"Geopolitical Europe's" first test is to bridge the China-US split

Frankly Speaking

Global Europe

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt sees a major improvement in EU-Russia relations as a vital step towards preventing China and the US from turning their economic rivalry into something far more dangerous.  

No one knows whether “Geopolitical Europe” will turn out to be another empty slogan. Perhaps Ursula von der Leyen’s new European Commission can succeed in giving the EU the global heft and weight it has never had, but that would require an unprecedented tour de force from Brussels.

The need for the European Union to react quickly and coherently to worldwide developments has never been greater. Fundamental shifts now under way are demanding answers from the EU that will be not merely uncomfortable but also highly divisive. That’s the price of being geopolitical.

Is Europe still firmly in the American camp, or have President Trump’s many slights to NATO as well as the EU disabused Europeans of their trust in the United States as an economic and security partner?

And what of Russia? ‘Strongman’ Putin’s latest president-for-life bid is making headlines, but in reality the Russian Federation is increasingly vulnerable to external pressures, especially those created by China’s rise.

Proponents of a warmer and more cooperative Euro-Russian relationship point to the threats common to both

The EU and Russia will both have to navigate uncharted waters because Sino-American rivalry looks set to be the dominant feature of future economic and political developments around the world.

Whether that will push Europe and Russia closer together is impossible to tell. The EU has to this day refused to define a policy setting out its relations with Russia, while the approach of Putin’s Russia to the EU has been far from constructive for 20 years.

This uneasy relationship with Cold War undertones has meant that Brussels and Moscow pay no more than lip service to the notion of a “Greater Europe”. Proponents of a warmer and more cooperative Euro-Russian relationship point to the threats common to both; the list includes security challenges of Islamic militancy, shrinking populations and ageing, and growing technological vulnerability to Asian competitors.

So far, the idea of a problem shared being a problem halved has won scant support either in Russia or continental Europe. Mistrust has scuppered a number of attractive partnership ideas.

As the Sino-American schism deepens, how should Brussels and Moscow react?

Now, though, Brussels and Washington are waking to the idea of a world in which international relations will be distorted by antipathy between the US and the People’s Republic. Both are pondering the risks of the collateral damage they may suffer.

China’s inexorable rise and America’s progressive abandonment of its post-World War 2 multilateralism leave Europe and Russia with no clear paths to follow. As the Sino-American schism deepens, how should Brussels and Moscow react?

If Beijing and Washington are indeed setting out to create separate economic and security zones, their stand-off may spell the end of beneficial multilateral arrangements that have spanned three-quarters of a century.

The rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) have underpinned and encouraged the global free trade boom largely responsible for rising living standards and the reduction of poverty in developing countries. The United Nations and its institutions have their weaknesses, but they represent the international rule of law.

Upending our faith in the US seems almost unthinkable

The EU and Russia are understandably perplexed as to their best course. To avoid choosing sides they may find themselves condemned to some new form of collaboration – perhaps even friendship.

That might be much easier than choosing sides. Upending our faith in the US seems almost unthinkable. America, even that of Donald Trump, is the devil we know – flawed, but transparent and democratic. China, on the other hand, may be the future but it’s also inscrutable and undemocratic to the point of seeming eerily repressive.

The answer to this conundrum is to side with neither. “Geopolitical Europe”, hopefully backed by Russia, must exert pressure on China and the US to abandon the adventurism that is pushing them apart. Far from applauding the new US-China trade pact, Brussels, Moscow and the governments of other major trading nations should be insisting on the preservation of the WTO as a first step back from the brink.

Spurred by accelerating signs of climate change, surely this is the moment to build new multilateral bodies to police, tax and enforce measures that could save the planet.

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