German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken over the rotating presidency of the EU Council. Photo: AFP / Kazuhiro Nogi

Germany assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union this month. Amid increasing demands for an economic rescue package and the need for reinvigorating the spirit of European solidarity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the stage on July 8.

Her address acquires special significance for two reasons mainly. First, the European leaders are compelled to come to the forefront after the pandemic generated crippling crises in the continent. Second, an assertive Germany needs to make its mark in the EU after Brexit.

Although Merkel did talk about dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, her speech was devoid of any clear-cut commitments from her country. Full of rhetoric on solidarity, cooperation and regional integration, she fell short of healing the wounds of the people.

Her emphasis was on committing the EU to fundamental rights, climate change, and digitization, especially artificial intelligence. She charted a new path for developing relations with the EU’s neighbors, Russia, conflict-ridden Middle Eastern countries and North Africa.

She made a case for developing a strategic partnership with China. There was no mention of the US in her address. She tried to infuse a spirit of self-sufficiency in the EU member states regarding the security of the continent. Europe should build its own army instead of relying on Washington, such were her views. 

Quest for strategic autonomy, what for?

For quite some time, Europe has been facing crisis after crisis. The eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, Brexit, the rising tide of populism, and the increasing outcries of Euroskeptics are a few such calamities. These unfortunate developments exposed the ailments that Europe had long been nurturing. They are indigenous in nature but they have an external dimension as well.

Alongside European tragedies, the global stage witnessed chaos and disruption in the internal order. With the onset of Donald Trump’s presidency of the US, Capitol Hill began to echo with protectionism and calls for a retreat from multilateralism.

Already off the balance because of internal strife, Europe’s bastion of strength began to erode quickly. Trump’s chatter of punishing China soon turned out to be a trade war. Beijing-Washington strategic rivalry and China’s “economic diplomacy” split an ailing Europe. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) exposed the fault lines further.

Greece, Italy and Portugal welcomed the initiative. The French and Germans also offered a negotiable position with a cautious approach. Berlin and Paris, along with Spain and other Western European countries, did not participate in the project officially but their position still lacks clarity.

According to Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the EU’s approach toward China’s economic diplomacy is mostly pragmatic. “Instead of rejecting China’s ambitious international development initiatives as such,” he argued, “the European Union is seeking to shape China’s strategy and provide credible narratives.”

While America’s strategic partners in Europe tried to cajole an insolent Trump, many of them were trying to make a case for a strategic partnership with China. Germany and France have been vocal advocates of forging constructive relations with Beijing.

While this was going on, the pandemic hit the world and brought it to a standstill. Jolting Europe like never before, the pandemic brought the realization that cooperation is the only way to move ahead.

Now when the two global giants, Beijing and Washington, have locked horns, a divided Europe is trying to make both ends meet. In this milieu, the bid for “strategic autonomy”  is a ploy for putting itself in a better bargaining position.  

Europe’s ideology-vs-economy dilemma

In an enlightening Web talk hosted by the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI), the director of the Elcano Royal Institute, Charles Powell, said that recovering economy to the pre-pandemic point is the EU’s first priority. In a strictly prioritized situation like this, strategic autonomy is the best choice to navigate both the US-China strategic rivalry and the crises that the pandemic has generated in the European continent.       

This strategic autonomy could work for Europe’s larger interests if it stands united. Europe’s internal division is one of the biggest hurdles in this way.

However, the charms of geo-economics are not easy to refuse especially when the US is busy with its own affairs. The US challenges the liberal norms that it used to build into the international architecture. Its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and World Health Organization (WHO) and its diminishing role as a global actor are not developments that Europe can come to terms with easily.

With the US, as of now, Europe’s dilemma can be described in terms of ideology versus economy.  

On the one hand, Washington is on the retreat from liberal norms and, on the other hand, nurturing deep ties with Beijing questions some of the very normative basis of the European spirit. Recent legislation on Hong Kong, the Taiwan issue, China’s communist ideology and authoritarian regimes put Europe in a Catch-22 situation.

With Beijing, Europe’s conundrum can also be aptly summed up as economy versus ideology. 

This is the trickiest puzzle for EU policymakers, but Europe must first decide how to put its house in order. A divided Europe cannot practice strategic autonomy.

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Ume Farwa

Ume Farwa is a research fellow at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.