BERLIN — As the world unravels around it, Europe is determined to engage beyond its borders.
Yet its real problem is what’s happening within them.
Increasingly squeezed between the U.S., China and Russia, the Continent has become paralyzed, unable to offer a coherent geopolitical strategy or even speak with one voice.
On issues as varied as whether to buy next-generation Chinese communications gear or engage in Libya, Europe finds itself not just sandwiched between competing foreign interest but also hostage to its internal divisions.
The risk isn’t just that Europe will be sidelined on the global stage, but that others — in particular Russia and China — will exploit those divisions for their own ends.
As one of the world’s richest and most populous regions, Europe has every right to make its weight felt. Yet so far, it’s only managed pithy slogans.
After the United States took out Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in early January, the EU struggled to figure out whose side it was on.
It took Commission President Ursula von der Leyen three days to put out a first statement saying Europe was talking to all sides. “Europe has a special responsibility here,” she said.
The trouble is that defining Europe’s responsibility is proving just as fraught for von der Leyen as it was for her predecessors.
Last month’s hastily arranged summit on Libya in Berlin offers another window into the dysfunction. German Chancellor Angela Merkel choreographed the meeting, insisting that Europe needed to show it could act. That might have been easier if European capitals weren’t themselves at odds over which side to support in the conflict. In the end, the summit fell flat, and the killing has continued unabated.
Europe’s handling of Iran and Libya in recent weeks offer a timely reminder that for all its stated ambition in the sphere of global affairs, the Continent has little to offer other than a stage for the real powerbrokers to preen for the home crowd.
Figures like Merkel or French President Emmanuel Macron — who recently embarked on a one-man mission to resolve the U.S.-Iran dispute — might be adept at playing the role of dutiful host, but where it really matters, they are irrelevant. The “deciders” are elsewhere.
That dynamic will once again be on full display this week at the Munich Security Conference, an annual convention of sorts for the world’s foreign policy and military elite who spend a long weekend discussing what ails the world over Bavarian beer and schnitzel. No shortage of European luminaries will be in attendance, from Macron and Spanish leader Pedro Sánchez to EU foreign policy czar Josep Borrell. Where they won’t be is the big table.
What promises to be the highlight of the three-day program is a conversation on “Great Power Competition” between the foreign ministers of Russia and China and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. To their credit, the organizers didn’t even pretend that Europe is in the same category.
By all rights, it should be. As one of the world’s richest and most populous regions, Europe has every right to make its weight felt. Yet so far, it’s only managed pithy slogans.
Former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker resolved to make the EU “Weltpolitikfähig,” a German term he coined that can roughly be translated as making Europe relevant on the world stage. Von der Leyen came into office last year proposing a “geopolitical” Commission.
Instead, the Europeans have continued to engage in a series of circular discussions about whether and how to build a “European army” and variations on if the Western alliance will survive U.S. President Donald Trump.
China, meanwhile, has been quietly lurking in the background, methodically building its influence on the Continent.
Case in point: The theme of this year’s Munich Security Conference is “Westlessness.” (“The world is becoming less Western. But more importantly, the West itself may become less Western, too,” the MSC’s annual report concludes.)
While such debates are no doubt necessary, Europe hasn’t found a way to move beyond them. Time is running short. Russia, after its incursions into Ukraine and involvement in Syria, continues to sow chaos on Europe’s doorstep.
If the Russian-backed general trying to overthrow Libya’s government succeeds, Moscow will have gained important leverage over both the flow of refugees and energy to Europe — influence it can use to pressure the Continent on other fronts. One need only look at the political trajectory of countries most exposed to the refugee influx in recent years to understand the danger that poses.
Turkey has also not hesitated to take advantage of Europe’s strategic torpor, as evidenced by its ruthless pursuit of the Kurds in Syria and its own entanglement in the Libyan war.
China, meanwhile, has been quietly lurking in the background, methodically building its influence on the Continent, whether through critical infrastructure projects in Southeastern Europe or corporate acquisitions in the West.
Beyond the economic impact, Brexit could also become a security problem for Europe. The U.K. has been a pillar of European security for decades. But will it remain so, especially if its trade relationship with the EU sours?
Europe’s open flanks are far from secret.
“Europeans need a renewed sense of cohesion and strategic purpose to become more than an appendage to a Eurasia reshaped by China and Russia,” Robert Zoellick, the former senior American diplomat and World Bank president, said recently.
Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has warned of the peril that awaits if Europe tries to “be a vegetarian among meat-eaters.”
So far, however, instead of instilling common purpose, Europe’s geopolitical exposure has only deepened its internal divides on issues large and small.
One reason Merkel’s Libya initiative was doomed is that the EU can’t agree on a sea patrol to enforce the arms embargo. Austria opposes the move over concern the patrols would be forced to rescue stranded refugees en route to Europe, thus encouraging more migration.
Macron, frustrated by NATO’s strategic direction, famously declared the alliance “brain dead” in November. That enraged the likes of Poland and other Eastern European states that view NATO as crucial to their survival. Adding fuel to the fire, Macron is pushing for a rapprochement with Russia, a course viewed with great suspicion by Eastern states that feel threatened by Moscow.
Amid those tensions, France and Germany are at loggerheads over expanding the EU in the Balkans, a project Merkel sees as important to block Russia and China from gaining a strong foothold there.
Perhaps the biggest point of contention is how to handle the U.S. For decades during and after the Cold War, Europe didn’t have to worry much about security because Washington, in return for allegiance, guaranteed it.
The arrangement was only sustainable as long as transatlantic interests were closely aligned. Europe’s reaction to the Trump presidency (and Trump’s treatment of Europe) suggests that period is drawing to a close.
As good as Europe has become at diagnosing its sorry state of affairs, few credible solutions are in the offing on how it should position itself in a world of great powers.
Europe likes to see itself as the cradle of democracy and liberal values — but if it doesn’t act soon, it will take that distinction to its grave.