No more Mr. Nice Europe
Hans Kribbe is author of “The Strongmen: European Encounters with Sovereign Power” (Agenda Publishing, 2020).
Some 15 years ago, European Commission President Romano Prodi proposed a vision of Europe surrounded by “a ring of friends.” His words did not age well. Today, instead, the Continent finds itself encircled by czars, sultans and emperors, ruthlessly playing the EU.
Another standoff with Russian President Vladimir Putin looms. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is redrawing the map of the eastern Mediterranean. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expanding his influence in the Balkans. Then there’s Donald Trump, who calls the EU “almost as bad as China, just smaller.”
The EU’s response has been a reboot of its 70-year-old consensus based on peace, rules and trade — but also a recognition that it needs to become a global player. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has dubbed her Commission “geopolitical.” EU High Representative Josep Borrell has urged Europe to learn “the language of power.” European Council President Michel has said: “Europe needs to be a player, not a playing field.”
How exactly Europe plans to make this metamorphosis into global player, however, remains unclear.
As always in Brussels, answers are sought in the form of policy instruments, procedures and mechanics. If the EU is to be a player, officials argue, it needs a stronger euro, more robust trade policies, an army. In her State of the Union address, von der Leyen added her voice to the chorus calling for majority voting on foreign policy instead of unanimity, to allow for more flexibility and faster action when it comes to imposing sanctions, for example.
But while such innovations are important, they overlook the need for a deeper transformation. The EU doesn’t just need new tools. It needs a new mindset, strategic reflexes and the ethos of a “player.” It must grasp what it means to be a player — existentially and morally — and begin to reason like one.
Sadly, there is only limited evidence that this change is taking place. Brussels finds it hard to let go of its old self-image, in which it is not a player but a referee: responsible for upholding the international rules much like the United Nations.
Some politicians appear to believe Europe pursues global power simply to become a more potent referee, dishing out more yellow and red cards to felons. This is what the EU claims to be doing in Belarus, or when Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro fails to put out the fires in the Amazon.
If this is the EU’s best answer to its strongman predicament, it carries the whiff of self-delusion.
Click Here: Fjallraven Kanken Art Spring Landscape Backpacks
Over the past four years, its leaders have tried to edify Trump, with little success. He has started trade wars, imposed sanctions, threatened to pull out of NATO and upended the transatlantic relationship.
Penal measures against Russia have hardly deterred Putin, who is pursuing his interests with little concern for European rebuke, as the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny with the nerve agent Novichok showed. Europe is similarly powerless to keep China from pursuing its economic and political objectives. The Chinese people will not accept “an instructor” on human rights, President Xi told his European counterparts in a virtual summit last month.
It’s perhaps no surprise Europe’s methods are fading to irrelevance. After all, when rules lose their relevance, who needs referees?
Think of the popes in Rome, back in the Middle Ages. Like the EU today, they thought of foreign policy as an exercise in upholding universal rules, standards and truths. Then suddenly, there were multiple popes at the same time — and after the Reformation, several interpretations of those universal rules.
Eventually, Europe’s kings sidelined the pope, stopped quarreling about the truth (which each would decide for his or her own territory), and began to compete only for global power, prestige and wealth. “The pope, how many divisions has he got?” Stalin allegedly quipped to Churchill some four centuries later.
This is what it means to become a player: to come down from the mountain top and accept that you are not special; you are just one of many sovereign powers engaged in the earthly tussle for territory, access to technology, infrastructure, natural resources, wealth, domination and influence.
The pope, it turns out, wasn’t capable of becoming a player. His political relevance faded. It should not be so for the EU. Europe may not be able to save the world from illiberalism, chaos, and harm caused by rioting strongmen. But encircled by them, it should at least save itself, and perhaps one day again extend the bounds of its liberal kingdom.
The metamorphosis from referee to player is humbling, perhaps. But for an EU seeking greater global relevance, it should also be liberating and empowering.
Unlike referees, players can have interests, and strategies to defend them. They can — and even ought to — do whatever it takes to pursue their goals. Best of all, they are permitted to be selfish: The EU could say that it is simply not opportune to risk conflict with Russia in its near abroad, without apology or explanation. Or it could assert — as Valéry Giscard d’Estaing did already in 2002 — that Europe should simply stop somewhere, for example at the EU’s borders with Belarus or Turkey, rather than exert itself for good relations in its “neighborhood” with little in return.
It may still be correct to hit dictators like Belarus’ Alexander Lukashenko with sanctions, or to push back against Erdoğan when he trespasses on EU turf. But players have no obligation to do so. In fact, should the EU’s interests dictate it, it would be equally able to justify striking deals with the likes of Trump, Putin, Erdoğan or Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar.
Some European politicians, including French President Emmanuel Macron, already appear to be thinking these blasphemous thoughts. Unfortunately, they can hardly say them aloud. And yet, it is only when they are no longer taboo that Europe’s fight back can truly begin.