The European dilemma, to continue or to play

The Western world has dominated international relations. Ever since the appearance of capitalism, ”The West” has dictated the main mechanisms and laws that govern international conduct. Colonialism sealed the fate of many peoples while Woodrow Wilson reshaped the very notion of a free nation. The Marshal Plan shaped our view of the post-world war world in a way that is still visible today in the EU. The Western World, with its most evident incarnation of USA-EU military partnership, has fostered the strongest military alliance, NATO, the strongest economic force and has set the tone, principles, laws, and values for the entire globe.  

Yet 30 years on from its most glorious victory, the fall of communism, this world order has found itself contested by China and, episodically, by Russia. This contestation has seen many declinations in the form of military, economic, and even ideologic affairs (it has been said that authoritarian regimes have had a ”firmer” answer in the face of the pandemic). For the first time in a long time, the mechanisms governing the ”balance of power” have apparently started to produce effects of consequence for the establishment generically named The West.

Naturally, the rise of China and Russia has been quickened by the escalating dissensions between USA and the EU. These have been well exacerbated by the Angela Merkel phone scandal and have continued with tensions generated by the North Stream 2 project and, apparently hit rock bottom with the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Naturally, the American First model of conducting Trump Politics has tensioned relations with most European Union member states. Brexit was another clue that EU-USA destinies would be going on different paths.

Within this ”Ice Age” of EU-USA relations, Russia has dug further in deepening its relations with Germany, while China went all in its efforts to seduce, Hungary, Italy, and Greece

Russia and China figured out that attacking the EU-USA relationship is a core move against the current international establishment. Therefore, both states have worked for decades in order to undermine transatlantic relations, by stimulating Berlin-Moscow economic relations or by fueling the French military ego (and consequent anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment) running wild on the hallways of the Elysee.

Actions streaming from China or Russia seem to have a common source. However, in reality, they serve very different objectives, by operating on quite different channels. A truly functional Balance of Power alliance between Russia and China does not exist. Their actions are however overlapped, in a very punctual manner, on specific themes. Most of the time, these two counter players have their own interests to look after in Europe.

The new Curtain

The European Union is under siege and, apparently, more divided than ever. The economic games played by China and the tactic performance of Russian interests, often put into play by proxy, have already shaped an image of a weak European Union, often lacking perspective.  The old ideological conflict placing nationalism and globalism on the opposite sides of a truly representative cleavage is now overlapping the old Iron Curtain scheme. This is obvious in the way the European member states have positioned themselves in regard to Hungary’s anti LGBTQ law.

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What is genuinely interesting about this reshaping of old theoretical walls is the fact that Europe is undergoing a process of replicating the ongoing ideological conflict raging in the United States. As always, when dealing with radical arguments, both teams are right, and both are terribly wrong.

Viktor Orban and the Visegrad group seek to promote the vision of a European Project based on national states with full sovereignty. Of course, the issue with this sort of project is that it is equivalent with the destruction of the EU. Turning the EU into a mere alliance of states inconvenient for both Russia and China, since this means that the common Western EU project, of promoting a union of shared values and ideology, has failed, which leaves way for the reincarnation of Old Europe – easy to command, riddled with conflict and war.  

Europe has to face more tangible threats than ideology. The lack of proper military capacities in the face of dwindling relations with Turkey and the United States signals weakness. France, with all its efforts of portraying itself as the defender of Europe, is not at all a believable option. Because it lacks a sufficiently large army but also because France cannot guarantee peace of mind to the countries out East, in the improbable event of direct military conflict with Russia. Europe has, for an exceptionally long time, relied on military support from the United States. This may make some wonder if the European Union is or is not a great power, since it ”boroughs” the military potential of a third party. Europe undoubtedly remains an economic and, even more so, a cultural power irradiating values across the globe. But without a military power to match, it has remained far behind the United States, China and Russia.

The future of the European Union is played in Paris and Berlin

The new Biden Administration has been viewed by Brussels as a breath of fresh air. And even if this is the case, one has to take into account that the Trump phenomenon is not something intrinsically linked to Donald Trump. It is a mechanism set in place and validated, electorally, by a significant portion of the American citizens. So, to be sure, Trump’s major defeat and subsequent withdrawal should not be confused with the disappearance of his America First agenda.

So even if the European Union is looking forward for more relaxed diplomatic dialogue with Washington, it is clear that some continuity will be there. There are obvious signs to be seen already. The EU-China positioning will cause tensions and the 2% for defense is likely a win that the US will not want to step back on, since USA efforts are clearly disproportionately bigger in terms of NATO participation (it’s not just about the money, it’s about technology, military outreach, and presence). Biden is forced to keep addressing the uncomfortable China issue in Asia, where Beijing is growing in influence. In Europe, Washington will forever find friends in The Baltics, in Poland, and in Romania, states which are sure of the fact that American security guarantees are the only viable deterrents in the face of increased Russian assertiveness. Regardless of how Germany and France will play their hands, the US has firm support among EU states.

We should also remember that elections will be ongoing in Germany and France. The strategy adopted by the leaders in Paris and Berlin will show us if the European Union will bet on the band-wagoning game or if we’ll witness a new design of USA influence across Europe. If the European Union will play the Chinese or Russian card, the project will most probably drown in dissolution. Because the diverge interests of all three great players – USA, Russia, and China, will pull in irreconcilable directions, thus breaking the European fabric. Each power will seek to secure its zone of influence and the EU will become the mere turf in a foreign fight for dominance.

The EU has a tough decision to make. If it pushes for the continuation of the status quo, it knows the ropes: it will be safe, dependent upon American protection, but also free to occasionally play its cards when needed. If it decides to play the contender card, then she will have to deal with increasing nationalism, a strong sense of division, and a powerful conflictual perspective. Of course, the European nations have been decent at this game too. But even in the age of (re)nationalism, populations are weary in the face of war and fall-out conflict.

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