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19th Aug 2022

Column

A 'geopolitical' EU Commission. Great idea - but when?

Shared challenges are supposed to give countries a powerful impetus to cooperate.

In recent years it has often been argued that the increasing uncertainty 'surrounding' Europe would lead to better cooperation 'within' Europe.

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  • Jonathan Holslag: 'Rather than working on a truly autonomous European course, most European countries are simply, desperately, waiting for a new Democratic president in November'

And the corona pandemic should accelerate that process. A "geopolitical Europe", in Ursula von der Leyen's famous words. Finally!

Unfortunately, and I honestly mean that, there is little to it. European leaders like to use the weighty language of geopolitics - but ultimately continue to stare doubtfully at the changing world.

The EU institutions are certainly not helping. Everyone talks about geopolitics, but apart from vague references to the need for a robust partnership with China, investing in international organisations, and support for Africa, they do not deliver.

The EU foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, continues to talk a good game in his speeches and proclamations. The Spanish diplomat emphasises the importance of cooperation between member states, of a less 'naive' Europe - but never says how we should get there.

In this respect, there is hardly any differences with the previous Jean-Claude Juncker commission.

And when we look at specific geopolitical issues, there is hardly any progress either. The great powers China and the US continue to provoke divergent attitudes.

Eastern European member states salivate about Donald Trump, while his name alone makes the German chancellor Angela Merkel shiver. Berlin continues to defend the importance of the Nato alliance, while it was declared "brain dead" by French president Emmanuel Macron.

Rather than working on a truly autonomous European course, most European countries are simply, desperately, waiting for a new Democratic president in November.

There is hardly any cohesion with respect to China either.

Do 'something' - but what?

Most member states are aware of the risks and accept that "something" needs to be done on Beijing - but, again, not about what exactly needs to be done.

Measures on paper, such as screening investment, remain modest in practice. Hungary and Greece, meanwhile, have never stopped courting Beijing.

The German EU presidency, meanwhile, cannot be praised for consistency on the issue. One day a German diplomat states that the partnership is indispensable and must be expanded. The next day, a German ambassador states that China is turning away from Europe.

Russia and Turkey both continue to divide Europe too.

Poland is playing hard against Russia, mainly supported by the Baltic states. Again, Germany remains indecisive.

Berlin fulminated against the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny, but remains committed to the new pipeline to Russia, Nord Stream 2. That is making the Poles furious. France, here, is aiming for a rapid rapprochement.

On the other hand, France is taking a tough stance on Turkey, on the side of Greece - while the Germans are slamming on the brakes and (indirectly) criticising Paris' military exercises in the Mediterranean.

The Balkans, where both Russia and Turkey are becoming more active? Very little European decisiveness.

Africa, then. Just about every European leader has underlined Africa's geopolitical importance in recent years. But in the tricky files the collaboration appears to be limited.

In Libya, France and Italy seem to be moving closer to each other's positions, but it remains to be seen whether the two will actually cooperate.

In the Sahel, Macron continues to beg for European support, but the Germans are procrastinating on sending combat troops. Smaller member states may want to help - but are hardly able to do so.

If in 2008 the EU managed to take up the fight against piracy in the Gulf of Aden, it is no longer possible in the Gulf of Guinea today. In the rest of Africa there are scattered small European security operations, but coordination remains limited.

What about initiatives to preserve European military power, such as the European Defence Fund and the so-called permanent structured cooperation, Pesco?

Both projects are aimed at closing a modern weapons' backlog in Europe, and show the will of the EU Commission to do something about it. A positive step, certainly, but the fund, which was already very small, has been cut back again.

Those who care about the future of Europe had better stop pretending that we are either geopolitically mature or united. Behind the facade of European cooperation, national self-interest still predominates and that has never been any different.

But if the EU initially represented around 20 percent of global military expenditure, today it is barely 10 percent.

The division remains, while European power wanes. Safeguarding Europe's position starts with recognising that unpleasant reality.

Author bio

Jonathan Holslag teaches international politics at the Free University of Brussels.

Disclaimer

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

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