European countries must hang together or they will hang separately. Photo: FRANCOIS MORI/AFP via Getty Images

July 6, 2020   7 mins

It’s a a make-or-break moment for the EU. Battered by Covid, with fraying ties to the United States and torn over its relationship with a growingly assertive China, the European Union has once again shown itself far weaker than the sum of its parts. For decades, it had seen itself as a normative power, whose mission civilisatrice was to guide the rest of the world, still trapped in history, to Europe’s post-historical idyll.

“We assumed that multilateralism, openness, and reciprocity comprised the best model not only for our continent but also for the wider world,” the EU”s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote recently, but those illusions are long gone. “To avoid being the losers in today’s US-China competition,” he asserted, “we must relearn the language of power and conceive of Europe as a top-tier geostrategic actor.”

Last week, Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU Council. Its politicians have already embraced the new language of sovereignty. European Commission president Ursula Von Der Leyen last year pledged to lead a “geopolitical commission”, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s defence minister and Angela Merkel’s hapless, erstwhile successor, remarked to the Munich Security Conference that “Europe and especially my country have a duty to become more able and more willing to act. Because we Germans and Europeans are faced with a strategic situation that is increasingly dominated by great power competition.”

Confronted by a rapidly shifting global order, the EU will have to adapt to the new realities simply to survive, radically reshaping its institutions, in the words of Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, just to “keep Europe functioning in a world in which the global balance is shifting rapidly — away from Europe”.

The recent Franco-German proposal for a shared European debt mechanism to aid the bloc’s economic recovery from Covid has been hailed by some as the EU’s “Hamiltonian moment”, after the process by which the United States evolved from a loose collection of autonomous states into a truly federal power. But the comparison only highlights the fragility of European solidarity, with even this modest proposal meeting stiff resistance from the fiscally frugal alliance of Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark.

In reshaping foreign policy, the challenges are even greater, with perhaps the greatest stumbling block to a coherent European strategy being Germany itself. The economic giant’s lucrative trading relationships with external rivals act as a brake on any serious strategic action, with Germany essentially having no foreign policy to speak of, and the geopolitical needs of the continent as a whole subordinate to the demands of German industry. 

In the realm of defence, crucial to any meaningful strategic autonomy, Germany has long shirked its spending responsibilities, allowing its armed forces to atrophy to the point of uselessness. Indeed, Germany’s prevailing ethos of post-historical utopianism has seen the country’s military viewed with such social disfavour, it has become a hub for political radicalism, with Kramp-Karrenbauer being forced to disband one-quarter of the KSK special forces, the equivalent of the SAS, last week for neo-Nazi sympathies. An economic giant, Germany is a strategic dwarf whose inability and unwillingness to project hard power gravely diminishes Europe’s ability to shape its own destiny.

For all that German politicians rebuke Europe’s illiberal challengers as a threat to the bloc’s security, trade-focused Germany has enmeshed itself inextricably with the EU’s greatest rivals. Macron’s outreach to Russia as a potential European security partner in a world defined by the coming struggle between the United States and China has been met with gasps of horror from Germany’s Atlanticist think tank class, but by doubling down on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline with Russia against bipartisan American disapproval, Germany has made itself and Europe as a whole heavily dependent on Putin’s goodwill.

With the US threatening sanctions if the pipeline goes ahead, Germany is pushing for Europe-wide counter-sanctions, in a familiar example of the continent’s “self-interested hegemon” attempting to utilise the EU as leverage for solely German interests. In a recent interview, Merkel struck a markedly ambivalent tone on Russia, chiding Putin for interfering in European politics, while making the case for cooperation. “There are good reasons to keep engaging in constructive dialogue with Russia,” Merkel argued, “In countries like Syria and Libya, countries in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood, Russia’s strategic influence is great. I will therefore continue to strive for cooperation.”

This is a small victory for Macron, who appears to view Russia as potentially useful additional muscle for Europe in a world of great power competition, but will perturb the Baltic states and Poland, who view the assertiveness of their former imperial master with alarm. Trump’s announcement that he will draw down the American troop deployment in Germany and increase the US military presence in Poland can be read as a rebuke to what he has called a “delinquent” Germany, and there is no reason to believe America’s displeasure will be lessened under a Biden administration.

Interestingly, a recent paper from a think tank aligned with Germany’s centre-left SPD party, coalition allies with Merkel’s CDU, endorses Macron’s policy of European strategic autonomy from the United States, urging German support for an independent European “nuclear umbrella” under French control, and enhanced security dialogue with Russia. Though not citing Poland and the Baltic states by name, it also waves away their fears of Russian encroachment, arguing that European policymakers “must ask themselves for how long and to what extent our future will continue to be dictated by the history of national suffering”, and dismissively remarking that “history plays an important part in politics and society, but it should not serve as a veto in solution-oriented policies”.

While a reset of relations with Russia is a rare example of shared Franco-German geopolitical interests, it will likely be a wedge issue with Germany’s increasingly self-confident eastern EU neighbours, allowing the US to play European countries against each other, and diminishing the possibility of concerted strategic action.

A more immediate challenge to coherent European strategic action comes from Turkey, an illiberal challenger to Europe’s collective sovereignty, deeply intertwined with Germany both demographically and economically. France’s dispute with Erdogan over Turkey’s arms shipments to Libya, encroachment in Greek and Cypriot waters and malign role in Syria is rapidly escalating. Last week, France withdrew from joint NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean in protest, and French foreign minister Yves Le Drian is convening a special EU summit to address the Turkey question, threatening sanctions in retaliation.

Austria will likely support the French moves, especially after being forced to summon Turkey’s ambassador for a dressing down last week after the Turkish foreign ministry condemned Austrian police for dispersing a mob of Turkish ultranationalists attempting to burn down a Kurdish community centre in the centre of Vienna. “I know exactly what Turkey is trying to do here, namely to use the Turks in Europe to sow strife and to campaign above all for Turkey’s own interests,” Austria’s chancellor Kurz has stated, demanding that “there must be an end to Turkey’s attempts to influence the people here in Austria and instrumentalising them for their conflicts.” 

The largest party grouping in the European Parliament, the conservative EPP, has similarly run out of patience with Turkey, with its leader Manfred Weber, a member of the Bavarian CSU sister party to Merkel’s CDU, demanding a debate on Turkey and claiming that “Turkey is unilaterally escalating conflicts with Europe and the situation is getting worse. Turkish security forces attack the Greek border on a regular basis and the drilling attempts in the waters of Cyprus are intensifying continuously,” and insisting that “the EU cannot leave these aggressions unanswered”. 

Yet the greatest stumbling block to concerted European action against Turkey will be Germany itself. To French and Greek dissatisfaction, the German security establishment consistently shies away from confronting Erdogan, with Germany raking in huge profits from arming Turkey with the high-tech weapons of war used against both European interests in the region and the borders of the EU itself.

Railing against the German defence industry’s lucrative deals with Turkey, Cyprus’ president Nicos Anastasiades demanded action from Merkel last week, asking “has Germany ever pondered on what it is breeding? Are the financial interests enough to justify disregarding consequences that may damage an important number of European countries?” But it is difficult to see Merkel’s Germany, perennially shrinking from confrontation, supporting the French initiative. With Turkey as with Russia, Germany’s high-minded rhetoric on European sovereignty will be undercut by Merkel’s desire to keep the lucrative deals rolling in.

Perhaps the most pressing opportunity for Europe to demonstrate its sovereignty comes from the unbalanced relationship with China. This was meant to be the agenda-setting year for this crucial issue, until Covid upturned the world order. Hopes that a China-EU trade deal would be finally signed this year, replacing the unbalanced economic relationship with a level playing field for European exporters, have been dashed by intransigent Chinese delaying tactics, with Beijing cancelling the September Leipzig summit until further notice.

Merkel’s long-standing illusions of “change through trade” have evaporated, replaced by a clearer understanding that the Middle Kingdom’s rebirth as a great power represents a systemic challenge to Europe’s sovereignty. Similarly, the risks of over-dependence on supply chains trailing back to China have been revealed by Covid, with “health sovereignty” emerging as a major priority for EU action. 

By proceeding with Huawei’s central role in rolling out Germany’s 5G network against both American threats and the advice of the German security services, Merkel’s government displayed a startling naivety on China, only now being reassessed. Belatedly realising that the new Cold War playing out inside its citizens’ smartphones will challenge Europe far more than a contest for the distant islets of the South China Sea, the EU is placing new emphasis on cyber security, an area in which joint and concerted action will likely bear successful fruit. 

On human rights, Germany’s equivocal stance, gently rebuking the awakening giant for its  abuses while deepening Germany’s economic and strategic dependence on its systemic rival, is coming under greater domestic pressure. Merkel will be forced to defend her China policy before the Bundestag this autumn, with the increasingly important German Greens emerging as unexpected China hawks, lambasting Huawei as a “Trojan horse” for the Chinese Communist Party and pushing for sanctions against individuals linked to repression of the country’s Uighur minority.

Initially weak EU statements against China’s actions in Hong Kong are slowly evolving into more assertively condemnatory language, but Merkel herself remains committed to striking a note of caution, remarking blandly in a recent interview that “China has become a global player. That makes us partners in economic cooperation and combating climate change, but also competitors with very different political systems. Not to talk to each other would certainly be a bad idea.”

A hangover from a vanished age of multilateral cooperation through trade rather than multipolar competition through foreign policy, Merkel’s natural caution will likely dampen any meaningful action towards reshaping the EU into a major geopolitical player. In the dying days of her generation-long role as Europe’s most powerful politician, Merkel will likely leave dramatic action to her successor, whoever that will be, with the potential heirs to her throne already vying to establish themselves as serious strategic thinkers on the European plane. For the continental bloc to survive the coming era of great power competition, concerted action to reshape the union into a strategic actor will need to happen soon.

While Germany wishes to extend its holiday from history for as long as possible, Russia and Turkey are already spreading their beach towels across the Mediterranean’s most desirable real estate, and the romance with China is already turning sour. This may be the EU’s Hamilton moment, but with Germany at the reins, it is one without a Hamilton to rise to the occasion.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.