The European Union has outlived its purpose as an ordering force in Europe. It is incapable of addressing the historical challenge facing the West: its rising geopolitical competition with revisionist powers. It failed to radiate security on its frontiers to the east and south. And it has proven too weak to keep in check the unilateral policies of its largest member, Germany. In brief, the EU cannot compete, cannot secure its borders, and cannot keep Europe’s balance.
While the United States has finally awakened to the necessity of competing with rival great powers such as China and Russia, the EU is stuck in a post-modern daze. In that worldview, the main threats are not to the wellbeing of a polity but to what is seen as a higher purpose of international politics: multilateralism. As Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for foreign policy, affirmed in a September 2018 speech, the “priority of our work will be to strengthen a global network of partnerships for multilateralism.” (my emphasis) Multilateralism is the foreign policy goal, not just a means; process trumps outcomes.
Such confusion of goals and means is understandable, perhaps. EU members rarely agree on foreign policy, leaving ambitious EU politicians with little to do except to push for process and more process. Multilateralism—endless paeans to dialogue and understanding—thus becomes the objective that few oppose because at first sight it does not appear to be noxious. What can be so bad about a slew of meetings in Geneva or Paris among global partners working to enhance multilateralism?
In reality, when promoted with relentless enthusiasm, as in the case of Mogherini, who has done so over the past years, a foreign policy that sets multilateralism as a purpose rather than as a means results in a dangerous world detached from reality. Any agreement is good simply because it is a multilateral agreement, and any opposition to such agreement is greeted as the ultimate sin. Hence, the JCPOA (the “Iran deal”) or the Paris climate accords are to be protected at all costs, even if rival powers like Iran or China disproportionately benefit from it. The U.S. withdrawal from both arrangements was perceived by EU elites as a greater menace than Chinese predatory economics or Iranian military expansion in the Middle East because it undermined multilateralism.
This inability to think in competitive geopolitical terms has also weakened the EU’s frontiers. This is particularly, and tragically, visible in Ukraine where the European Union demonstrated that it was unwilling and incapable of fighting for its enlargement. The EU could promise the extension of its borders, raising the hopes of Ukrainians eager to shed the corrupted ways of their leaders, but it could not admit that it had to compete for it. The Western conceit was that the benefits of an integrated market, of a borderless area, of diluted sovereignty, and of transnational rules were self-evident and equally appealing to all. All the EU had to do was to ensure that the rules were followed by the aspirant nations and even the most recalcitrant opponents in and out of Ukraine (including in Moscow) would sooner or later realize the futility of their opposition. Enlargement of the European project required patience and managerial stamina, but not a martial spirit and willingness to compete.
The outcome was tragic. In 2014 Russia sent “little green men” and artillery; the EU, its progressive narrative of History. And so far Foucault is losing to Kutuzov.
As the Iranian threat grows and an arc of instability from North Africa to the Middle East continues to burn, Europe is discovering it also has volatile frontiers to its south. But beyond calls for more multilateralism, the EU does not offer much succor to its most affected members in the Mediterranean basin. Individual EU members, notably France and Italy, are left to pursue their own, often contradictory and clashing, policies in North Africa seeking to mitigate the security problems emanating from there.
Finally, the European Union also served the purpose of freeing Europe from the historical vagaries of its internal balances of power. Its member states were, of course, never going to be equal in power, but EU institutional mechanisms would, so to speak, transcend power imbalances. In blunter terms, the EU promise was that Germany would not dominate Europe; Germany would become Europeanized rather than Europe Prussianized.
The European Union has succeeded, but only to a degree. Berlin is not Europe’s capital; indeed, Europe has no capital. But German power is not containable by the EU and, after Brexit, will be even less so. The 2008 financial crisis showed to the debt-ridden Southern European states that German power is decisive and that opposing it in financial matters is futile. More disturbingly, Berlin has no qualms about pursuing policies that undermine the security of other EU members. Two policies in particular are worth recalling. In 2015 Chancellor Merkel opened Germany’s borders to, what turned out to be, hundreds of thousands refugees. While she won widespread international admiration from Bono and the UN, her own electorate began to have serious doubts. And other European countries, on the forefront of the migration crisis, resented the unilateral German decision which immediately affected them and over which they had no say.
The second decision was to strike a dubious deal with Russia to build a second gas pipeline (Nord Stream 2) that has no economic value but enormous geopolitical consequences: by not having to cross Ukraine and Central Europe, Russian gas can be delivered directly to German industries while Moscow can threaten to cut off supplies to states deemed by it to be part of its sphere of influence. This German decision abets Russian imperial aspirations toward Ukraine as well as toward EU member states in Central Europe. Berlin may speak highly of the EU, but it wields its power as it wishes, in open disdain of other EU members.
The harsh reality is that the European Union was a project that may have had a chance in a benign geopolitical environment. In a competitive world, with antagonistic external powers and growing internal imbalances, the EU is failing. European states have to figure out on their own and through alliances (especially with the United States) how to keep rivals out and Germany more cooperative. The EU won’t do it for them.