Europe is in the throes of a geostrategic crisis. The arc of stability that was described in the EU’s first security strategy back in 2003 is in tatters. The vision set out then and superseded in 2016 by the EU Global Strategy has exposed the fundamental weakness of post-1945 Europe.
As a bloc, the union cannot do defense and it cannot do hard power because its philosophy is anchored on a peace project. The ineluctable rise of China, cyber attacks, digitization, and the assault on the West’s once unchallenged preeminence that was protected by NATO and the United States mean that the Europeans will have to step out of the shadow of the EU’s peace domain.
Look at the arc. Almost every day there are military incidents in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which Russia invaded in 2014. Germany, supported by France, mediated a ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine in 2015. But the so-called Minsk process for the region has not moved from a process to a permanent peace that restores Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
In Sudan, where the EU sent a peacekeeping mission to Darfur in 2004 only to walk away from it after a few months, thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand an end to military rule and corruption. Scores of demonstrators were shot dead earlier in June as outside powers, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates vie for influence in this power struggle.
In Egypt, the EU has put stability before democracy and the rule of law as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi clamps down on the opposition. And as for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the EU has become a bystander with no influence except to prop up an authoritarian Palestinian Authority and resort to toothless criticism when it comes to Israel’s unending and illegal expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Closer to home, twenty years since NATO bombed Serbia to stop the war against the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the EU, despite all its economic power, has been unable to end the widespread corruption in the region or the debilitating dysfunctional politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In short, even though the EU prides itself on being a peace project, it cannot do peace. It cannot conduct peace negotiations because as a bloc it is wedded to soft power and the panoply of tools that underpin that power, including development aid, diplomacy, peacekeeping missions, and police training. And even when the EU imposes sanctions, as in Russia or Iran, the measures lack teeth because they are not targeted on individuals or backed up with hard power.
If these shortfalls are not enough to jolt the Europeans out of their belief that Europe’s peace project continues to serve it well, just consider how the EU is floundering when it comes to forging a sophisticated policy toward China. This is despite worthy attempts by the European Commission to finally set out a long-term strategy on how to deal with China’s economic, political, and military influence.
There are some European leaders who see the unraveling of post-1945 Europe. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who rarely talks about defense and has rarely—if ever—used the term “hard power,” knows what is at stake. “Simply stating that we’ve enjoyed seven decades of peace is no longer enough to justify the European project,” she said in a recent interview. “Without forward-looking arguments to justify Europe, the European peace project would also be in greater jeopardy than one may think.”
Logically, Merkel should have continued her line of thought to consider how Europe should defend its values and interests. But she ducked the issue. “There is no doubt that Europe needs to reposition itself in a changed world,” she added. She cited how the EU was developing a common strategy toward Africa and Ukraine. “However, our political power is not yet commensurate with our economic strength.” The deficit should have included the EU’s lack of security and defense policies.
Michel Barnier, the former European commissioner and French foreign minister who is leading the Brexit negotiations for Brussels, cut through Merkel’s woolly rhetoric. He wrote recently that Russia was breaking international law. China was engaged in strategic competition across the board and promoting an alternative international order. The United States had chosen to defend its interests with unilateral actions and pressure.
Knowing full well that Europe’s security depends on the United States, Barnier nevertheless stated unambiguously that “outsourcing Europe’s security is no longer an option.” If it wants to be taken seriously as a foreign policy player, the EU must have the power to back it up. “Europe still wields significant soft power, but we remain a hard-power minnow. . . . Europe needs a second leg to stand on,” he wrote.
Europe has been there before—from the British-French initiative forged at Saint-Malo in 1998, which aimed to install a European defense and security force as well as a strategic culture but ultimately failed, to the much-lauded battle groups that were launched in 2003 but have barely gotten off the ground.
Barnier calls for a strategic defense review to assess the “core threats” facing Europe between now and 2030. He wants a defense council, a defense academy, and an operations headquarters. He hopes that “these practical steps will help foster a common European strategic culture and make European defense an operational reality.”
Barnier’s views are quintessentially French, just as Merkel’s are grounded in German caution and pacifism. Neither will move the Europeans sufficiently far to forge together a security and strategic culture. It is going to require many EU leaders to acknowledge that the EU’s post-1945 peace project risks becoming Europe’s Achilles’ heel in ways that will put paid to the bloc’s global ambitions.