In early November 1956, under pressure from the US, the USSR and the UN, Britain and France agreed to withdraw from Egypt and reopen the Suez Canal, this would be the last time any European country west of Russia played a major role in world affairs. From then onwards, Western Europe would be relegated to a position of subservience to the US, although there were occasional bouts of independent foreign policy by Europeans, with the Falklands War and the Second Iraq War as prime examples. Yet, the rise of China has shifted US priorities to the Asian Pacific theater, leaving Europe to face the return of a revanchist Russia. Thus, Europeans must ask themselves: can the European Union ever become an independent major force in the world? A superpower? A state economically, diplomatically and military powerful enough to defend European values and interests in all parts of the world?
Anyone remotely knowledgeable about the EU, global politics and economics could tell you that the EU falls short of achieving these goals. The United States essentially pays for European defence through NATO as most European countries have demoralised or under-equipped armed forces due to poor defence spending. On the diplomatic scene, there is rarely, if at all, any major diplomatic action undertaken by the EU as one actor, but rather major EU member states sometimes agree on a common course of action, with the foremost recent example being the quickly fading Iran deal. Yet, it must be noted that if there is one area where the EU mostly pulls its weight, it is arguably trade policy, with the European Commission effectively protecting European interests against a somewhat protectionist US, for example. Overall, the fact remains that in the vast majority of domains the EU is rarely considered as a single entity but rather a group of feeble great powers with similar if uneven interests.
Old and new foes on the rise
This state of affairs has become highly relevant in recent years as the Pax Americana, that is the US hegemony on the world stage, comes to an end with the emergence of serious threats to the post-WWII “Western-led” order. Indeed, first and seemingly foremost for the EU is the re-emergence of Russia as a major actor in global politics and particularly, the shift in EU-Russia relations as the Kremlin went from a prospective strategic partner to an evident strategic adversary. For Russia, the EU in its current and potential future form is a lethal threat to its influence and potentially its survival, with European NATO divisions posted a mere 2 hours drive from its second most populated city, St. Petersburg. Therefore, Russia seeks to divide European member states on all subjects so as to reduce, if not eliminate, the threat that the EU poses to Russia in Russian minds.
Moreover, as the age of American supremacy slowly dwindles into mere memory, a new era of superpower competition appears to be on the rise with an assertive China ready to replace the US as global hegemon and America eager to take on the challenge. As such, Europeans are forced to consider the threats that the superpowers represent for a disunited European Union. Indeed, whilst China is unlikely to be a military threat due to both sheer distance and differing spheres of military and political influence, China is highly interested in profiting from the EU’s single market, yet it seeks to prevent EU member states from embracing common positions on issues that threaten its economic advantages, such as reciprocal trade or the use of 5G technology amongst others. Thus, it wishes to see European countries be small fish disagreeing about their place in the big pond.
On the other hand, the US presents perhaps the strangest yet most likely danger for the EU, despite the alliance between almost all EU member states and the US through NATO, the US is fearful of the EU’s ability to pull its weight in trade policy as the largest trade bloc in the world. Yet, it also wishes for a strong and militarily capable EU to help it counter China and Russia. Truth be told, the US’ military hegemony is the only guarantee of safety for European member states from threats originating outside the EU, yet this American umbrella of protection is slowly but surely dissolving. Whilst many would lay the blame of worsening EU-US relations at the feet of the Trump administration, the truth is that the shift in American priorities from Europe in the ‘90s to the Middle East in the ‘00s and the Asian Pacific theatre in recent years. Thus, Europeans ought to plan and prepare for the days when American taxpayers will tire of paying for European security and defence and the substantial danger it would create for Europeans.
The tricky path to dominance
Subsequently, Europeans should consider the benefits and detriments of seeking to become a superpower. After all, to this day, many in the Middle East despise the British and French governments for their role in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and subsequent colonisation of the region in the interwar period, the consequences of which are still seen today in the multiple conflicts and general disarray of the region. Adding in the negative sentiments in many regions of the world caused by the US’ numerous military and diplomatic interventions in the name of democracy and freedom, it is understandable that some Europeans are reticent to see the EU granted the powers and mandate to push around smaller countries in pursuit of its interests under the pretence of advancing European values. Moreover, the necessity of increasing defence spending significantly and of reducing national sovereignty for the EU to become a military and diplomatic superpower surely wears heavy for member states and their governments.
Yet, the advantages of the European Union becoming a superpower are arguably greater than the costs it would incur. Indeed, the most likely and prominent benefit for Europeans, were the EU to become a single economic entity with a common fiscal budget, would be the possibility of removing, if not usurping, America’s “exorbitant privilege”, that is the status of the US dollar as world reserve currency. It allows the US to export inflation, borrow at lower costs to the benefit of an estimated $100 billion/year and impose harsh sanctions on foreign firms and governments for violating its laws even when operating outside the US (see the sanctions on Iran or fines on BNP Paribas). The main reason that the euro is not a serious challenger to the dollar’s supremacy is the common belief that, due to the lack of a common fiscal budget, Eurozone member states would not do enough to guarantee the euro’s worth if it were a world reserve currency.
Many important figures in European politics from different sides of the political spectrum, ranging from Emmanuel Macron to Viktor Orbán, have called for some form of joint European defence armed forces. Proposals have ranged from moderate ideas, such as a common defence infrastructure based on the failed 1952 European Defence Community treaty, where each member state would contribute units of its armed forces on a rotating basis to form a pan-European defence force, to more extreme reforms, such as a supranational European state/federation with a mandate to levy taxes and form a professional army and navy. All of these proposals imply further integration and centralisation of power into the hands of supranational entities, which has left a lingering sentiment of uneasiness for member states reticent to see national sovereignty reduced or further centralisation of power.
As the American hegemony draws to a close, Europeans ought to pursue profound and potentially contentious reforms in order to face the ambitious challenge of a new multipolar order in which small fish are unlikely to be left alone. Yet, this must be done whilst learning from the mistakes of the past, as no one wishes to see Europe ever return to its colonial antics, or even for it to fall into the trap of attempting utopian hegemony, as happened to the US after the Cold War. Hopefully, the 21st century will see the rise of a preeminent European Union.