Europe must play a more decisive role on international stages if it wants to combat the spiralling autocracy

Three years have passed since Donald Trump’s inauguration as US president and Europe is still adapting to a situation in which – as German Chancellor Angela Merkel has put it – it can no longer rely on others. As Trump questions the value of America’s alliances and the very notion of global governance, Europe’s pursuit of strategic autonomy has thus become a matter of necessity. This means Europe must be ready and able to engage in a multi-polar game with America, Russia and China, in the Middle East, on climate change, trade and other issues, to enhance its security and promote its core interest in cooperative crisis management and a rules-based multilateral system.

The greatest obstacle to Europe’s strategic autonomy is its inability to provide for its own security. There is no prospect, in the near future, for the EU to turn into a military power. Europe will thus continue to depend on US security guarantees, but this cannot mean passive subordination. Trump is relatively isolated in Washington in thinking that the alliance with the Europeans is a dispensable burden. The Europeans should intercept America’s lingering interest in the transatlantic alliance (and keeping forces deployed in friendly countries overseas) to make the United States more sensitive to European priorities. Greater military contributions to Europe’s defence, specifically in the context of the European Union, are key to the success of this effort. Stronger EU defence cooperation would also add a layer of protection against America’s exploitation of its military ties with individual member states to pursue divide-and-rule tactics.

Russia presents a different kind of challenge. The Europeans have to face up to President Vladimir Putin’s plans to compound intra-European divisions and fuel mistrust within the European Union through military intimidation, cyberattacks, trade restrictions, information warfare, and by providing support for Eurosceptic forces. The Europeans have sought firmer deterrence commitments from the United States. They have intensified ties with Ukraine while retaining an EU-wide sanctions regime against Russia. Meanwhile, they have attempted to ‘bind’ Russia through rules and dialogue. Specifically, they have managed to introduce constraints to EU-Russia energy relations by forcing Russian gas exporters to abide by single market rules. At the same time, they have cooperated with Russia on the defence of the Iranian nuclear deal, which the Trump administration is trying to derail. Given the critical role played by Russia in European security, energy supplies and Middle Eastern stability, these are important steps, which bear witness to Europe’s ability to leverage their assets in geopolitical engagements.

Europe has struggled to do as much in relations with China. In particular, it has not done enough to curb infringements of intellectual property rights and constraints on market access or to contain the risk that it might gain excessive influence through investment. Only recently has the EU developed an investment screening mechanism, although results have yet to materialize. The more balanced its relationship with China, the more Europe will be in a position to shape the cooperation in line with its interests. One example is climate governance, an area of shared interest on which the EU could push China to agree to a more ambitious agenda than it has so far. Another is trade. If the United States persists with its aggressive tariff policy, Europe will have to assess whether it is ultimately in its best interests to agree to China’s proposal to forge a common anti-US trade coalition (while demanding significant concessions from Beijing in return).

Europe’s record on North Africa and the Middle East, where it has important security, energy and immigration-related interests at stake, is mixed at best. After rhetorically supporting Egypt’s initial transition away from autocracy, the Europeans have acquiesced to President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi’s repressive counter-revolution. Conflicts in Syria and Libya have been handled mostly from a border control perspective, with Italy’s negotiations with local actors and militias to reduce the inflow of migrants into Libya applying the same logic as the 2016 German-brokered EU-Turkey deal to manage immigration from Syria. While insufficient and morally tenuous, these policies reflect a realistic assumption about Europe’s limited ability to shape events on the ground and a sober assessment of the disruptive effect that a perception of uncontrolled migration flows has on the cohesion of EU member states and the public’s appreciation of EU institutions. 

The European contribution to the Iran nuclear deal (which stemmed from a European initiative) stands out as an exception to Europe’s scant influence in the Middle East. If Europe wants to play a part in the region’s geopolitics, it should defend the promise of a pragmatic engagement with Iran that is implicitly contained in the deal. Safeguarding the nuclear deal is not only about non-proliferation. It is also about thwarting attempts to aggressively contain Iran – actually a regime change policy in disguise – pursued by the US-supported coalition comprising Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Destabilization of the Islamic Republic would spell disaster for Middle Eastern stability and ultimately Europe’s security, which would be better served by governance arrangements based on the co-existence between Iran and its rivals.

For the Europeans it is especially important to find ways to get around US sanctions that have an extra-territorial effect. Congress has enacted laws containing this kind of sanctions (so-called ‘secondary sanctions’) not only on Iran, but on Russia too. Given how poisonous the debate about Russia has become in Washington, future presidents may take a harsher line towards Moscow than the Europeans would consider wise and use secondary sanctions to force Europe’s hand.

Europe’s strategic autonomy relies on a further consolidation of the EU, a primary target of the nationalist forces who now command significant popular support. On the surface, the nationalist agenda contains the seeds of European fragmentation, especially if Eurosceptics gain traction in places like Paris or Berlin. Yet the reality is that nationalists would struggle to defend national borders, companies and jobs if intra-European cooperation breaks down. This being the case, the pursuit of strategic autonomy has fundamental implications for the sustainability of the European project, as the notion offers the opportunity to reconcile the nationalist agendas with the EU experiment.

‘Strategic autonomy’ has been promoted by the 2016 EU Global Strategy, a document that puts great emphasis on the hybrid nature of EU foreign policy as the combined action of EU institutions and member states. The Global Strategy builds up an argument inextricably linking national and European interests, national sovereignty and European autonomy. Steering Europe’s policies in this direction would help rebuild consensus for such key principles of Europe’s post-war liberalism as open markets, open borders and pooled sovereignty. At the very least, it should make it easier for public opinion in Europe to realise the advantages accruing from EU cohesion, which the Europeans cannot dismiss as casually as American nationalists do.


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