December 02, 2020

Less Talk, More Action

Europe has to move beyond toxic debates about “autonomy” or “sovereignty” toward tangible policies.

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Picture the scene: preparing his first visit to Europe, US President-elect Joe Biden, a committed transatlanticist, asks his advisors what the current European foreign policy debate is all about.

“They discuss how autonomous they want to be from us,” the Europe advisor responds.

“Ah. And what are they doing?”

“Debating, Mr. President-elect, they are debating!”

“No, sorry, you got me wrong, I meant what are they actually doing. What policy proposals are on the table?”

“So far, they are mainly debating, Mr. President-elect!

“Okay. So maybe I delay my visit to Paris, Berlin, and Brussels until they have come to a conclusion?”

And what should the advisor then respond?

Toxic Terminology...

For more than four years the EU has been debating its place in the world, and its relation to the United States, based on changing narratives. It started with “strategic autonomy.” Although anchored in EU documents, this term turned toxic as Central Europeans spotted a French plot that would drag them away from the United States and its security guarantees. Following this, the debate switched to “European sovereignty.” This new bumper sticker has since been put on everything from Europe’s “digital sovereignty” to “technological sovereignty” and “military sovereignty.”

The debate reached the stage of buzzword bingo when the term “strategic sovereignty” arrived—adding nothing to the debate than yet another term. Meanwhile, this quarrel is acquiring religious traits: are you for sovereignty or autonomy? Then you are European. If you are not, then you are transatlanticist. As if the two were mutually exclusive.

...Is Preventing Politics

One could only wish that this battle of narratives would come to an end—but then what? Even if we settled on a term, what would it mean for Europe’s capacity to take action—politically, militarily, or economically? The irony is that there is no distinct or even agreed political program behind the one or the other narrative.

But narratives need to be backed up by policies. The EU’s competitors know Europe too well to be blinded by its eloquent language. Currently, narratives do not shape policies, but prevent them from being formulated. The debate creates an excuse not to address the unpleasant truth: no matter what political program may come out of the current debate, no matter whether we self-define, or are defined, as Europeans or transatlanticists (or both, for that matter), Europe needs to do more: it needs digital, economic, technological, and military muscles. Otherwise, it risks becoming a pawn in the hands of other powers rather than commanding respect on its own.

Painful Acknowledgements

What’s more, once European leaders would get real about European defense, they would have to concede that the self-image of powerful, individual nation states they have cultivated over the last years was just a myth. Instead, they have to roll up their sleeves and return to the painstaking and hard work of true European cooperation and implementation.

The subtext of autonomy and sovereignty is the claim to take back control. The moment the debate stops and turns into tangible policy-making, it will be obvious that neither Brussels nor national governments could pretend any longer to have the power to do so. The challenges are of intimidating complexity. Individual governments cannot “take back control” over the world out there or shield societies against the ill winds by themselves. After all, we are still dependent on each other.

An Agenda of Doing

Whether one takes the debate about autonomy or sovereignty seriously or not: all politics are about solving problems for the people who elected their governments. Politics of doing nothing, or of not addressing problems, make governments ineffective and ultimately illegitimate. In today’s complex world, political action can only be about Europe managing its interdependencies, minimizing its vulnerabilities, and not losing conflicts.

We don’t know when exactly European leaders will decide to take action on foreign policy in the future. But if they choose to do so, they should have the necessary capacities to implement their decisions.

These capacities take multiple forms. They can be regulations in the digital and trade realm or they can be hard conventional and cyber capabilities in security and defense. These are the assets that turn the EU into a player with whom others want to team up with, because with the EU, you can win—but you can’t afford to have the EU against you.

Yet, any European power results first and foremost from cooperation—among Europeans, but also with other partners, and explicitly with the US, because the EU’s ability to build the needed capacities is limited. Hence, another part of an “agenda of doing” is to take the current wish list of independence and contrast it with the price that Europe would have to pay for this independence, financially and politically. It should be a requisite for the Europeans to consciously decide which areas they will prioritize and invest in, so as to reduce their dependence on others, but also in which areas they will consciously accept dependencies and related risks.

This would be the policy program to put on the agenda for a visit of the next US president. Europe should not blindly fall in love with the US again: sometimes we will be partners, sometimes competitors. Still, Europeans should already be thinking beyond the Biden presidency. Therefore, Europe has a keen interest in establishing the best possible relationship with the US. We hope that the US president-elect hears soon from Europe about its policy decisions instead of fanciful catchphrases.

Claudia Major is head of the International Security research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

Christian Mölling is research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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