Geopolitics has made a roaring come back in recent years. The world has once again entered an era of great power competition of the type that Europeans thought they had left in the 20th century. Europeans generally don’t like this new, more competitive world, but it is arriving nonetheless, and they need to prepare.
For the last year, ECFR has sought to stimulate a debate on how Europe relates to the major powers of the world and what Europeans need to do to keep up with them. Towards this end, we produced four “power audits” of European relations with China, Russia, Turkey, and the United States. Each power audit takes a hard-nosed look at the relationship of each EU member state with the given great power and assesses the power balance between them. They found that:
Europe’s desire to hold itself aloof and insist that it need not sully its Kantian paradise with grubby geopolitics appears increasingly unrealistic.
China: China is now inside Europe. China exercises power in Europe not just through its massive trade surplus, but also through investment, lending, and financial power that serves China’s foreign policy goals and helps China acquire the technology necessary to support is ambitious modernization goals. China can do this because it can “pick and choose” in its relations with the European Union, focusing on its direct interests, and often ignoring EU norms. Europeans have begun to require reciprocal openings of the Chinese economy, but they need to do more to prevent China from using their economic links to achieve geopolitical advantage. The EU needs a system of investment screening and a set of trade defence instruments to protect itselve from Chinese industrial policy. It also needs closer relationships with like-minded partners in Asia to gain leverage with the Chinese. And most of all, it needs sufficient unity to prevent China from suborning individual EU member states.
Russia: Russia presents a very distinct type of challenge, aimed less at Europe’s economic strength than at its normative core. The EU and Russia have become locked in an open battle over the norms of international conduct. Russia’s interference in European internal affairs is one front line in this normative battle, an attempt by Moscow to erode the Western liberal consensus from within. The good news is that over recent years, EU member states have become remarkably united in their assessment of Russia, but they still need to translate this unity into a political strategy that reflects not just European values, but also Russian realities. The path to winning the overall normative war will not go so much through countering Russia directly as through improving Europe’s resilience and reinvigorating the Western model.
Turkey: Turkey is supposedly becoming part of the European Union, but in fact its long accession process is now irrevocably stalled. Turkey shows no desire to restore the rule of law or restart its reform process, and Europe shows even less to desire to contemplate integrating such a large and troublesome state. But neither side wants to end the process either. The result of this shared hypocrisy is that Europeans have no framework for dealing with Turkey as a normal state through transactional bilateral relations. Without prejudicing the accession process, the EU needs to move beyond accession and seek to update its customs union, push Turkey on human rights and the rule of law, and establish a framework for addressing disputes that involve the Turkish diaspora. Accession isn’t working, but Europe needs an effective bilateral relationship with Turkey to secure its goals in the Middle East and to reduce Russian influence in Turkey
The United States: In the age of great power competition, Europe’s closest ally has become perhaps its most vexing geopolitical problem. The issue is not just that the president of the United States no longer believes in the transatlantic alliance or even the liberal world order. It is also that longer-term trends mean that US interests and thus attention are moving away from Europe towards Asia. The United States now often has little stake in issues that plague Europe, such as immigration from North Africa or Syria, and so can’t be expected to resolutely support European interests. But Europe still depends on an increasingly unreliable United States for its security and most EU member states still cling desperately to their bilateral relationships with Washington, even under the mercurial Trump administration. As a result, the US retains the greatest potential of the great powers to sow disunity among Europeans. Europeans desperately need a capacity to act independently of the United States, but to achieve that they will need to trust each other more than the traditional guarantor of their security.
Overall, the four power audits show that Europeans, particularly when working together, retain the capacity to cooperate and compete effectively with all these powers. But they also show that, in each case, Europe is failing to do so. This situation is not remotely new, but as geopolitical competition among great powers has intensified, it has become more damaging to European interests. Europe’s desire to hold itself aloof and insist that it need not sully its Kantian paradise with grubby geopolitics appears increasingly unrealistic.
ECFR’s power audits describe the challenge and they chart a path towards specific solutions. We intend to use the coming year to continue to further the debate on Europe as a geopolitical actor and bring some of our ideas closer to implementation. We will need some help from Messrs. Trump, Putin, Xi, and Erdogan to make the case, but we expect that they will continue to demonstrate to Europeans that geopolitical competition has indeed returned.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.