The EU’s moment: Cast adrift by the US, threatened by Russia and China

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In an era of growing geopolitical tensions and fading US reliability, Europe can serve as a political mediator, says Robert Malley. [Stuart Rankin / Flickr]

Against a backdrop of US decline and an influential China and Russia, Europe must overcome its internal challenges and shoulder its responsibilities as a leader on the world stage, writes Robert Malley.

Robert Malley is President & CEO of International Crisis Group, the independent conflict prevention organisation.

The world order, or what remains of it, is undergoing a changing of the guard amid another changing of the guard. The first is a function of the US’s relative decline, China’s ascent, Russia’s restless resurgence, and broad disaffection with global institutions and norms. The second is at the national level, featuring popular estrangement from the ruling elite, fear of the other and a nebulous longing for authoritarian leaders.

The old order may not have been that great for many, but these twin tectonic shifts are hitting the European Union particularly hard. A changeover that unleashes an unconstrained scramble for power and influence and invites all manner of populist or nationalist responses, cannot but be hazardous.

European security depends on an alliance with the US about which the most one can say is that it’s still standing. The indignities suffered by the EU range from Washington’s renunciation of the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and now the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, to the imposition of punitive tariffs, to President Trump’s labelling the EU a “foe”.

The manner of the president’s surprise announcement of a US troop withdrawal from Syria is a metaphor for the wobbly relationship. Although both France and the UK sent forces to Syria’s northeast and suffered casualties at Washington’s request, they were informed of the decision after President Erdogan of Turkey. After Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel. Indeed, after the media itself.

Europeans fret about the next shoe – or, more accurately, next tweet – to drop. Their worried eyes are on NATO, in particular. There are many reasons to doubt Trump will go as far as to withdraw from the alliance. He probably won’t. Then again: the most dependable predictor are the president’s instincts, repeatedly expressed in unguarded moments. From those, his longstanding aversion toward NATO comes through loud and blindingly clear.

The revitalisation of great power competition – between the US and China and between the US and Russia – further complicates Europe’s challenge. As the alliance with Washington frays, Beijing and Moscow sense opportunity.

They target Europe – with sundry forms of meddling to undermine or divide the EU on one hand, thinly veiled entreaties to come to their side on the other. Under normal circumstances, this would be a moment for the US and EU to join forces and push back against Russian interference or unfair Chinese trade practices, but circumstances are anything but normal.

Which leaves Europe caught between an ally upon which it cannot rely and two major powers it cannot ignore.

That’s only half the story. Developments in individual European countries follow their own specific dynamic but share a common thread. Frustrated with the status quo and its standard bearers, angered by the inequitable concentration of wealth, convinced that the system is rigged against them, people long for answers. Instead, populist leaders offer them scapegoats: minorities, migrants, the courts, the media, the EU itself.

Anti-immigrant, anti-globalisation, and Euroscepticism all are consequences, as is the allure of illiberalism and a vague yearning among some for more authoritarian leadership. That in all likelihood they will be disappointed tomorrow by what they are being proposed today is cause for some optimism.

But it may take a while, and the damage wrought in the meantime – European divisions; a greater inward focus; and a resulting European inability to pull its weight on global affairs – could be great.

The impact is clear from Brexit to Italy, Hungary and Poland. One sees it, too, in France, the latest such manifestation and, because President Macron aspired to use his voice to defend multilateralism and strike back against nativism, one of the gravest.

The phenomenon of the gilets jaunes – leaderless, ideologically scattered, unmoored from any party or trade union – is of a piece with so much that has been happening, in Europe and elsewhere.

In a sense, the crisis Macron faces is the flip side of what enabled his ascent: having benefited from (and contributed to) the delegitimisation of traditional political parties and social mediators, he finds himself confronting the very popular mood that helped him rise to power but bereft of the necessary allies to effectively address it.

The tragedy for the EU, in sum, is to have reached the moment of its greatest utility just as it reached the moment of its grimmest crisis.

And still. Despite its internal challenges, and because of the external ones, there remains much the EU can and ought to do. In an era of growing geopolitical tensions and fading US reliability, Europe can serve as a political mediator of sorts: siding with Ukraine on fundamental questions of sovereignty, but encouraging dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv to avoid a dangerous escalation in the Sea of Azov or Ukraine’s east.

Striving to preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, while pressing Tehran to de-escalate regional tensions. Being clear about President Maduro’s responsibility in his country’s current crisis, yet also setting up an inclusive Contact Group that comprises governments friendly to Caracas.

Taking advantage of its ties to all stakeholders in Yemen, Iran and the Houthi rebels included, to fortify the ceasefire around the port city of Hodeidah and move toward a more comprehensive deal.

And, throughout, resisting the urge to look inwards, by continuing to provide critical humanitarian aid to civilians bearing the brunt of violence or displaced by crisis.

There are no indispensable nations, and the use of that term by Americans to describe their own country was always both unnecessarily pretentious and excessively patronising. But there are times when it is harder to dispense with some countries than at others. When it comes to the European Union and its member states, today is one such time. It’s a burden that, for all their flaws and faults, we should hope they shoulder.

Subscribe to our newsletters