How European sovereignty can survive Joe Biden

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

File photo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) receives US Vice President Joe Biden at the Federal Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 1 February 2013. [Maurizio Gambarini/EPA/EFE]

Europeans need to use the fillip to transatlantic relations brought by Joe Biden’s election win to become the kind of capable partner Biden’s America will want and need, writes Jeremy Shapiro.

Jeremy Shapiro is Research Director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The transatlantic relationship feels a lot healthier than it did just a month ago.

Europeans can be forgiven for the temptation to respond to Donald Trump’s rejection and ejection from the White House with a return to their comfortable, old ways – to include a lack of exercises, poor defence spending habits, and a co-dependent relationship with the United States.

European leaders and analysts are now asking whether the idea of a Europe that can act independently on the world stage can survive the good times of a Biden administration.

For both European and American sakes, it must. A recurrence of Trumpism remains possible as that malignancy has clearly metastasized into the American body politic, while the world has become ever more dangerous to the health of democracies.

For the sake of the alliance’s long-term fitness, Europeans need to use the alliance’s perhaps temporary respite to become the kind of capable partner Biden’s America will want and need.

The tumultuous events of the last several years – the inexorable rise of China, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the loss of the United Kingdom from the EU, the election of Trump, the chaos of the migration crisis, and the disruption of a global pandemic – have taught Europeans some hard lessons.

The benign view of globalisation in which a rising tide of economic liberalism and international law might lift all boats has disappeared. It has given way to a clear sense that states will use every connection in an interdependent world to compete for power. China uses investments and infrastructure to exert influence in Europe’s neighbourhood; Russia uses energy and disinformation to coerce Europe’s neighbours; Turkey uses the threat of migration flows to extort concessions from the EU; and even the United States uses its special place in the international financial system to impose secondary sanctions on European companies.

To manage in this competitive world, the EU and its member states need a broad-based effort to recover their strategic sovereignty. The goal of that effort is not to walk away from a rules-based order but to deter other players from undermining it. It aims to equip Europeans with the tools they need to bargain effectively within an interdependent system, to take countermeasures against spoilers of the international system, and to make their own decisions in a more competitive geopolitical environment.

Polling consistently shows that large numbers of EU citizens want an EU that has this power and that can control its external borders, promote more resilient supply chains, and act decisively on climate change. And Europe’s American partners need it too. In a an ever more self-interested America, Europe has become dependent on the US to a degree that is politically unsustainable in American politics. For President Biden to make the case for transatlantic relationship requires a Europe that is stronger and more self-reliant.

The effort to build Europe’s own capacity to act made a good start in the last four years. But under the rubric of strategic autonomy, it has often focused on reducing European dependence on the US security guarantee. This effort is important, but it risks an excessive focus on both the United States and the security sphere. Strategic sovereignty today transcends the military sphere and no longer follows the geographical lines of a traditional map. Today’s geopolitical struggles reach into every area of modern life – through Europe’s data streams, its borders, its supply chains, its climate, and even its respiratory tracts. Europe requires a multifaceted response that looks beyond defence policy and focuses on the effect these issues create in Europe, whatever their geographic origin.

Five areas – health, economics, digital, security, and climate – stand out as the principal cross-national threats to European strategic sovereignty. In each of these areas, the EU remains dangerously dependent on others. Even beyond its lack of capacity on security, EU’s vulnerable supply chains threaten its ability to protect and nurture its health system; its dependence on foreign tech giants threatens its ability to protect European data; and its dependence on foreign sources of energy threatens its ability to build a responsible climate policy.

In each of these five areas, other powers are seeking to restrict Europe’s ability to promote and protect its own values, even within Europe. A recent ECFR study presents agendas for action in all five areas – ranging from building European tech champions to creating a European caucus in NATO to globalising the European Green Deal. It further proposes institutional adaptions that the EU and its member states can make to implement these broad agendas.

This is not a counsel of isolationism. Europe needs openness and effective international cooperation, particularly with Biden’s America, to tackle any of these problems. But simultaneously it must compete for scarce resources and key technologies with other powers. This paradox means that to preserve international institutions and to maintain an open market, Europe needs to be internally strong and unified, seek to avoid excessive reliance on any one partner, and use the power that comes from the dependencies that others have on the vast European market and its impressive regulatory apparatus.

Strategic sovereignty is the only route to both greater independence and more effective cooperation on the issues that will matter to Europeans.

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