Winter 2019

Europe at a Crossroads

Norbert Röttgen

Europe is at a crossroads. As the world is changing dramatically, it struggles to find a place in the new international environment it faces. At the core of this global transformation lies a sudden return of great power competition. While Russia has become much more aggressive in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, China is relentlessly extending its influence in Asia — and increasingly on a global scale. The United States, in contrast, has partially withdrawn from the international scene and refocused their remaining efforts almost exclusively on dealing with China. Still yearning for the fading American-led international order, Europe runs the danger of being torn apart in the wake of great power competition, unless it gets its act together and becomes a genuine global force itself. In a best-case scenario, Europe could serve as a major international pole on par with the United States and China. In the worst case, Europe will soon become irrelevant. Unless we change our current trajectory, the latter unfortunately seems far more likely. As Europeans, we have long benefitted from US leadership. It has allowed us to outsource responsibility to the United States, while at the same time being able to strive politically and economically within the international order Americans build, led and enforced, ever since the end of the Second World War. At the heart of this rules-based order lay mechanisms of collective problem-solving, enshrined and practiced within institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization or the World Bank. Many of these institutions are now deadlocked, not least due to decisions taken by US President Donald Trump. 

The European Union and its member states have yet to recover from the shock of an US-administration gone rogue and its self-chosen international abdication. Trump has dramatically changed the manner in which the United States deal with its international partners and closest allies. He shows little interest in open dialogue on an equal footing. Rather he expects other countries to follow his orders, even if that means breaching international treaties that the United States once helped to negotiate. As moderating advisors have left, what remains is a President surrounded by a group of henchmen who do not believe in the European project. Worse, in his support for disintegrative forces he openly challenges the unity of the European Union. But instead of becoming more self-reliant, Europe has remained paralysed. The timing could not be worse: Never before was it as urgent that we, as Europeans, find a common voice on foreign and security matters, and transform the EU from an internal to an external project — aiming to shape global politics in accordance with our own interests. But, as of now, the prospects are bleak. At a time when Europe needs to emanate unity and strength, it is more divided than ever, indecisive and without leadership.

Against this backdrop, I am afraid, a shared approach in the field of foreign, security and defence affairs on the basis of agreement among all 28/27 EU member states is simply unrealistic for the time being. On foreign and security affairs, the EU can act only with the consensus of all member states, some of which hold conflicting views on defence integration or relations with China and Russia. I therefore consider it inevitable for Europe’s international capacity to act that a smaller group of states takes the lead and starts cooperating more closely on foreign, security and defence affairs. 

I suggest that Germany, France and Poland should be part of this group, but also the United Kingdom in a post-Brexit scenario. The collective would, of course, remain open for others to join. Above all, members of this avant-garde should develop a common foreign policy agenda. Such a group would in no way compete with the EU. On the contrary: by proving effective in-filling, at least in part, of the leadership vacuum the United States has left behind, this working format might well reinvigorate the entire European project. 

Next to close policy coordination, one basic requirement for Europeans to become a global player on a par with others on the international stage is improved military capabilities. Europeans have to ramp up their military spending. This is particularly true for Germany, which given its history is still at odds with a military dimension to its own foreign policy-making. But Europe’s timid approach to military spending needs to change. Not only because NATO is indispensable for Europe’s security, but also because Europe’s role in NATO must be strengthened in order to face the United States on more equal footing. To do so, Europe will need to play a much greater role in guaranteeing its own security. Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) is a good start, but it is designed as a slow and lengthy process. Next to it, member states should start promoting a common defence culture by organizing joint training exercises and investing in joint weapon systems, thereby reducing costs and pooling knowledge. In the long term, the result should be an Army of the Europeans,” designed not to replace national armies but to complement them. 

Introducing a credible military dimension to its foreign and security policy will be inevitable for Europeans to be taken seriously in Washington, Moscow and Beijing. This will be particularly crucial with respect to the Near and Middle East. Located in our direct neighbourhood and ripe with conflict, Europe has unsurprisingly been most affected by the instability within the region. Others have filled the gap the United States has left behind, most notably Russia, Turkey and Iran. European governments, in contrast, barely play a role.

This has to change. In negotiating the JCPOA with Iran, the E3 — Germany, UK and France – have proven that they have the means to engage regional actors and achieve concrete outcomes. The deal significantly limited Iran’s nuclear activities and allowed for extensive international inspections. With the United States’ pull-out from the JCPOA, and its maximum pressure” campaign that aims to drain Iran economically and force the régime back to the negotiation table, those results are now in imminent danger. 

It is impossible for the remaining members to the agreement to compensate economically for US sanctions against Iran. So far, the E3 have remained committed to the JCPOA under the condition that Iran does not violate its terms. But Iran has now doubled the number of advanced centrifuges in operation, clearly breaching the 2015 nuclear deal. This renders holding on to the JCPOA, in its current form, impossible – even for the E3. In my view, the only constructive way forward is for the E3 in tandem with the EU to initiate a process that aims for a new, more extensive agreement with Iran. This would also cover legitimate concerns regarding Iran’s aggressive behaviour in the region, and would thereby provide a reason for the United States to return to the negotiations. Unfortunately, Europeans missed the opportunity this summer to demonstrate that they are prepared to stand up to aggressive Iranian behaviour in its neighbourhood. Iran’s acts of state piracy in the Strait of Hormuz threatened the freedom of the seas in one of the world’s most critical sea lanes. Unwilling to become part of the US maximum pressure” campaign, Europeans refused to participate in the US-led naval mission Sentinel.” But instead of doing nothing, European member states should have launched their own, European-led, naval mission to address Iran’s illegal occupation of free areas of the sea.

In light of Trump’s recent troop withdrawal from Northern Syria, which enabled Turkey’s subsequent illegal military invasion of the area, it is critical that we do not repeat our mistake and remain inactive once again. Not only is it in our strategic interest to avoid another wave of refugees, it is also a matter of solidarity with our Kurdish allies in the fight against ISIS to exhaust all options of protecting them against Turkish assaults. But we need to be realistic: As a consequence of eight years of European inaction with regard to Syria, our options are limited. Militarily, we are not in a position to force Turkish troops to retreat. In this terrible situation the suggestion of Germany’s defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, to establish an international UN-led security zone in Northern Syria, might be last and best hope we have. Depicting nothing less than a paradigm shift in German foreign policy making, it is a high-risk mission. At a minimum it requires close coordination amongst the E3 and toleration by Russia, Turkey and the United States. Whether this can be achieved is entirely open, but should it be possible to establish an UN-led security zone in Northern Syria, this might pave the way for long-term conflict resolution in Syria. 

The Near and Middle East is not the only region that requires attention. The same holds true for the Asia-Pacific — with a rising China at its heart. As China’s influence in the region and on a global scale expands, it also increasingly exploits the rules of the game to its own advantage and challenges the Western model of liberal democracy and market economy in favour of state-interventionist authoritarianism. Ideally, the West would jointly push back on the basis of a transatlantic China strategy. But a united Western effort to protect the rules-based international trading system, which both Europe and the United States want to shield from unfair Chinese competition, cannot rest on measures that themselves undermine the order, such as Trump’s ongoing trade war with Beijing. 

For now, a coordinated European China strategy is the best we can hope for – and this is an ambitious objective in itself. For far too long Europe took a somewhat naïve approach toward China, built on the desire to safeguard European – and above all German – economic interests. While Chinese investors have almost unlimited access to the European market, the same does not hold true for European competitors eager to invest in China. This lack of reciprocity, coupled with continued infringements of intellectual property rights, has led Europeans to rethink their relations with China. As a consequence, the outgoing EU Commission finally adopted a far more critical stance towards China, culminating in a couple of EU-wide initiatives: the Commission’s ten-point plan on China that names the country a systemic rival”, the bloc’s new investment-screening mechanism. 

While the Commission has finally caught up with the problem, the same does not hold true in equal measure for all member states. The positions EU members have adopted with respect to China differ widely, with both Central and Eastern Europeans, as well as Southern Europeans, being much more open to Chinese investment than Paris and Berlin are comfortable with. Fostering common European interests in such a heterogeneous environment is challenging, and will most likely require a more flexible approach than consensual EU decision-making. 

Where a shared European position or policy on China is not achievable, member states with similar views should co-ordinate their approaches. For instance, Germany and France share a vision of relations with the Chinese — they not only see the geopolitical threat posed by China’s rise, but also the considerable opportunities it offers. French President Emmanual Macron made a start in favour of closer coordination by inviting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to participate in his meeting with Xi Jinping, the President of China, in Paris this year. In a similar vein, he took incoming EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan and German education and science minister Anja Karliczek on his recent November trip to China. Franco-German cooperation is an excellent starting point, but both Berlin and Paris should try to also involve Poland in the process. While Warsaw has a strong interest in co-operation with China, it is also increasingly disillusioned by the failure of much promised Chinese investment to materialise. 

But Europeanising’ individual member states’ China policies needs to go beyond intergovernmental cooperation. By also inviting Juncker, President Macron has found a way of linking the intergovernmental level to EU institutions. Ensuring that the EU is present at meetings with Chinese delegations is important for monitoring and co-ordination. A similar mechanism is already in place with regard to the members of the former 16 plus 1, now 17 plus 1 format, as Greece has joined. It would only be fair to institutionalize this procedure and make it obligatory for all EU members to abide by it. Germany especially has to understand that it cannot have it both ways: pursuing close, uncoordinated and unsupervised economic relations with China as its largest trading partner, while asking others to accommodate their own interests in favour of a joint EU China policy. Unsurprisingly this hypocrisy will not fly with Germany’s European partners. It will make it harder for the incoming Commission to hold its ground on China.

But doing our homework in Europe will not be enough. Dealing with Chinese expansionism will also require forging new alliances with like-minded countries in the rest of the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific. Chinese geopolitical ambitions are now here more prevalent than in the South China Sea. It is high time for a European avant-garde to develop a comprehensive strategy towards the Asia-Pacific that addresses Europe’s interests as a global market power.” The European business model depends on export and thus free navigation, which China threatens in the South China Sea. With the danger of military conflict between China and the United States looming large in these waters, many regional actors would much rather see a permanent European presence in the South China Sea. To ease the mounting tensions the necessary and sensible step would be to upgrade the French and British national endeavours in the South China Sea into a permanent European presence. Both countries already operate military vessels in the strategically important waterways. Spearheaded by Britain and France a joint initiative should understand itself as European and be recognizable as such. 

Being at a crossroads, it is not yet too late for Europe to take the right turn. But time is running out. To achieve the best-case scenario of transforming Europe into a global force to be reckoned with, European powers need to act swiftly and with far more courage than they have so far mustered. 

Dr Röttgen is Chairman of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee, and a former Federal German Minister of Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.