Quo Vadis, Europa?

Europe, while having a splendid history behind both in great power politics and in value leading, seems to have lost also the future of being a leader in any kind of international issues.

This year, 2021, has been particular for Europe, in many ways and senses. Covid-pandemic and all its “side-effects” in European economies, civil societies, politics, protest behaviors of citizens etc. have thoroughly touched each European both inside and outside the EU. The obvious stumbling in major anti-pandemic measures has been sorrowful to watch.

After Brexit, the power duo of the EU – Germany and France – are facing turbulent times in next couple of years. Germany sees the first parliament election without “Mutti” Angela Merkel and France is waiting the presidential election in the next year. These elections entail major political risks and the European trajectory will be indefinite just in such period, where strong leadership should be needed.

As to great power relations, some very important events and processes have been taking place in the EU. Main issues can be defined around the following current topics:

  • Biden’s European tour, in June
  • chain of events in Ukraine, from the spring on
  • Afghanistan debacle and its ramifications, chain of events in this year
  • trajectory of EU – China relations
  • trajectory of EU – Russia relations
  • current posture of the EU foreign policy

All these items have initiated discussions on the very existence of the EU and its position in the world, both at the highest European elite level as well as many other levels, including even citizen level, to some extent. Hopefully, but not likely, they will lead to some inventions in renewing current political paradigms in Europe.

Biden’s European tour in June

This event can be seen as a desperate endeavor to strengthen and confirm the traditional trans-Atlantic relations, which have been “holy and intact” since the end of WWII. However, as I analyzed this tour in my article “Biden’s summer potpourri 2021”, June 24, the present content of this relation seems to be more or less a hollow phrase. Contradictions and disagreements came forth regarding China-policy, energy policy including Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Europe’s independent strategic decision-making, European defense structure etc.

On the other hand, Master-servant relation was once again mutually confirmed and diplomatic liturgy had its peak moments as well. Europe had lost its self-consciousness and ability to realize its own interests, especially in great power relations and geoeconomics. Fulfilling the interests of Master seems to be more important than looking at Europe’s own interests. Blind obedience is now leading Europe, via NATO or directly, to anti-China military adventures in Asia. First European navy units are already on the move there.

Unlike Biden’s tour in Europe, the anti-China crusade of VP Kamala Harris, in the middle of Afghan collapse in August, fell flat in Asia, indicating that the US ambition to create worldwide anti-China front is easier said than done. However, after the Afghan dust has settled, the US will be shifting its focus on the Indo-Pacific region. No doubt, the autumn 2021 will show more confrontation and more turbulence between China and the US in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait but now even some EU member states (via NATO) have been drawn with.

Chain of events in Ukraine

Political-military episodes of the spring 2021 around and inside Ukraine reminded both Europe and the whole world of open and unsolved conflict there. Afterwards, Putin’s summer speech of historical relations between Russia and Ukraine spun off heated debate about the issue, both in Russia and Ukraine. President Zelensky’s meeting with Biden in Washington in late August was ill-timed, amid Afghan debacle. Biden repeated empty promises of NATO and EU but on the other hand will provide more American lethal weapons, as if the problem would be simply solved by supplying more guns. Perhaps Biden already forgot the destiny of US weapons in Afghanistan, where massive number of US military material and equipment (valued tens of billion dollars) are now in the hands of Taliban.

But how the EU proceed in Ukraine-case now? “Ape-type mantra repeating” of the EU has been and is depressing to watch: same sanctions regularly every sixth month, same statements, same positions, only small changes if transatlantic Master says so, no independent European thinking or decision-making or European independent political initiative ever. Europe has had tremendous and sovereign history in international diplomacy, where is that top capability now?

Afghanistan debacle and its ramifications in the EU…

Afghan debacle has exposed severe European failings on multiple fronts but no agreement on how to fix them. Amid the chaotic evacuation process in Kabul, the 27 EU member countries and the EU institutions in Brussels have been confronting the humiliating reality of their collective lack of military capability and they have been seeking desperately new policy options but in vain. The inability to functioning, without help from the US led to a staggering conclusion: The European Union can neither protect nor project its highly-praised value “European way of life.”

The EU’s lack of hard-power/military capability is nothing new but it is also just one component of this Afghan debacle. Fears of a new wave of refugees has put yet another harsh spotlight on the EU’s failure to develop a workable asylum policy and it has led to a panicked rush to offer financial incentives to countries closer to Afghanistan, including historically unfriendly governments like Pakistan, to manage any migration flows.

While some leaders, e.g.  French President Emmanuel Macron has talked about NATO’s “brain dead” and said the experience in Afghanistan confirms the need for a conversation about European “strategic autonomy,” many European military experts and analysts say the discussion that is really needed is about basic strategic functionality. They underline the evidence that Europe is not capable defend itself, especially if it faces conflict against military great powers like Russia or China.

Meetings last week among EU defense ministers and foreign ministers were little more than directionless group therapy sessions. They only added to a pervasive sense that Brussels is dysfunctional and powerless and unlikely to learn much from the mistakes in Afghanistan. It seems that senior EU officials clearly feel compelled to talk about Afghanistan while having little or nothing to offer in the form of concrete proposals, just words without action. European Council President Charles Michel and the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell have had frequent attendance in international conversations.  

In terms of the EU’s broader foreign policy objectives, geopolitical reality check is going and the implications are similarly challenging. If two decades of huge military and economic investment in Afghanistan could not create a durable framework for democracy, human rights and rule of law there, there seems to be little chance that more moderate pressure like economic sanctions will change the facts on the ground in Belarus, Ukraine, Syria or Iran, let alone break the regimes in Beijing or Moscow.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who came into office proclaiming her plan to lead a “Geopolitical Commission,” participated in an emergency G7 leaders’ meeting about Afghanistan on August 24 and has pledged increased humanitarian assistance. Yet, she has said little to nothing about the situation in the country or those obvious political ramifications. Total disarray in this matter seems to be in the EU Commission.

… and in NATO

At NATO level and particularly among its European officials, the Afghanistan mission and its catastrophic close is becoming a huge stain and a moral scandal on the legacy of Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, now entering what is widely expected to be his last year as the alliance’s top civilian leader.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated, in mid-February 2021, that the promise of NATO coalition to leave Afghanistan by May 1. is conditions-based,criticizing that the Taliban has to meet their commitments. However, in mid-April, the official of Biden administration, announced the withdrawal will not be conditions-based. “We will begin an orderly drawdown of the remaining forces before May 1, and plan to have all US troops out of the country before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” the official said. “The President has judged that a conditions-based approach, which has been the approach of the past two decades, is a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever.”

EU foreign ministers now trying to figure out how to deal with Afghanistan’s new Taliban leadership are mostly the very same foreign ministers, who agreed during a NATO meeting in April with Secretary of State Antony Blinken to support President Joe Biden’s decision on a full withdrawal, even though many allies privately voiced anger over Biden’s lack of substantive consultation. Standing with Blinken at NATO headquarters in April, Stoltenberg declared: “Today, we decided together on the future of our presence in Afghanistan.”

In the beginning of September, Stoltenberg is making warnings against weakening transatlantic bond, EU defense plans “can never replace” NATO. Calls for a new European military force following the withdrawal from Afghanistan must not undermine NATO’s command structures or divert resources from the alliance, Jens Stoltenberg cautioned in an interview. “Any attempt to establish parallel structures, duplicate the command structure and will weaken our joint capability to work together”, he added. How can this kind of person, who is publicly talking through his hat, be trustworthy and credible?

These kind of controversial statements and position papers, after the realization of military catastrophe in Afghanistan, are apt to awaken reasonable suspicions about the reliability and capability of the whole alliance.

Trajectory of EU – China relations

As stated before, in my article on June 24 and above in this article, the growing tension characterizes the present status of EU-China relations.

EU’s (and NATO’s) resent decisions to join the US-led anti-China front as well as the EU’s temporary suspension of the ratification of EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) which was aimed at easing trade barriers between the EU and China over “human rights” concerns, are all apt to widen the confidence gap between the parties.

The crisis was escalating, when Lithuania decided to expand its ties with Taiwan and China was reducing diplomatic ties with the Baltic country and now considering trade sanctions against it, which EU officials claim is against international law. 

In early September, Chinese Mission to the EU expressed strong opposition to the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs’ (AFET) adoption of the EU-Taiwan Political Relations and Cooperation report, which called for elevating “political relations” with the island of Taiwan.
China sees the report constitutes serious violations of the one-China principle and undercut mutual trust and cooperation between China and the EU. China publicly reminded that the commitment to the one-China principle had been reiterated by the EU in all documents and statements it jointly issued with China.

What makes relations and cooperation with the EU more challenging and multifaceted to China, is the complex framework of EU Commission – Council – Parliament. While China will be eyeing opportunities in the coming months to try and steer things for its benefit with regard to the EU, it will not be an easy pathway. What is said and what is done in Europe are often two very different things, a product of being a union of many different interests. In addition, China’s long “collective memory” about the historical events between Europe and China in the 19th century may add some extra rounds of challenges into mutual relations.

Now it seems more and more that the coming new battle front, perhaps the crucial one, will be not in Europe but far in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

Trajectory of EU – Russia relations

Similar challenges and problems as in the Sino – EU relations can be found here as well. NATO’s eastward advance, close to Russian borders, frequent military drills in the Black Sea region, in Ukraine, Poland and finally an escalating competition in the Arctic area have major impacts on EU – Russia relations. Reciprocal sanctions have decreased economic growth in both parties, up to several hundred billion euros during last few years. Toxic political atmosphere is prevailing in the EU – Russia relations. If the parties continue the present trajectory without any new real-political initiatives or other thorough-going new measures, the political future for Europe seems to stay dim. Russia has a superior alternative to the EU, behind its back, namely China and the whole Asia.

Current posture of the EU foreign policy

Unfortunately, the present picture of the EU foreign policy is fuzzy and vague, in the same vein as EU’s posture in the great power game. Europe, which has a glorious, hundreds of years long great power history behind, has totally lost its ability to play the role of a great power. The EU seems to be multi-diseased nowadays.

Up to WWII several European countries were militarily major forces in the world theater but now only France, as a single country, has even to some extent managed to maintain the sovereign, independent military force to project power outside its borders. Military capabilities of all other EU- member states are very limited, intended for local defense only. In the context of NATO, those European “forces” are functioning mainly as the servants for American troops.

If the EU or the leadership of EU elite is daydreaming of some great power status to the EU, total transformation must take place as well thorough-going changes in the European political paradigms. The present whole EU structure of Council – Commission – Parliament and their complex relations, does not enable the being of great power. The lack of military might and especially the lack of the European political will and determination to use it, are characterizing the present EU leadership. European Parliament is full of bellicose, local village politicians, whose ability to understand strategic, great power issues is very limited.

Any thorough-going change in the EU is highly unlikely due to the hubris, complacency and self-sufficiency of the Brussels EU-elite. They seem to live in their own bubble, from where outside world is distant and only occasionally touch their perfect life. The fundamental, tectonic-like military-political changes, even shocks, which will take place worldwide in next coming years may or may not touch this EU-bubble.