With the gradual decline of the West’s dominance, including Europe as a major part of it, the willingness of other states – Russia, China and Turkey – to behave as if this utopia were a reality, has been dissipating. Europe’s policy rules are being replaced with the common rules of international politics where the EU has very few resources, if at all, writes Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director of the Valdai Discussion Club.
The first 100 days of the new top leadership of the European Union’s bodies – the EU Council, the European Commission and the European Parliament – have proven to be a turbulent period. During this time the EU has been compelled to react to challenges that have arisen against its will rather than set the tone in international politics. Most of the new leaders thought that once they resolved the various internal problems – mainly, taking control of the right-wing agenda – they would be able to safely start restoring the EU’s position in a new and troubled world. Several striking statements have been made against the backdrop of these hopes – that Europe must create its own military capability and be more proactive on the effects of climate change, among others.
But challenges that do not depend on its decisions are already near or inside the EU: the pandemic of the coronavirus and the tens of thousands of refugees that are being pushed out of Turkey toward the EU.
In the former case, the consequences of restrictions by individual countries have led to serious distortions in the freedom of movement in the EU. This is a bit dramatic for Europeans but generally tolerable. In the latter case, the dilemma is more complicated. Responding to a new version of the migration crisis, Europe will have to deal with the fundamental issues of its existence in international politics, first and foremost, the correlation between its limited military power and its moral agenda. Indicatively, renunciation of its moral banner in international affairs is likely to further reduce the ability of the EU countries to influence these affairs to their benefit. This is already happening, now that a general decline in European influence in the world has become obvious even to European politicians. President Emmanuel Macron made a convincing statement to this effect last August.
The West won the Cold War in the ethical battlefield. For the United States this victory became merely a tool for establishing its own dominance, whereas for Europe this situation was more complicated. Having few military resources relative to the US, Russia and even China, Europe viewed its ethical agenda as an opportunity to have a say. It had convincing grounds for this. The Europeans really managed to build an order with at least some justice within their integration association. The rights of its weak members are much better protected in the EU than those of their strong partners. This feature, as well as the general security of the individual, made Europe look appealing to the outside world. However, this moral agenda was rapidly exhausted. It allowed the EU to justify an expansion from 2004 through 2007, but that was it. As soon as challenges are made by countries that are unwilling to follow the European agenda, the EU instantly loses influence.
It is no secret that the Turkish government simply used the refugee problem to pressure the EU for political and economic purposes. The European elite fear the consolidation of the right-wing parties and are convinced that they cannot afford to have more crowds of refugees on their territory. The first reflex response to Erdogan’s challenge came from President of the European Commission Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen. She said Greece should become a shield for Europe and that other EU countries would help with this. This response is a sign of helplessness and dependence on the opinion of leading EU member states.
Not surprisingly, many European politicians instantly expressed concern that converting the EU into a fortress would deprive it of what’s left of its moral authority. This fortress idea should certainly be renounced. European leaders must find other solutions that will allow them to defend their national interests without compromising their moral code too much.
The brightest European intellectuals, for example, Nathalie Tocci suggests that Europe should revise its relations with Turkey. This view is certainly more promising, but it has its limits as well. Even the deepest and most convincing partnership will not rid Ankara of the need to react to threats and challenges when Europe cannot help it at all. Therefore, Turkey’s general policy will be closer to the realities of international politics than to the softer conditions in Europe. In any case, this deal would not be complete and entirely fair to Turkish interests, and conditions for a new conflict will persist.
No less urgent is the problem of external challenges to EU unity, which do not depend on the EU’s will. About a decade ago, patriarch of international politics Henry Kissinger said that one of the most important issues for the world countries was that challenges are becoming global in scale whereas responses remain national. This is inevitable to a certain extent because each country is answerable to its own citizens. When a country fulfils its commitments, it is bound to run into a conflict with others because different countries have different potential. A world government cannot be created and, thus, it is impossible to make a truly collective effort to resolve global challenges, be it climate change or a pandemic. This problem came to the fore 10 or 15 years ago when it became obvious that it is difficult to parry common challenges to everyone’s content. Responses will always benefit some states more than others. This is bound to reveal a lack of justice and trigger a revolutionary atmosphere. Take the refugee issue. This basic problem cannot be fully resolved even in such an advanced format of interstate cooperation as European integration.
During the entire post-Cold War period, Europe tried to build a world in which it would be strong in some imaginary utopia. The EU countries could act and did act from a position of strength. They expanded the EU and NATO, ignored Russia’s opinion, monopolized the benefits of countering climate change and dictated terms of domestic development to their neighbors. In other words, this idea worked for a certain period of time and the Europeans developed the illusion that the situation would exist for an indefinite time. However, with the gradual decline of the West’s dominance, including Europe as a major part of it, the willingness of other states – Russia, China and Turkey – to behave as if this utopia were a reality, has been dissipating. Europe’s policy rules are being replaced with the common rules of international politics where the EU has very few resources, if at all. Now Europe’s vacuum of acceptable solutions is being exposed, both inside and out.The only step that can save it from further foreign policy degradation is the resolute consolidation of integration and a political alliance. But at this point, the leading European states are guarding their own interests and they would rather bring down the EU as a world player than give up even part of their sovereignty. So, in the near future Europe will most likely have to accept the further decline in its role in the world and its position as the US’s junior partner, and a less important alternative in the US-Chinese confrontation. Europe cannot hope for more in today’s new and truly global international politics, partly because of its limited size.