The European Union can no longer afford to conduct a foreign policy based on the lowest common denominator. It needs to adapt to new realities―and fast―without compromising its core values.
“As the only vegetarian … we’ll have a damned tough time of it in a carnivore’s world.” Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Foreign Minister at the time, reached for a metaphor from the jungle at the 2018 Munich Security Conference to describe the EU’s future in the world. He then called on the Europeans to develop a common understanding of their foreign policy interests and to more vigorously project the EU’s power in the world—including by military means, if necessary. Otherwise, Gabriel hinted ominously, the EU would not be able to safeguard a free, secure, prosperous, and socially just Europe. It would struggle in a world of growing rivalry between major powers.
Gabriel was right. The conditions for European foreign policy have changed rapidly in recent years. The EU currently finds itself in a world of great power rivalry and zero-sum thinking, with a rising and ever more vigorous China, a revisionist Russia, and a United States whose president sees the EU as a “foe” rather than a partner. In their tussle for international influence and supremacy, those great power “carnivores” resort to methods and instruments that put the EU under tremendous pressure. They also challenge European thinking about the very nature of international cooperation. Because the EU has always perceived other powers as—at least potential—“strategic partners,” it now struggles to get used to also having adversaries.
Take China. Only a few years ago there was great hope in the EU that China would continue to open up and ultimately become a more democratic, Western-style market economy. With this expectation upended, Europeans are now slowly waking up to the pitfalls of their huge dependence on China. Beijing actively seeks to influence European politics through initiatives like the 17+1 format (a group of EU and non-EU Eastern European countries from Estonia to Greece plus China) and the acquisition of critical infrastructure in EU member states. On several occasions, it has successfully applied a strategy of “divide and conquer,” splitting the Europeans on issues like human rights in the United Nations. Through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and economic investments in the Western Balkans as well as a “no strings attached” development policy in Africa, it has gained a much bigger footprint in the EU’s neighborhood.
The EU has also had to change its view of Russia. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the Kremlin’s ongoing political, economic, and military support of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine ended all illusions about an EU-Russia “modernization partnership.” What is more, Russia’s leaders have deployed instruments of hybrid warfare on a scale completely unexpected by the West. These instruments include not only propaganda and putting “little green men” or GRU assassination teams on the ground in Europe, but also supporting euroskeptic parties and politicians within EU member states.
Swamped by a New Reality
But the biggest shock of all for the Europeans was the change in the White House. Since Donald Trump took office, the EU has been getting very different signals from Europe’s closest partner and protective power, the United States of America. While other US presidents have previously taken European allies to task for underinvesting in their security or have been wary of the EU as an institution, Trump is the first one to see the EU as a hostile project set up to take advantage of the US. He values American allies only to the extent that they “deliver” for the US in a simplistic transactional sense, and he does not shy away from bullying or threatening them.
Add to this mix Turkey’s alienation from the EU and European values as well as its increased focus on Turkish nationalism, and it becomes obvious that the EU no longer serves as a role model for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Turkey launches its military offensive in northeast Syria against Kurdish forces, the EU remains a helpless bystander, calling “upon Turkey to immediately stop its unilateral military action,” without any leverage or political will to play a meaningful role. The recent initiative for a UN protection zone put forward by German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has shown that even within the German government, there is no consensus. Europeans have to face the erosion of multilateralism, democracy, and the rules-based international order—in other words the very foundations of their foreign policy.
The EU is swamped by this new reality. It is indeed a herbivore among meat eaters, reluctant to use military means. Instead, it is emphasizing soft power, international cooperation, and legal solutions. It was never designed to pursue great power politics, quite the contrary. It now must adapt to things it thought would never happen. Therefore, it urgently needs to develop a strategy to defend its interests more robustly. Also, it needs to become more resilient if it wants to avoid turning into an anachronism.
Not in Its Nature
However, becoming a fully-fledged carnivore is simply not an option. The EU lacks not only the mindset, but also the necessary tools and instruments—first and foremost, military capabilities. It is true that the Europeans have made progress in common defense policy lately, with initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defense Fund (EDF), and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD)—big steps when compared to the snail-like advances of previous decades. But given the actual challenges and the existing gaps in capabilities, this is still much too little and too late.
In fact, Europeans must admit to themselves that because they have comfortably outsourced most of their security and defense policy to the US, they are now hugely dependent on American security guarantees, at least in the short to medium term. This dependency hampers their readiness to rally around the European flag in order to counter Trump’s foreign policy since they often don’t want to endanger their bilateral relationship with the US. But even in cases where the Europeans have the necessary capabilities, they often lack political will and consensus, as the recent fruitless discussion about a European military mission in the Strait of Hormuz has demonstrated.
The lack of military capabilities is one thing. More crucial is the fact that in order to turn into a fully-fledged carnivore, the EU would have to change its very nature. The EU was built as a counter-model to the great power politics that plunged the European continent into two devastating world wars. The EU’s founding concept is the idea that the results of international cooperation are divisible, that international politics is not about who benefits the most, but about cooperation making everyone better off. In other words, its founding idea is the exact opposite of zero-sum thinking. The EU builds its foreign policy on the concept of liberal norms and values, not on increasing its military, economic, and political power at the cost of its adversaries. That is why the EU must succeed in the art of surviving in a world of carnivores without losing its very identity by starting to become one itself.
Difficult to Devour and Digest
Of course, this does not mean it should stop pushing for the further development of European military capabilities and greater convergence of strategic cultures in order to enhance the Europeans’ ability to defend themselves. The EU can no longer afford to be a civilian power only. With America pulling back and expecting more from its allies, a more militarily capable EU is no longer “nice to have,” but a question of survival. Surely Europeans must adapt to the circumstances and change their mindsets. This means they have to become better at pursuing their interests in a more competitive world and at projecting the power they have, including making better use of their heavy economic weapons and their regulatory power. The EU needs to understand how to better leverage this power by linking up internal policies and assets to external instruments and objectives. Above all, the EU must stop seeing the aggressive meat eaters around it only as “liberal democracies in the making” and recognize their power political calculations in order to become more resilient against them.
But adaptation to the carnivores’ world has its limits. The Europeans can neither start bullying their allies nor annex foreign territory; nor can they simply bribe African and Middle Eastern dictators. If the EU gets involved in a transactional approach to difficult partners, as with the EU-Turkey deal on migration, this has severe consequences for its credibility, especially at home. For if the EU betrays its core values and abandons its basic principles, nothing much will remain of it—its very foundation will evaporate. To stay with Gabriel’s prehistoric analogy, the EU cannot allow itself to become the meat eaters’ fast food of choice. Instead, it must focus on becoming difficult to devour and digest. It must turn itself into the most resilient herbivore possible.
An Anticyclical Approach
Therefore, the EU and its member states have to find their own way to play the power game and shape international developments rather than being shaped by them. One attempt to do this is Ursula von der Leyen’s attempt to form a “geopolitical” European Commission, one that seeks to reinforce Europe’s international footprint in those areas where the EU is strongest and has a real edge: trade, competition, and regulation. In her mission letter to Executive Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis, von der Leyen explicitly tasked him with making Europe more resilient to extraterritorial sanctions by third countries and to ensure that sanctions imposed by the EU are properly enforced, notably throughout its financial system. It is too early to assess whether this reorientation of the commission will actually have the desired effect or what role Europe’s common foreign and security policy and the EU’s diplomatic service will play in this. But it is a sign that awareness of the new international challenges is growing in the EU institutions.
As unsettling and threatening as the global shift toward nationalism and unilateralism is, the EU needs to turn its supposed weakness into a strength and adopt an anticyclical approach. The US turning toward protectionism has made the EU an even more attractive partner for like-minded states including Japan, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Korea, as well as others who feel the need to maintain the multilateral system and seek predictable and stable cooperation. The recent trade agreements between the EU and Japan and between the EU and Mercosur are proof of this. In meetings at multilateral institutions, Europeans should push for more cooperation that is in the interest of many other countries—for example, the free use of the global commons, trade, and climate. The EU’s core strength is its regulatory power. The EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the EU’s third energy package illustrate the writ of the EU’s regulatory authority. In the future, the EU needs to understand how to better leverage this power by linking internal policies and assets to external instruments and objectives.
Speak with One Voice
The EU’s power of attraction stems from the freedom and democracy as well as peace and prosperity it has provided for its citizens. If the EU is no longer able to guarantee those, citizens will turn their backs on it—as some are already doing. The quest for more resilience vis-à-vis external threats begins at home. In order to credibly support democracy and a rules-based order, the EU has to ensure its domestic continuity. This includes finding more effective ways to sanction violations of the rule of law and democratic principles by member states. And if Europeans want to strengthen the international role of their currency to reduce their dependency on the dollar and to become more independent, they would do well to complete the institutional architecture of the eurozone and to maintain its credibility as a currency union.
Most importantly, Europeans should speak with one voice and stand together. This reads like a platitude, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The greatest threat to the EU comes from the Europeans themselves. At a time when—more than ever—the EU needs to act as a united international player if it does not want to become a pawn in the hands of major powers, its member states are struggling to find the determination and political will to set aside their disagreements and focus on the European common interest. After the plethora of crises for more than a decade, Europeans are deeply divided on essential political questions. There is little agreement about which goals they want to pursue through European integration.
As a consequence, the EU has often had no adequate answers to foreign policy crises, and its influence on the international system as a whole has declined. Europe’s common foreign and security policy was rarely more than an expression of the “lowest common denominator” of diverging interests. Europeans can no longer afford this. If they continue to speak with 27 (or 28) individual voices in foreign policy, they will soon find that no one hears them.