The bloc tried and failed to become an independent global power, now its chickens have come home to roost
Whether many of us in Russia are prepared to admit it or not, the European Union’s place in international politics will inevitably become an important issue of both theoretical and practical significance. For the great powers, the urgency of this question is determined by what they associate with Western Europe in their own plans and, consequently, where they are likely to be disappointed. In the case of the US, the bloc’s strategic importance is determined by its ability to contain Russia with at least partial self-reliance.
For Russia itself, the EU is a potential “weak link” in the united coalition of the West, led by the US, which threatens the interests and survival of the Russian state. A similar position is held by China, whose authorities also expect American influence in Europe to decline over time, allowing Beijing to retain access to some Western technologies and markets in the face of an inevitable “divorce” from the Americans. From India’s point of view, the EU is a less demanding partner than the US in modernizing the Indian economy and solving some of its national development challenges.
At the same time, it is difficult to speak of genuine sympathy for Western Europeans on the part of any of their global partners. In these foreign policy circumstances, the EU’s leading countries are faced with the prospect of gradually becoming frontier territories that all the opposing global players will regard as nothing more than a political or economic resource base. The question is whether Western Europeans can stop moving in this direction and, more importantly, whether they need to show more individualism in world affairs.
In words, as we know, the intentions of the leading EU countries (first and foremost Germany and France) have not changed much compared to the “golden” years of the development of their independent strategic project of European integration. As in the 1990s and 2000s, Berlin and Paris talk with varying intensity about their desire to play an independent role in world affairs. But even they admit that the chances of realizing such plans have now seriously diminished. And it may soon become clear that Western Europe will indeed find itself in the situation that most closely matches the predictions of the greatest skeptics. In other words, the actual position of the EU in world politics is increasingly in line with how we might see it in terms of abstract assessments of its relationship with the US and its ability to act independently.
However, this is complicated by several important factors. First, as the leading political power in continental Western Europe, France still retains its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. This puts it on a formal par with the kingpins of the international community. Second, the EU’s economic heft and potential is extraordinary. Germany remains one of the world’s leading economic powers. Third, Western European representatives participate in the work of most major international institutions and take leading positions in shaping their agendas. All this, and much more, does not allow us to treat the bloc with contempt. And it prevents us from writing off the EU altogether, and treating its members as mere junior partners of the US.
The latter view, however, has serious grounds. The dramatic outcome of the Second World War, which led to the emergence of the current international order, was not only the end of Western Europe as a global power, but also led to the loss of the ability of its states to determine their own foreign policy. It can be said that all Western European countries suffered a serious military defeat as a result of the events of 1939-1945, even if they were among the formal winners, as in the case of France. With the exception of Britain and the USSR, all the major European states suffered military defeat – there were no winners among them.
The collapse of the colonial system in the following decades was already a consequence of Europe’s dramatic downgrade in the world rankings. Having lost basic rights in relation to their own positions, European colonial empires could no longer maintain their dominance over other peoples. This process was gradual and in some cases mitigated by certain forms of neocolonial dependency. However, as we can see from the example of French influence in Africa, the replacements for the colonial regime that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s could only be temporary forms, inevitably followed by a complete loss of control by the former masters.
Even Great Britain, not defeated but instead significantly weakened by the Second World War, was badly affected. The region’s leading economic power, Germany, lost even formal sovereignty over its foreign policy. France struggled for a while, but from the mid-1970s it gradually moved towards relinquishing its independent role in world politics. The finale was the country’s return to NATO’s military structures 15 years ago, after which French defense planning was also integrated into the US-led system.
As a result, by the end of the 2000s, all the conditions were in place for any dreams of an independent EU in world affairs to be completely forgotten. The last attempt to restore sovereignty in foreign policy was the Franco-German intervention against the US plans for Iraq in 2002-2003. But it did not lead to any satisfactory results for them. The rest was completed by the almost permanent economic difficulties after the crisis of 2008-2009 and the crisis of the political systems in the majority of the EU states, which started at the same time.
To sum up, we can say that the actions of EU states in the conditions of an acute crisis in relations with Russia in 2021-2022 were already quite consistent with the bloc’s true position as a rather non-self-sufficient partner of the US, and as a territorial base for the implementation of the strategic plans of one of the true victors, along with Moscow, in the Second World War. And it would be somewhat naive to lament the fact that the leaders of the leading EU countries, as well as its institutions, completely surrendered to events that they could not control. The gravity of the emerging crisis – effectively a Ukraine-mediated military clash between Russia and the US – left no room for foreign policy maneuvers on the scale available to Western Europeans during the Cold War period of 1949-1991.
All the more so because the Ukrainian crisis itself was to some extent the result of continental Europe losing any capacity for strategic independence.’
As we have seen above, this has taken place in a gradual process combining the consequences of the events of the middle of the last century and the failure of attempts to build a genuine political union on the basis of European integration, alongside the enlargement of the EU’s membership and the creation of a common economic policy through financial instruments within the euro area.
Further evidence of this is the specific behavior of EU institutions, which after February 2022 simply acted as the economic arm of NATO. If Western European leaders looked so helpless at the beginning of last year, it was not because they were incompetent. The real reason for their inability to stop the continent’s slide into the worst crisis since the mid-20th century, and their subsequent subordination to US policy towards Russia, is that the bloc has run out of options for autonomy.
It is now up to us to see how serious the consequences will be of this process, which reached its final stage in 2022. Unlike Britain, the EU is too large and diverse to be completely overtaken by American influence. Western European companies have the scale to maintain independent links with the Russian and Chinese markets. The major EU countries follow their interests and find themselves in a dual position: strategically fully subordinated to Washington, but at the same time enjoying a degree of autonomy in their foreign policy contacts.
As a result, Western European countries may literally ‘float’ in a state in which America’s adversaries on the world stage retain influence over them, but they will no longer be able to make decisions on their own. This will turn the EU into an arena for competition between other powers. And it is not yet clear how such a situation will affect the ability of its member states to meet the interests of the many competitors for their attention.
This article was first published by Valdai Discussion Club, translated and edited by the RT team.