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Europe searches for a new role in the global order

22 Mar 2021

Europe searches for a new role in the global order

22 Mar 2021

The arrival of a new American administration typically precipitates a bout of reflection across the global stage. States and blocks start repositioning themselves and reassessing their strategic priorities and how a new Presidency may or may not affect how these goals are achieved.

In 2016, this process took place in the deep fog of Trump popularism, with even the US’s closest allies pondering what the New York billionaire would embark upon. Would Trump carry out his more outlandish campaign promises or tack more to a traditional Republican Presidency? What exactly would America first mean in practice?

The Trump Presidency was like no other. The Biden Presidency looks far more like returning to something approaching a traditional US administration, working with allies within a multilateral framework along lines other parties understand if not always agree with.

But where does this leave the European Union, the UK, and other non-EU states? Nearly all European states had a bumpy time in the Trump era. The Transatlantic Alliance’s future was under threat, and there were major disagreements on climate change, trade, NATO, Iran, among other issues. Trump openly favored Brexit and did little to assuage concerns about Russian intentions.

Trump also acted as an inspiration to far-right groups and populists across the continent. Increasingly countries like Hungary and Poland can barely be described as democracies, with an increasing lack of adherence to the rule of law and hardly any independent media left.

Europe was, therefore, in damage limitation mode for four years. No European country wanted to confront the United States directly, but few European leaders wanted to embrace the American President openly. The relations between Trump and Chancellor Merkel of Germany ranged between frosty and Arctic.

As many European politicians breathed sighs of relief after January 20, one has to wonder where Europe goes now. Yes, Biden will be an easier President to work with, but none of this should paper over significant challenges Europe and the EU faces.

Between Washington and Beijing

Are European nations genuinely adapting to the seismic shifts in global politics? A majority of Europeans believe China will be more powerful than the US within a decade, but how will the European leaders handle this and balance their needs to get closer to China. Many Europeans believe that Europe should stay neutral between Washington and Beijing, an attitude that should concern American leaders. If the US is no longer as reliable a security partner as it has been since 1945, then Europe needs to reconsider its collective security and plan accordingly.

Europe is also divided over Russia. Hardline states want a tougher approach to thwart Russian meddling in elections, cyber-attacks, and assassinations, let alone domestic repression. The Baltic and eastern European states are nervous about Russia’s designs. On the other hand, Germany strikes a softer tone, and despite US pressure, is pressing on ahead with the $11 billion Nord Stream-2 project.

President Trump was right to be concerned that this would make Europe’s major power, Germany, too dependent on Russia for its energy sources. The European Parliament even called for the pipeline to be stopped in response to prominent Putin critic Alexei Navalny’s poisoning.

The EU is the major bloc but with the UK now out and possible accession countries not advancing toward membership, enlargement has stalled. Given the tensions, is it impossible to imagine Britain not being the last country to leave the EU? The reality is the EU is struggling to deliver for its citizens and the mantra of an “ever closer union” is less appealing than it once was.

The pandemic has supercharged this debate. The UK has handled the pandemic poorly, with one of the highest death rates in the world. However, its vaccine strategy, including the development of vaccines and the rollout, has been effective. The same cannot be said of the EU. While Britain has given first doses to over 20 million of its population, EU states have lagged well behind, including France and Germany. Allowing Brussels to supervise the vaccines’ procurement has been disastrous, with EU bureaucracy at its pedestrian worst.

But also look at the divergent ways different powers in the EU have tried to handle the pandemic. Sweden attempted a herd immunity approach; few others even contemplated it. The much-vaunted EU unity was shattered for most Italians when last February, very little help arrived from EU partners to assist when it suffered the first major outbreak in Europe.

“This EU is totally in hiding, a scandalous absence, without the least amount of direction and health coordination,” said the governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia. “It appears to be a replica of the immigration saga.” [i] The Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa was even blunter, “Either the EU does what it has to do, or it will end.” [ii]

The richer northern powers

The North-South divide in the EU has been there from the outset. More prosperous northern powers shelled out for Greece to even enter the EU and had to do so again to bail out the Greek economy. Southern powers are furious that in 2015 when refugees tried to enter Europe in huge numbers, the Dublin agreement on asylum was shelved overnight with countries such as Hungary putting up barbed wire fences. Greece, Italy, and Spain found themselves left hosting thousands of refugees that states like France and Britain refused to assist.

A divided inward-looking Europe hardly bodes well for having a global role. These divisions are on display when dealing with its immediate neighborhood. At least, in the Mediterranean, it is hard to determine a clear strategy on any of the hotspots and critical conflict zones. EU policy in the Balkans is far from clear. Croatia was the last country to join the EU back in 2013, and other states have been progressing slowly. Serbia and North Macedonia are still waiting for accession talks 16 years after applying. Turkey started accession talks back in 2005, but now membership looks off the cards, not least with the increasingly authoritarian nature of President Erdogan’s rule.

The EU could pride itself in the past on having a reasonably consistent approach to Israel-Palestine with positions rooted in international law. After all, the EU anchored the global consensus around a two-state solution and the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to the occupied territories. For many years, a common position is routinely undermined largely by eastern EU powers such as Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Instead of an EU common policy on the issue, increasingly demarches to Israel, for example, include only western EU states.

It may be one area where the UK will play a role in concert with western European states even as it is now outside the EU. Yet Palestinians will ask where is the dynamism from the EU powers to carve out a meaningful role for the bloc to offset the US’s openly stated partisanship for Israel. Israel is engulfed in elections, but whoever is Prime Minister will to some extent continue the divide and rule approach to Europe, eroding any chance of a meaningful consensus.

Nobody wants to get involved in Syria. The crisis is firmly in the too tough to handle category, whereby most European politicians are just hoping the issue will go away. This is unlikely. The battle lines in Syria have more or less frozen for a year, but this is no frozen conflict. The fighting has not ceased, and if anything, when the pandemic recedes, it may flare up significantly.

Syria has already demonstrated a capacity to explode, sending its problems across the region and into Europe. It happened with ISIS, and it happened with refugees. ISIS is carefully rebuilding itself in eastern Syria and poses a serious threat. It will seek to exploit increasing Arab-Kurdish tensions in areas like Raqqa. The failure of the international community to help rebuild this city has damaged its credibility. The likelihood also is that European powers will be cutting aid to Syrian refugees weakening any residual European influence even further.

On the refugee front, President Erdogan of Turkey is highly likely to initiate another round of blackmail against the EU, threatening to open its borders and flood Europe with refugees once again unless he gets his way. It is cynical but effective. However, he has a point. Turkey alone hosts 3.5 million refugees, and European states, Germany and Sweden aside, have been reluctant to share the burden.

Libya is one hotspot where EU members’ competing ambitions play out in a way that does matter to Europe, particularly the southern European states who rely on Libyan hydrocarbons. Three European states have a leading interest in Libya – France, Germany, and Italy. Hitherto France has backed the forces under the control of Khalifa Haftar in the East. After Haftar’s advances on Tripoli were repelled and the advent of the latest political agreement, France is re-evaluating its options. Perhaps there is more chance than in the last few years of inching toward some common EU position. Europe needs to play a constructive role in Libya to heal and for the current fragile seeds of optimism in the political process to take root.

On Iran, European powers have demonstrated a degree of unity. If the aim is to get the US and Iran back to the negotiating table, the E3 of France, Germany, and the UK have a crucial role in persuading all sides to do this. None want to see war with Iran but, at the same time, share concerns about the country’s negative role in the Middle East. A failure to make an impact will only harden the views of those who believe that Europe may not have a future role.

European impotence has often been self-imposed, a reluctance to take a strong stand and use the considerable soft power tools at its disposal. But these tools are growing weaker as economic might and wealth shifts elsewhere.


Covid and the ‘frugal four’

The pandemic will only exacerbate these trends. The catastrophic economic impact of Covid-19 is probably worse than many expected, with the EU’s economy shrinking by 6.5 percent in 2020. [iii] The result will see massive budget constraints, including from the EU. The self-described ‘frugal four’ of Austria, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands will want to limit spending.

European leaders will want to protect their economies and be wary of adding to their mounting debts. If European powers had had one significant role, it was a leading donor globally in most humanitarian crises, including Syria, Libya, and Palestine. Will this be under threat? Britain has announced it will cut its overseas aid program from 0.7 percent of its GNI to 0.5 percent, including halving aid to Yemen, the country facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Italy is in the midst of its worst recession since the second world war, so it is hardly likely to be a key donor going forward.

Europe has had to grow accustomed to the reality of losing its status in the world. The US long ago overtook it on the economic front, and China is doing so now. Its share of the global GDP has shrunk. It also finds itself unsure of who its allies will be. Transatlantic relations will remain vital, but the Trump era showed this would not always be easy. Trump only just lost the election, and he or somebody pursuing a similar approach could help in future elections.

Bold and dynamic leadership will be required in a year when Chancellor Angela Merkel will be stepping down after nearly 16 years at the helm in Germany. She has held things together during some tough times, at times the de facto leader of the EU. The resulting uncertainty in Germany when she departs in September will be keenly felt across the continent.

But courageous decisions are required to keep the European project advancing. European leaders have to resolve their differences. Increasing antagonism between Brussels and London over Covid-19 vaccines and Northern Ireland must be sorted out. The EU and the UK need to work together for their interests.

Tough love with eastern European states is vital to ensure the EU does not fall apart and can continue to stand for the values of internationalism and democracy. There is a vital role for Europe in the global order, but questions are being asked about whether it wants to play it.


[i] EU divisions laid bare as bloc feuds over coronavirus rescue, Reuters, March 27, 2020,

[ii] EU divisions laid bare as bloc feuds over coronavirus rescue, Reuters, March 27, 2020,

[iii] Eurostat News Release, February 2, 2021,

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