of Europe was to become more like Germany –rich and with no claims to foreign policy initiatives. For Macron a conflict with Russia would really be a geostrategic disaster but for Germany this is a minor issue because it does not prevent in any way the buildup of energy cooperation with Moscow and the conversion of Germany into a pan-European hub for Russian gas. Аs for political tensions around Ukraine, which Berlin has no desire to settle at all, they do not threaten Europe in any way and even facilitate its cohesion around common decisions. Moreover, German business can simply ignore any decision with varying politeness.
Now Germany is clearly leaving the scene as the king of the European agenda. The success of the right and the greens in the regional elections and the increasingly sclerotic regime of Angela Merkel have completely deprived Berlin of its ability to convert its economic opportunities into political leadership, all the more so since Germany’s stake on anti-Russia cohesion in 2014 did not produce any benefits for it. As they say in Russia, “Give the wolf the best food, but he will still crave the wood.” Likewise, Poland and other East European countries rely on the United States as their chief protector and patron. This is so because their geopolitical position compels Warsaw and kindred capitals to follow the strategy of maintaining a conflict in the East. This is the only justification for their presence in international politics. They believe Europe’s central role in global affairs can only be propped up by US influence and a US presence. This factor combined with the inability to ignore the interests of a US Trojan Horse like the UK will play a major role in blocking any efforts by the French president.
After creating a functional common market, the leading European powers set about creating a political union but in the process they have invented so many constraints for realizing their own potential that even in France it has almost lost its relevance. Even the possession of its own nuclear weapons, which is quite costly for France, does not make Paris or Europe more important on the global scene, the more so in the context of even theoretical senselessness of autonomous European defense that was mentioned above. Europe should probably look for other ways of acquiring a really powerful voice in the world, where rules are often ignored and force decides everything.
Europe still has much to offer other countries and regions. However, to do this it will have to relinquish its attempts to play on the traditional field of big-time politics dominated by military superpowers as well as by medium-sized but resolute regional players like Turkey or Iran.
It is necessary to critically analyze the priorities that were regarded axiomatic only recently, such as the creation of an EU-dependent security and resource exploitation zone along the perimeter of European borders. And this means renunciation of the former tasks and tools. But even more important is the need for European policy in the world arena to divorce itself from the paradigm of competition with other countries.
As one smart European participant in the 10th Asian conference of the Valdai Club observed, “in the past, European strategy in Central Asia competed against Russia, and now it competes against China.”
Changing this mentality won’t be easy for the EU. Europe’s strategic culture has been based on competition between autonomous single states since the times of Greek poleis. However, until recently this strategic culture has inevitably resulted in wars between European states. This tradition was replaced by the creation of the historically unique project of European integration that “replaced robbery with swindling.”
If the EU can change its foreign policy mentality from a philosophy of competition to a philosophy of cooperation and encourage any aspirations (especially those not dependent on it) for developing interstate relations based on law rather than force, it could have a chance to succeed. This applies to issues like security in Europe, which look desperate today.