After 45 years spent in the shadow of the rivalry between Washington and Moscow, and after the American-driven two decades that followed 1989, the world has witnessed the shaping of a new power conflict between the United States and China. Main causes of this new landscape were not only the Chinese ascent, but also Russia’s revisionist attitude. While bound to the United States through economics, security reasons, and fundamental values, the European Union is yet to come to terms with the rise of Beijing as a strategic rival, busy as it is dealing with the Russian power on the East, and its tempering with the pre-Wilson system concerning the self-determination of peoples.
Ukraine is currently paying the price for Russia’s imperialist and aggressive claims. The short-lived armistice between the EU and Russia that went from 1989 to 2014, asserted that the EU – whose loyalty laid with the nuclear power of the United States, being 21 of its countries NATO members- would have posed as a warrant to confine the then unstable Russia, by limiting its well known expansionist goals, through the consolidation of economic ties. As a direct consequence, Europe has become reliant on Russian energetic power, whilst failing to contain Moscow’s expansionism. The EU has begrudgingly begun a rivalry with Russia the moment sanctions against it were enforced, following the annexation of Crimea.
Ukraine may be the most relevant, besides the most evidently bleeding, but it certainly is not the only instance where the European security system is at fault. Countries in the Western Balkan area have been waiting for Europe to uphold the promise to allow them to join the Union for decades, and in the meantime have witnessed, besides the rise of the Russian threat, the rising influence of China and to a lesser extent, Turkey. Ankara has exerted aopposition to Sweden and Finland joining the EU. Serbia is currently negotiating entering the EU itself, despite disagreeing with Brussels on foreign policies, as shown by its economic ties with China – also among Serbia’s weapons suppliers – and by its non-compliance with the sanctions against Russia.
The EU shares the Mediterranean with dangerously unstable forces, such as Syria in the Middle East and Libya in Africa. Moreover, the immigration flux coming towards Europe from these areas adds to the rising tensions. Lacking of any other means, the EU (deal with Turkey in 2016) and its members (Italian Plan by then Minister Minniti in 2017) fund a security system concerning migration with countries where democratic values are not considered a priority, for the sake of a “Realpolitik” that does not prevent them from being blackmailed of disregarding the aforementioned deals. Ankara and Moscow have also ensured military presence in both Syria and Libya, thus gaining another pressure point on Europe.
While the energetic link between Russia and the EU is on the verge of being dismantled, as a result of the war in Ukraine, the need for a self-sufficient stance on security is overtaking the economic arguments that have so far kept alive relations with both Russia and China. The EU’s stance in the anarchic landscape that Russia has turned Europe into, must aim to resolutely simplify the decision process and adapt it to the current security threats, thus aiming towards a new multipolar world order, where every relation (economic, technological, ,military, resources, migration) constitutes a weapon.
It is imperative that the EU overcomes the current unanimity decision process, when concerning security and expansion. “European treaties are not written in stone,” affirmed German chancellor Scholtz, last August in Prague, thus sharing that the German preference would be to shift to a majority decision system, when it concerns foreign affairs, sanctions and human rights. It would be apt for Paris and Berlin, as the pillars of the EU, to agree on the changes to be executed, and then involve other members.
The French “strategic autonomy” might complement the German “strategic dominance,” considering that technological advance in EU security is at the foundation of the Strategic Compass for the EU – beside being crucial in the German vision. Germany is about to finalise a federal agency whose aim would be relocations and the innovation of universities and research institutes, that could further aid the involvement of military forces and, with community policies, could strengthen Pan-European security. After February 24, 2022, Paris – one of the hard powers of the EU, as shown by its interventions in Libya, Mali and against the Islamic State – has come to terms with the contingency of a large-scale war in Europe, thus initiating the adjustment of its strategic policies in this sense, and taking into account both the consolidation of NATO-EU cooperation and the strengthening of the EU’s responsiveness in case of security threats. The French course of action includes larger flexibility in the application of Article 44 of the Treaty on European Union, which regulates the involvement of member countries and their intervention in the event of a crisis management or post-conflict stabilisation – as is the current case in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo.
Within the EU, a major risk to consider is that the United States may no longer represent the same source of stability that they have been for the past 75 years, until Trump’s presidency. The protection offered by the US may appeal to certain Eastern European countries, such as Poland and some Baltic countries, especially considering their shared inherent anti-Russian disposition. However, the social-popular wave that brought on Trump’s election remains steady in the US. Therefore, a new security system in Europe that is actually based within the EU, but not anti-NATO would be the best solution to keep both East and West European countries united in the eventuality of pronounced policy shifts in Washington. The US would hypothetically find allies in Eastern Europe, should the Americans consider the support of France and Germany unnecessary, as former President Trump did. In light of a potential estrangement of the American ally, it is crucial that the EU involves its Eastern countries in every military enhancement plan, in order to stay rooted in its fundamental liberal democratic values.
A close relation with Washington remains invaluable to guard European security, especially considering how Moscow has tightened its grip on the Eastern front – for instance, the involvement in the Ukrainian war of Belarus, which is allowed by law to host nuclear weapons and has worked for the destabilisation of the EU, using to its advantage Middle-Eastern immigrants on the Polish border. It cannot be excluded that “the commitment not to install permanent nuclear stations in Eastern NATO countries is to be considered outdated,” as CEPA think-tank estimates would happen should the situation with Russia escalate in an armed peace. Altogether, the resolving power to protect the EU belongs to NATO and its pro-American leadership. On their part, EU’s member countries must reach the minimum 2% of expenses on GDP, in order to be prepared for any eventuality, to avoid any tension with Washington, and to uphold a 2014 deal. According to official data from June 2022, current member countries of EU and NATO that have hit the prearranged 2% mark are Greece, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia and Slovakia.
In the twenty years that followed the Iraq war of 2003 and the consequent tensions with Germany and France, the continuous retreat of the US from friendly relations with EU countries – after restraining the conflicts in the Balkans through NATO – has challenged the EU to find its own stance on defence and security matters. The war in Ukraine has shed light on geopolitics and has highlighted the need to accelerate the establishment of a security sphere as independent, large and as inclusive of EU members as it can be. The EU can rely on France for its military strength (which includes nuclear weapons), on Germany for its technological primacy, on Mediterranean countries for their strategic closeness to the Middle East (countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, that are still to improve their navy force), and on all Eastern European countries bordering on Russia. The EU’s strength has always been its economic and normative influence, however, intensifying its military force would bolster Brussels up in the cooperation with other NATO countries (USA, Great Britain and Canada) and with new potential allies (Japan, South Korea, Australia), to assemble a new multilateral geopolitical force.
(This article has been originally published in Italian on the CeSPI ETS website on February 20th 2023)