Brussels does not need new friends, but better ones

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Robert Arenella
Robert Arenella

Communications Assistant at Friends of Europe

As the EU moves to assert itself more on the international stage and distance itself from Donald Trump and his erratic foreign policy, many in the EU have begun to see illiberal actors like Russia and China as potential 21st century partners.

The EU should cautiously engage with these powers. However, it can increase its impact with more ease by attempting to revise the mutually beneficial relationship it enjoys with the US while expanding its own security capabilities, chiefly through enhanced security cooperation through implementation of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

The West has long slept well in the knowledge that the US was without rival in its economic prowess and military reach. Europe, with its shared history with the US and shared leadership in international organisations like NATO, was among the chief beneficiaries.

However, in recent years, this relationship has been strained as the two have disagreed on issues ranging from the mundane – like budgetary contributions to NATO – to the essential – such as the appropriate use of military intervention and multilateral climate action.

The West has long slept well in the knowledge that the US was without rival in its economic prowess and military reach 

Expert attempts to expand the EU’s list of strategic allies beyond the US can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the world is becoming more confusing once again.

For a period after the Soviet Union imploded, the West was confident in its worldview, having gone toe-to-toe with Communism in a century-long war of attrition. This optimism inspired academics such as Francis Fukuyama and John Mearsheimer to declare an “End of History” and predict that the pillars of the transatlantic relationship would quickly become obsolete.

These assessments had salience in the early 2000s, as the only real challenge to the Western-led international order came from the disintegration of failing states no longer guaranteed stability through their fealty to either Cold War superpower. The US was often looked to for policing operations and relished the opportunity to promote democracy abroad, often with its European allies in tow. But this paradigm is now changing.

In Washington, security threats like terrorism and Russia are becoming less pressing as many view China as a Thucydidean opponent. This perception of Beijing as a hegemonic threat has led key military assets and diplomatic concerns to be redirected to the East. No longer terrifyingly – yet conveniently – located between two nuclear behemoths, Europe has begun to feel it has been left out to dry.

But the US still maintains several military bases throughout the EU and is an active leader in NATO. The two maintain close business ties that not only see heavy investment crossing the pond but would constitute, by far, the world’s largest free trade zone if an agreement could be reached.

Despite this relationship, some pragmatic proponents in Brussels suggest that the increasingly competitive international arena may call for the EU to pair up with the Russian Federation to present a ‘European challenger’. While there may be anxiety about American influence in European affairs, the assertion that Russia and the EU can be friendly at this point is dubious.

Although the US may at the moment appear to be an erratic, ideologically opposed partner with other priorities, it is still the best alternative. Thawing ties with Russia would mean ignoring the past decade of hostilities.

In more recent times alone, Russian intelligence has purportedly engaged in widespread disinformation campaigns which may have brought us Donald Trump and his toxic influence on Atlanticism, the deployment of nerve agents in Salisbury, and the state is implicated in human rights abuses carried out against Chechnya’s LGBTI community. Furthermore, Russia and its ‘little green men’ have violated Ukraine’s sovereignty: an action that led NATO states to reconfirm their commitment to the collective and pledge to increase their financial contributions at a 2014 conference in Wales.

There is no need to compromise European values by embracing Putin or Xi when focusing inward can help the EU flourish

China may seem to be a more attractive partner as it is prepared to invest heavily in Europe, but there remain concerns: Xi Jinping’s autocratic leadership; alleged unfair trade practices and the marriage between Chinese enterprises and intelligence agencies; as well as the numerous allegations of human rights violations against the Tibetans and Uighurs which stand in stark contrast with Europe’s professed values.

The EU does not need new friends. It needs to deepen the friendships it already has.

In addition, the EU should continue to do what it does, but do it better. One option may be to work towards a more-integrated European armed forces. Long blocked by an America that wished to retain its strategic freedom during the Cold War, Europeans should seize on American preoccupation elsewhere and takes steps toward realising Eisenhower’s idea of a ‘European Defence Force’ via PESCO.

Progress on a united European armed forces would allow for much needed modernisation of Europe’s military assets, foster even greater cooperation within the EU, and inspire public confidence in Southern and Eastern states that have turned toward populism and are concerned with security. Additionally, this would lessen European dependency on the US, a discrepancy that has generated tension within NATO over burden-sharing – all while recasting itself as an ally capable of guarding the Western flank.

Either by impeachment or time, Donald Trump will eventually leave 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the transatlantic alliance will endure. There is no need to compromise European values by embracing Putin or Xi when focusing inward can help the EU flourish. A more robust EU with a formidable military would shift the transatlantic relationship from one of patronage to one of partnership.

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