The outgoing U.S. administration should have been an opportunity for the European Union to fill some of the gaps created by President Donald Trump. They didn't.
On the foreign policy front, the EU remained on the sidelines in the Middle East, especially during the war in Syria and Yemen. These are almost forgotten conflicts despite the violence, the hunger, the tens of thousands of displaced people and at least three million children deprived of even the most basic schooling and health. While the EU provides substantial assistance to non-governmental agencies working on the ground in the region, that soft-power is a hands-off one. The EU's role as a diplomatic mediator, which is an element of soft power, has been entirely absent.
Trump's trade war with China was another chance for European governments to pull together and adopt a united policy as Beijing became more authoritarianism, all but snuffed out democracy in Hong Kong and has written its own narrative about the origins of Covid-19. (According to the latest narrative, the pandemic was caused by Western food exports to China).
Trump, to his credit, repeatedly supported the protestors in Hong Kong and applied sanctions against several Chinese officials involved in suppressing the protests. Most EU governments in contrast have gone their own way with China. Indeed, as a whole, the EU has been shamefully weak over how the rule of law and accountability has been trampled upon in Hong Kong, not to mention the increased surveillance of Chinese citizens on the mainland.
As for China's use of its 5G technology network as a security and intelligence gathering tool, it is remarkable how Europe still fails to speak with one voice when it comes to something as critical as security. Here again was a chance for Europe to stand up to China and champion European IT companies. Instead, Europe continues to allow Beijing to divide and rule Europe and weaken transatlantic ties. Perhaps the incoming Biden administration might encourage the United States and the EU to forge a common, coherent and strategic policy towards China. Essentially, it is about preparing the West to compete with China.
In the case of Russia, the EU's sanctions, imposed in 2014 after Russia invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, have been consistently rolled over. But they do not amount to a strategy. Even when Alexei Navalny, the prominent Russian opposition leader, was subject to a chemical attack in August 2020, in most cases, the Europe's rhetoric was loud but the actions were weak. This was the chance for Chancellor Angela Merkel to abandon the almost-completed NordStream2 pipeline. She refrained from doing so. The first pipeline is already bringing gas directly from Russia to Germany. The second one will complete the Kremlin's goal of bypassing Ukraine and increasing Germany's dependence on Russian energy.
With these few foreign policy examples, Europe could have made a difference. But it didn't for several reasons. First, EU member states do not share a common threat perception.
The northern countries see Russia as the main threat. The southern tier of member states regards migration and refugees fleeing the wars, conflict zones and the desertification of parts of Sahel, as the main threat. For France, Islamist terrorism is the major threat. For Germany, it’s a mixture of migration, cyber security and to some extent Russia.
Despite Russia's chemical attacks on opposition figures in Russia or in exile, its cyber attacks on the German Bundestag, or China's use of technology as a disruptive tool, collectively European governments do not see both regimes as threats to their values, their economies and their democratic institutions. If there is no consensus on a common threat assessment, it is extremely difficult for the EU to act and think strategically.
Second, Europe's reliance on soft power has run its course.
The soft power, anchored on the highly successful enlargement policy and disbursing billions of development aid—often directly to authoritarian regimes—needs to be "modernized." Soft power is traditionally anchored on diplomacy, sanctions, aid, and defending values and human rights. But the EU's soft power has been particularly timid about defending human rights.
When President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet for his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, on December 7, he did so against the background of the widespread abuse of human rights in Egypt. Arbitrary detentions, disappearances, torture, suppression of free speech, of advocacy groups and an independent opposition are the norm.
This is how Macron justified the reception given to Sisi. "I think it is more effective to have a policy of dialogue than a policy of boycott which would reduce the effectiveness of one of our partners in the fight against terrorism and for regional stability," he said. Making human rights a major issue would be both "ineffective on the subject of human rights and counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, that's why I won't do it," Macron added.
As for the EU's role in Belarus, its direct neighbor, the EU reacted by imposing sanctions on some of President Alexander Lukashenko's entourage. The sanctions have been ineffectual. If anything, sanctions have become a classic EU reflex whose value is questionable.
Other EU countries, such as Lithuania are adopting different measures. Lithuanian prosecutors have launched a pre-trial investigation into crimes against humanity under a complaint by a Belarusian citizen, Maksim Kharoshyn. Surely other European governments should adopt similar measures and launch investigations under the principle of universal jurisdiction
Such measures could make a difference as to how the EU uses soft power.
Hong Kong is another example of Europe's inability and inflexibility to use soft power that could include supporting the social media, providing legal aid to speaking, providing special internet access out consistently against China's imposition of its security measures. The reality is that several EU countries prefer to keep their trade contacts with China intact rather than defend basic values and fundamental human rights that the EU supposedly prides itself on promoting.
And third, even if the EU did modernize its soft power, it needs to be complemented by hard power. France and now non-EU member Britain know what hard power means. But the EU is not prepared to embrace the idea of using its military capabilities to project hard power. Somehow, hard power is linked to aggression, to war, to interference in other countries.
But isn't hard power also about protecting and saving lives and using it to end a conflict? The fact that NATO is still in Kosovo, twenty-one years since it attacked Serbian forces in order to stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in that province, shows the EU's failure in building strong institutions (soft power again) and its inability to use Kosovo as a chance to establish a EU defense force.
Finally, there is the fundamental issue of values, specifically the rule of law, media freedom and an independent judiciary.
When it comes to the defense of values, pro-democracy activists outside Europe view the EU as a model to emulate. But when those values are being chiseled away from within the union, by Hungary and Poland, to cite just two examples, they seriously undermine the credibility of the EU as a bloc based on values.
These values are not particular to the EU or to the West. They are universal. But the Hungarian and Polish leaders claim the EU is "picking" on them and imposing its values on their societies. The fact is when both countries joined the EU in 2004, they signed up to the EU's commitment to defend the rule of law and the set of values essential for safeguarding democratic institutions. And they subscribe to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. If the EU is serious about defending its democratic institutions, it needs to have the political will to use the bloc's treaties to take renegade member states to task instead of being blackmailed by these member states. If not, the union gets to write off its reputation as a defender of the rule of law.
In short, the lack of a common threat perception, the weakness of soft power, the unwillingness to consider hard power and the EU's ambiguity about defending the rule of law inside its own house means that Europe could end up betting, not acting, on its future as a geo-political player.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).