26th Feb 2021


Saving Europe from corona's nasty geopolitics

Four months into the corona crisis and one month into the nerve-racking spectacle of social and economic shutdown, it becomes clear that the big geopolitical loser of the pandemic is likely going to be Europe.

The reason for this is not primarily the poor performance of EU countries in using integrated EU tools to fight the virus and its economic impact - although that plays an important role as well.

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  • All efforts to turn the EU into a foreign policy power comparable to the global trade power it is have failed. The reason is simple: a lack of genuine ambition (Photo: German Marshall Fund)

The main reason is that Europe could end up being too broke to still be resilient, let alone be a shaper of foreign policy outcomes on its own continent, let alone the world.

Even before coronavirus became a temporary global superpower, Europe was a depleted force. It was a tremendously rich part of the planet, a huge integrated market with comparatively stable domestic politics, a notable industrial base, fairly decent domestic governance and, by international standards, high levels of social trust and peace.

But at least for two decades, if not longer, none of this greatness has translated anymore into foreign policy acumen.

In the big questions of international diplomacy and governance, Europe was a bystander or a helping hand, not a mover and shaker.

It remains unable to guarantee its own security or the larger system of rules on which its economic welfare rests. It was, and is, in other words, a largely derived power, i.e. derived from Washington.

All efforts to turn the EU into a foreign policy power comparable to the global trade power it is have failed. The reason is simple: a lack of genuine ambition and seriousness on behalf of the EU member states.

After 2008, Europe had to stretch its fiscal and monetary capacities to to weather the various debt, productivity, credit, and banking crises that followed the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

Then, a US pivot to Asia and its subsequent turn towards fickle populism weakened Europe's most important stabiliser, the bond with Washington.

Today, the geopolitical experiment called Europe hits the coronavirus and will be forced to spend its last savings on getting out of the crisis without leaving millions impoverished and its political wiggle room gravely diminished.

In this battle over economic and domestic basics, foreign policy basics run the risk of getting sacrificed. And as foreign policy resilience dwindles, Europe becomes ripe for the picking.

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What if European governments become so hard-pressed for money, that moderately sized investments by interested external powers could turn the tide?

For several years, I have been saying that the moment when Pax Americana actually ends in Europe will be marked by European governments choosing to call Beijing and Moscow first instead of Washington when consulting on foreign policy.

What if corona has hastened that moment to arrive, just because EU governments can no longer afford to resist the siren songs from Moscow and Beijing?

Already, the EU commissioner for competition, Margarethe Vestager, has warned that China could get on a big corona-induced shopping spree, buying out hundreds of cash-strapped European companies.

The UK's intelligence services, MI5 and MI6, have urged the government to be more restrictive on Chinese investments and acquisitions of key players in crucial industries.

At the same time, two German defence analysts have warned that European "bonsai armies" cannot afford to be further pruned and shrunk in the wake of the corona-crisis without notably increasing hard security risks across the continent.

True, China is not omnipotent, and Russia certainly is not. But in geopolitics, it's not just about resources, but about how to prioritise their usage in times of scarcity.

China and Russia put a premium on systematically expanding their geopolitical reach and their influence on governments across the globe. Europe is high on their list because it is the crown jewel of Pax Americana and because it is an important market.

Meanwhile, Europe has not put a premium on gaining geopolitical influence in at least a generation.

It is only natural when pundits and politicians, faced with an existential crisis, focus on economic reconstruction and fixing the burning social questions the virus creates in their societies.

Many of them have cried out loud for a Marshall Plan to rebuild a continent riddled with debt, weakened industries, dramatically increased unemployment and wobbly banks.

But they need to remember that the Marshall Plan had three components when it was implemented in Europe after World War II: first, a financial subsidy from the US to enable investment; second, a strong emphasis on cooperation between the former European enemies; and third, a geopolitical element focused on strengthening the devastated continent against external aggression.

Whatever European leaders will do to get their countries back on their feet, they need to keep that third element in mind.

Significant money needs to be earmarked to buy Europe back into the geopolitical game in its immediate neighbourhood. But not just the periphery is at risk. The centre has softened too. And this is what makes this meltdown so dangerous.

German Plan?

Any "Marshall Plan" devised to address the issue will have to have geopolitics programmed into it.

This will entail money to immunise governments (and key companies) against the temptations of Chinese and Russian investments. And it will entail money to prop up countries that Europe cannot afford to let slip into someone else's sphere of influence and to strengthen Europe's own hard security.

What makes it even harder this time around is that, unlike in 1947, the bulk of the money will not come from a benevolent power across the Atlantic.

This time, the Europeans will have to finance their own Marshall Plan if they do not want a less friendly power to do it for them.

As on so many crucial European issues, this puts Germany at the centre of the challenge. Germany needs to start thinking about Europe not just in terms of a frivolous cost, but in terms of its own geopolitical destiny.

If Europe wants to avoid being the geopolitical loser of the coronavirus, its elites need to understand that their freedom is at risk not just at home but also abroad.

And Berlin needs to understand that a Europe-financed reconstruction will come via Germany, the only European country with enough reserves to marshal such a plan.

Author bio

Jan Techau is a senior fellow and director of the Europe Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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