Is Europe Still Relevant?

Is Europe Still Relevant?

The EU must build its hard capabilities and demonstrate stronger credibility if it wants to remain a global power.

The European Union (EU) began 2024 by introducing new measures to strengthen its economic security by reducing reliance on countries like China while protecting key sectors and emerging technologies. This suggests that Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, is sticking to her geopolitical commitments despite a last-minute appeal from Chinese Premier Li Qiang a week earlier at Davos. At first glance, the move appears to strengthen Brussels’ hand. Yet, events closer to home summon questions regarding the credibility of European geopolitics.  

On October 2, 2023, the subsea “Balticconnector” natural gas pipeline connecting Estonia and Finland was damaged. Evidence from the debris indicated the pipeline was ruptured externally —and, allegedly, on purpose—by a ship anchor dragged along the seabed. It soon transpired that a Hong Kong-registered container ship called Newnew Polar Bear, owned by Chinese company Hainan Xin Xin Yang Shipping, was in the area when the pipeline was damaged. The vessel was photographed shortly after the incident, entering the port of Arkhangelsk (in Russia) with its port-side anchor missing. The incident should have forced the European Union to assert its “strategic autonomy” against such a blatant provocation.  

Just a month prior, Von der Leyen proclaimed that the EU had already matured into a fully-fledged geopolitical union through its support for Ukraine and its stance toward an increasingly assertive China. In a run-up to the December 2023 EU-China Summit, the Balticconnector incident tested Brussels’ commitment to hold Beijing accountable for challenging European security. The incident lent credence to the argument that Beijing was not merely leaning on Moscow’s side but also providing direct economic and technical support to the Russian war effort. The EU’s response was nowhere to be seen, neglecting to support Estonia or Finland and leaving them to deal with Beijing alone. This development raises serious questions about the EU’s geopolitical outreach at the start of 2024. 

As the war in Ukraine grinds on, it is increasingly becoming a victim of the bitter domestic polarization in Europe and North America. In Europe, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban subjects the continent to his kleptocratic authoritarian whims. To combat this, the EU must revise its decision-making process and articulate a meaningful new vision for itself and others. 

Meanwhile, in the United States, lawmakers pandering to potentially incoming Trump administration are abandoning the very tenets of American foreign policy and sacrificing Washington’s global status. Back in Europe, policymakers are holding their breath in anxious anticipation of the impending “Trumpocalypse” and engaging in conversations regarding the future of the trans-Atlantic partnership.

These developments are music to the ears of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Despite the massive loss of Russian lives and military equipment, Russia appears to be winning the war of endurance with Ukraine through a combination of hybrid warfare, willing henchmen, and the fickleness of Western will. The latter should only embolden Jinping’s pursuit of his “China Dream,” which includes the elimination of internal dissent, homogenization of various ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups, the reunification of the recalcitrant province across the Strait, and the militarization of the South China Sea. 

What options does Europe have in the rapidly shifting currents of global politics? Brussels has few options without significantly overhauling its foreign and security policy approach. First, Europe’s strategic vision suffers from a misalignment of focus. Although it is necessary to consider various worst-case scenarios with Beijing and Washington,  problems in Europe’s own backyard should be the top priority. Lithuania is highly illustrative of this problem. In May 2021, it became the first Central and East European (CEE) country to withdraw from the China-CEE cooperation. This was primarily a result of Vilnius’ normative commitment to support “those fighting for freedom from Belarus to Taiwan.” Then, in November 2021, Lithuania opened a “Taiwanese” representative office, which led Beijing to withdraw its ambassador and impose sanctions on Lithuania. In July 2023, just a few days before the Vilnius summit of NATO, Lithuania launched its ambitious Indo-Pacific Strategy, reacting to “global geopolitical shifts that have a direct effect on our country and the EU.” However, in November 2023, Vilnius began normalizing its relations with China. Lithuania’s government has realized that even if national and European bureaucracies issue numerous strategy papers focusing on global issues in faraway regions like the Indo-Pacific, the primary focus of geopolitical Europe should be the continent’s immediate peripheries and nearby areas. However, Europe is paying even less attention than usual to its backyard. Whether it is the Baltic connector pipeline or the spreading crisis in the Middle East, the EU is nowhere to be seen. Such a lack of strategic engagement in its own neighborhood is both irresponsible and remarkably short-sighted.

There are two key takeaways from the Baltic Connector incident. Firstly, the EU’s identity as a self-declared normative power is outdated and no longer fits into the world of geopolitical turmoil and struggle. Secondly, the EU must acknowledge that it is not a global power but a continental one. Confronting this reality will inevitably require significant European discourse and strategy recalibration. 

While uncoupling from China remains a strategic priority for Europe, with complex implications regarding the openness of markets, it faces far more immediate threats closer to home. Europe’s North American and Indo-Pacific partners do not consider Russia or its invasion of Ukraine to be as significant as the perceived threat posed by China. Therefore, the EU must urgently focus on developing capabilities to defend the continent. Although it is a considerable challenge, such development is an excellent opportunity to consolidate the EU’s strategic autonomy.  

As demonstrated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the recalibration of the EU’s vision and strategy needs to focus on three central points. First, it needs to invest in innovation to assist the development of European economic resilience. Europe has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in an economically weakened state, and its condition is quickly deteriorating. Strategic autonomy is becoming meaningless as Europe’s dependence on digital technologies and other areas grows. At the same time, the competitiveness of its firms is hampered by high energy prices, labor shortages, insufficient innovation, and excessive regulatory burdens. These challenges are mainly self-inflicted and hinder Europe’s economic ability to thrive and compete globally.

Second, The EU needs to develop its own hard power capabilities. The era of trade-centric focus and economic power, which once allowed Europe to exert its regulatory norms, is now giving way to an era of hard and sharp power. EU member states with significant defense capacities, such as France, Germany, and Italy, have yet to consider rearming and expanding their military-industrial capacities, creating a substantial strategic liability. On the other hand, some Eastern European countries, such as Poland and the Baltic nations, have already taken steps to strengthen their military capabilities. More comprehensive and increased joint efforts at the operational and strategic levels are needed to address these security concerns.

Third, and perhaps paradoxically, the EU can become a credible global and Indo-Pacific actor only by demonstrating its capacity to defend its strategic periphery. The Balticconnector incident amplifies the EU’s lack of willingness and overall ability to protect its strategic backyard in the face of war and severe attacks on critical energy and communication infrastructure. To secure a “stronger role for Europe in the world,” the EU must assert its capacity and credibility in its strategic backyard. Without decisive action, the EU risks becoming flotsam in the turbulent waters of global geopolitics.

Dr. Maximilian Mayer is a Professor of International Relations and Global Politics of Technology at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Emilian Kavalski is a Bulgarian-Australian political scientist and international relations scholar. He is the inaugural NAWA Chair Professor at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and Book Series Editor of Routledge’s Rethinking Asia and International Relations series.