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January 06, 2021

The EU’s Double Bind

COVID-19 has forced Europeans to confront a twin shock to their worldview, with a philosophical crisis overlaid by a geographical one. The EU now needs to embark on a broad-based effort to ensure its strategic sovereignty.

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Ursula von der Leyen
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More than one year ago the incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised to lead a “geopolitical Commission,” implying that the European Union would need to adapt to a world of great power competition. Not everyone was convinced back then, but when in the spring of 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic hit Europe, the costs of Europe´s non-sovereignty in this new world order were highlighted in a dramatic way.

The EU has gone into overdrive to flesh out what strategic autonomy or sovereignty can mean in different policy areas that go well beyond security and defense. In an ECFR study we have identified five dimensions of the European sovereignty agenda, which include economic, health, climate, digital, and security. There is a great opportunity with Joe Biden’s election as US president to develop Europe´s strategic sovereignty in a cooperative way, as a reflection of the fact that the new incumbent of the White House is much more afraid of a weak and dependent Europe than a strong and sovereign partner. Although Biden promises a big shift from the Trump era, the pandemic has forced Europeans to confront the fact that the system that guarantees their security and prosperity is breaking.

After the Cold War, Europeans believed they were creating a world of rules with their continent at the center. And now in the time of COVID-19 they find themselves challenged on both of these dimensions. The way that China and America have weaponized the pandemic and global institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) to compete with one another rather than to solve global problems demonstrates the shift from the dream of a rule-based order to the reality of great power competition. But an even bigger challenge comes from the fact that the central front for global geopolitics is now in Asia, while Europe has been relegated to the periphery, with its members squeezed between two poles. As the United States and China focus on control of the Indo-Pacific, they are less likely to take European interests into account. It is not simply that Europeans will find themselves increasingly “home alone,” they could also see their interests traded off in a bigger play for global power.

The Twin Shocks to Europe’s System

Crises of interdependence take on an entirely new form in an era of great power competition that is not focused on the European continent. In place of a rules-based order, Europeans are surrounded by a quadrangle of chaos as the US, China, Russia, and Turkey each undermine the foundations of the system. Europe’s closest economic and security partners are now also “systemic disruptors.” At both the global and regional level, Europeans find their world disrupted by a mix of ideological rivals and allies gone rogue. Rather than seeing global and regional order as mutually reinforcing, the two will increasingly be in conflictrepresenting a “double bind” for Europe’s elites.

The road to this geopolitical awakening has been a long one, but COVID-19 has forced EU governments to confront a double shock to their world view, a philosophical crisis which arguably began at the turn of the century, overlaid by a geographical one that crystallized with Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The audacious size of the European recovery planwith countries such as Germany willing to confront their taboosshows that Europeans feel the world is changing, and that they need to change with it. The challenge now facing European leaders is that it is much easier to spend money than it is to confront one’s core ideas about the shape of the world.

The COVID-19 crisis struck against an international and European order that was already in a state of crisis. And as the pandemic spread across the world, it reinforced the two shocks to Europe’s order.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic the philosophical shock was as present in the EU as outside: it was clear that none of the great powers were looking to the multilateral system to provide an answer. As the death count rose every country acted as if it was on its own, closing borders, stockpiling medical equipment, and introducing export controls. The blame game conducted by Beijing and Washington over the WHO showed how geopolitics is increasingly undermining multilateralism. Although both China and the US have long been hesitant about surrendering their sovereignty to international law, there has been a qualitative shift in recent years making Europeans increasingly fearful about the future of the global economy.

The Remaking of Globalization

COVID-19 has added urgency to pre-existing questions about cross-border labor flows, global supply chains, and to some extent even global travel and tourism, leading many to predict that the effects of the pandemic will remake globalization. Further, tensions around stockpiles and vaccine nationalism amplified a debate about the vulnerability of supply chains that began with the technology war between the US and China before the crisis. The tense debate strengthened fears that China and the US will increasingly weaponize interdependence and instrumentalize the multilateral and legal order.

Europeans have looked on in horror while their two biggest trading partnersChina and the UShave gone from being advocates for globalization to “decouplers” in chief. Indeed, the most important structural feature of our world is not the multilateralism Europeans dreamed of, but rather a competition between China and America, the EU’s two most important economic partners. As a result, the nature of globalization is changing. Neither China nor America wants a conventional war; their most powerful weapons are the ability to manipulate the architecture of globalization. In both the US and China geoeconomics and geopolitics are merging. Increasingly, the US is politicizing what many consider global public goods: the US financial system, SWIFT, the WTO, the internet, the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Although Biden talks about working with allies and developing deeper cooperation among democracies, it is worth recognizing that the use of sanctions and other economic tools began with President George W. Bush and was significantly expanded under President Barack Obama. And the pressure on Biden to be tough on China will remain. The Chinese are using investments strategically, manipulating markets through state aid as well as undermining the EU’s global voice by undermining multilateral institutions and under-cutting the EU in third countries. Rather than being a barrier to conflict, interdependence is increasingly being weaponized.

The European economic model is based on legal security and the idea of an external body ensuring the writ of the law is enforced (whether through international organizations like the WTO in trade disputes or the US Navy in securing international trade routes). If legal security no longer exists, and if Europeans can no longer rely on secure trade routes, for example, this calls into question the basis of their prosperity as well as their power (the EU’s economic clout is, after all, the precondition for its status as a regulatory superpower). And for policy makers in Brussels, Berlin, and Paris, there is an additional fear that attacks on the rule of law by China’s President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin are reinforcing another threat that is closer to home, namely the erosion of the rule of law within European member states such as Poland and Hungary.

Pushed to the Periphery

The second shock to the European system that COVID-19 reinforced is Europe’s relegation to the periphery. During the Cold War and in its aftermath, the global order and the European order seemed to reinforce one another. There was a sense of a Western community of values underpinned by Europe’s status as the front line and prize in the US-Soviet global competition. That status meant, for reasons well beyond the cultural connection, that the US was always solicitous of European concerns. Somewhere between 9/11 and the COVID-19 crisis, Europe stopped being the center of global politics.

There were, to be sure, many clues of Europe’s provincialization already during the Obama administration: The so-called “pivot to Asia,” America’s readiness to take a back seat to Europeans on the management of the crises in Ukraine and Libya as well as President Obama’s willingness to pull back from intervening in Syria in 2015. In all of these crises it was clear that the US was more interested in the impact on American politics and Washington’s ability to pivot resources to Asia than to the impact on European securitywhether through the pressure of refugee flows or Russian assertiveness. Although this shift was subtle under Obama, it became inescapable with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the Biden victory will not change the long-term geographical shift in American prioritiesespecially as the focus of the new administration will be on rebuilding after an awful crisis.

The Chinese have also tried to use the global pandemic to enhance their influence on Europe through bullying Europeans to adopt Huawei, allow Chinese companies to acquire EU tech, or soften their stance on political issues. Their willingness to risk long term relationships for short term gains suggests that China sees Europe as a secondary player in the new bipolar competition, rather than a key relationship to be nurtured.

As competition with China has refocused US attention away from European issues, Russia and Turkey have often used this opportunity to fill the vacuum and push against the policies and principles advanced by Europeans in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And they are likely to continue doing so, both because they have been quite successful so far and because it could be an opportunity to deflect political attention from the economic impact of COVID-19. In the 1990s, the assumption was that the two big non-Western countries, Russia and Turkey, could over time be accommodated into Europe´s regional security structure, with NATO and the EU as its main pillars. But over the last decade the dream of a unipolar Europe has given way to the reality of a multipolar continent in which Russia and Turkey are gradually reshaping the European security order. Both countries have had a tortured love-hate relationship with Europe during their long period of modernization spanning three centuries. Their leaders share a disdain for EU norms and values and are self-consciously promoting an alternative style of governance.

Shaken Foundations

As the unipolar European security order has frayed, Europeans have maintained impressive unity in pushing back against Russian aggression and have reorganized their energy markets to reduce its vulnerability to blackmail. In the process they have made themselves much harder targets for Russian aggression. And when it comes to Turkey, the EU negotiated a deal with Ankara on refugees in 2016 and then successfully pushed back whenever Turkey tried to blackmail Europe. However, much of the EU’s approach to the neighborhood is still centered on the old model of regulatory alignment and association of EU norms. The EU has invested billions in aid and loans in its Eastern and Southern neighborhoods, hosted summits, beefed up its diplomatic presence, agreed free-trade areas, offered visa-free travel, and linked up neighbors to its energy markets. But during that time, EU influence has been on the decline while Russia has stepped up its pressure through propaganda, information warfare, cyber-attacks, and even military attacks.

The EU has talked of promoting the resilience of its neighbors but done little to shore it up in the most sensitive areas. Some EU member states have established security and defense co-operation with Eastern neighbors, but they are fragmented, poorly coordinated, and modest. Although there is no consensus on membership for these countries, all EU member states would like to preserve their sovereignty and they will require continued support and security assistance from the EU to maintain a substantial measure of independence from Russia. Moreover, the EU has put itself in a situation where it has very few channels through which to engage diplomatically with Russia and Turkey on regional issues. This lack of strategy has prevented Europeans from becoming real players in regional security or exploiting the bubbling tensions between Moscow and Ankara.

These twin shocksthe shift from rules to power and from Europe to Asiahave shaken the foundations of the European conception of order. It would be strategically and morally absurd for Europeans to seek equidistance between their oldest ally with whom they share a fundamental belief in democracy and a rising China that is increasingly trying to make the world safe for authoritarianism. There is a huge shared agenda between Europeans and Americans on everything from protecting human rights in Hong Kong to ending competition-distorting subsidies to Chinese companies. Now that Biden has won the US elections, there is an opportunity to reinvent the EU-US alliance. We are likely to see a US re-commitment to NATO, to the Paris climate agreement, possibly to diplomacy with Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in exchange for an EU alignment on China that does not ask for complete decoupling and leaves room for diplomacy with Beijing.

Finding a New Transatlantic Bargain

Unfortunately, the coming together of the two shocksphilosophical and geographicalwill make the process of full alignment with the United States difficult in the medium term. In the past, the plans for regional and global order were mutually reinforcing: Europeans used to see their regional legal order nestled inside the protective shell of an American global security order. It was Western rules that were being promoted at a global level and the United States was a crucial ally in reinforcing the norms for Europe’s regional order. But today there is not just a push-back against both orders. Increasingly, the provincialization of Europe is bringing the regional and global orders into conflict with one another. Europeans find themselves in a double bind, with the two pulling them in opposite directions.

The EU wants to maintain the current rule-based global order, while the US is more comfortable with a power-based world, and in any case wants to revise many of the rules to account for China’s manipulation of the existing system. Europeans, on the other hand, would also be happy to rewrite many of these rules but would prefer to maintain the status quo rather than face growing lawlessness. The rise of unilateral sanctions, tariffs, trade wars, tech wars, regulatory barriers, and competition-distorting subsidiescoupled with the gridlock of global institutionsrisks posing a major challenge to Europe’s economic future as well as its security. And Europe’s relegation from being the principal theater to a peripheral one is also changing the nature of how other powers engage with it on these rules. The recent controversy around Huaweiwhere European countries have contended with pressures from Beijing and Washingtongave them a sense of what it is like to be peripheral players in someone else’s dispute.

Strategic Sovereignty

A new transatlantic bargain may still be struck that holds the regional and global aspirations together, if only for a few more years. But the change in the White House will not change the long-term geographical shift in American priorities or end the American public’s attachment to national sovereignty or its fear of over-extension. Even a Biden administration needs to trade off the perspective of Europeans with other priorities such as its key partners in the Indo-Pacific like Japan, India, and Australia, which means that Europeans could find themselves in the role of policy-takers rather than makers on many issues that are central to their economic and security future.

To manage in this new world, the EU and its members need to embark on a broad-based effort to ensure their strategic sovereignty. Such an EU strategic sovereignty effort would seek to recalibrate the EU’s role in a geopolitical world in order to strengthen its bargaining power and capacity to act in line with its interests and values. The goal is not to walk away from a rules-based order but to deter other players from undermining it. It aims to equip Europeans with the tools they need to bargain effectively within an interdependent system, to take countermeasures against spoilers of the international system, and to make their own decisions in a more competitive geopolitical environment.

Ensuring strategic sovereignty does not imply transferring power or national sovereignty to Brussels but rather reclaiming it from outside playersbe it states such as Turkey and Russia or companies such as Huawei and Amazon. Polling consistently shows that large numbers of EU citizens want an EU that has this power and that can control its external borders, promote more resilient supply chains, and act decisively on climate change.

Mark Leonard is director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

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