No, the European Union Shouldn’t Try to Become a New Superpower

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen speaks of the EU’s ambitions to project itself as a superpower on the global stage. But recent crises show that the last thing we need is the European Union expanding its mandate.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen (via live video transmission) on July 2, 2020 in Berlin, Germany. Christian Marquardt — Pool / Getty

The European Union did not grow from the grassroots. Its “informal mechanisms of power” (as Pierre Bourdieu might have put it) and the hierarchy that resulted from them have always been a decisive factor for integration. Talk of the “Franco-German engine” driving the Union merely paraphrases the reality that these two states’ partnership was for a long time a “hegemonic center of power” in the EU.

On the one hand, the Franco-German couple was always at the top of the hierarchy of the European integration project. While France was the leading partner up until German reunification in 1990, since the end of the Cold War, this power balance has shifted. And during the post-2008 financial crisis and the connected Eurozone crisis, the relationship had been completely reversed. French president Emmanuel Macron is now trying to bring his country at least back up to par — as he states openly, “I have chosen a path that will restore France’s place among the nations of Europe.”

Such ambitions inform Macron’s call for a Eurozone budget with a euro finance minister, his harsh criticism of the Germans’ mad bid for a “world championship” in current account surpluses, and France’s recent entry into the alliance of Southern states in favor of coronabonds. He thus seeks to compensate for France’s economic problems with the help of “Europe” — that is, a mainly rhetorical drive to “Make France great again!” on the international stage.

This is evident in Macron’s foreign policy even beyond the EU, as he tries to play to French strengths such as its nuclear status and its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. The same is true when he declares NATO “brain-dead” or when he assigns co-responsibility to the West for the tensions with Moscow and pleads for a new policy of détente. Also controversial, from Berlin’s perspective, are Macron’s proposals on digital taxes for US corporations, his proposals on China policy, and his resistance to EU expansion in the Western Balkans.

More recently, a further conflict has emerged between governing circles in France and Germany, this time regarding the Eastern Mediterranean. Against the backdrop of Greece and Turkey’s long-conflictual relations, a new territorial dispute has arisen over sea borders and the right to explore and exploit hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean. The legal situation is complex and cannot be painted in black and white. But France has taken a strong anti-Turkish line. Already in the Libyan conflict, France supported General Khalifa Haftar of the Tobruk-based Libyan National Army in a common front with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, while Berlin and Brussels are instead in the camp of the UN-installed provisional government in Tripoli. This latter survives only thanks to massive military support from Turkey.

When Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently built up a military challenge to Greece and Cyprus, Macron sent French warships, signaling that France is the protector of Greece and Cyprus and of the external borders of the EU. This is also self-interested, as French firm Elf wants a stake in exploring these same fields. The German government, however, is posing as a “mediator” between Greece/Cyprus and Turkey. By this it seeks to prevent an armed conflict between NATO members and, of course, keep the EU-Turkey deal on refugees going.

A decisive new prong of French attempts to deploy an independent foreign policy — also to strengthen its position vis-à-vis Germany — is Macron’s use of the dramatic crisis in Lebanon and the close French-Lebanese ties dating to the colonial past. Lebanon was a so-called protectorate of France after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Macron has visited the country twice since the terrible explosion in Beirut’s harbor. Seeking to press for internal political reforms and threatening to withhold international assistance for Lebanon if these do not emerge, he is working to reassert France’s power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

EU “Geopolitics” in Distress

The EU’s foreign policy splits are also apparent in its discussions on Belarus, Russia, and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline planned to run from northwestern Russia into Germany.

After the alleged poisoning of Russian (right-wing, neoliberal) oppositionist Alexei Navalny, some Eastern European member states called for tough sanctions against Russia, and also against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Minsk.

However, both Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel have long tried to keep Lukashenko on board, as a “mediator” between the EU’s ambitions in the Ukrainian conflict and Vladimir Putin’s own. The EU lifted sanctions against Belarus some years ago, thus hoping to drive a wedge between Minsk and Moscow — and in this enjoying a certain success. There were increasing quarrels over economic issues, and Lukashenko started a see-saw policy between Russia and the EU.

Furthermore, despite much criticism from the European Commission and a range of EU governments, the German chancellor stuck to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is nearly finished. Yet earlier this month, Merkel indicated that the German government could change its mind on the pipeline — thus putting pressure on Putin to clarify the Navalny case.

Beyond Eastern Europe, the EU is unable to agree on a common position toward Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid to make Jerusalem the capital of the Israeli state (a turn first welcomed by Alexis Tsipras’s government in 2015, long before Donald Trump) and to annex most parts of the (Palestinian) West Bank. The recent military coup in Mali was also a heavy blow to the joint Franco-German military intervention there (assisted by some African countries) aimed at stabilizing Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta’s corrupt regime.

Faced with all these disputes, the “geo-strategic” European Commission proudly announced by its president Ursula von der Leyen — propagating the EU’s newly discovered “lust for power” — today lies in ruins. In reality, the Commission is not decisive in this — for it is the national governments of the EU’s member states that set its line (if they can agree on a foreign policy strategy at all). And it has become very obvious that on the question of proceeding to achieve “strategic sovereignty” for the Union — a power autonomous of the United States, Russia, and China — the current EU is “dis-united in diversity.”

Not to be misunderstood: détente with Russia or China is fine in our view. But this goal shouldn’t be sought by means of the EU itself striving for the status of military and economic superpower.

Leadership Weakness in the Center

With the pandemic intensifying Germany’s economic supremacy, the political conflict within the EU is stepping up a notch — and it seems that the days of the undisputed Franco-German condominium are now over. Even before the summit, the duo failed to fill the Eurogroup chairmanship with Spain’s Nadia Calviño. Instead, an alliance of Dutch, Scandinavians, Austrians, and Baltic states pushed through Ireland’s Paschal Donohoe, a Fine Gael man and a staunch defender of Ireland’s low-tax regime.

At the July summit, it emerged that the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Austria, and Finland had formed a pact, a subcenter of power with enormous potential to blockade proceedings. The party-political mixture of this alliance is also remarkable. While the three Nordic countries are led by social democrats, the governments in the Hague and Vienna are led by right-wing liberal or conservative parties (in the Austrian case, conservatives in coalition with Greens).

This is where the first consequences of Brexit become apparent. London was always the front man for that camp, reticent about further transfers of sovereignty to Brussels, while also pushing for more deregulation and liberalization of the Single Market. Other similarly minded states could long hide their own objections behind the UK’s (under various governments — from Margaret Thatcher to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron). But now they had to show their true colors.

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, for example, declared before the pandemic that “after Brexit, the Netherlands would play a leading role” in opposing “more Europe.” He had underlined this in a speech to the EU Parliament in 2018, commenting, “More and more Europe is not the answer to the many problems people have in their daily lives. For some people the ‘ever closer union’ is still a goal in itself. Not for me.”

This attitude is not only Rutte’s personal view. One should remember that, already in 2005, a Dutch referendum rejected (like France before it) the draft EU constitutional treaty. In another referendum, Danes voted against joining the euro, while Sweden did not even consider giving up its krona. The middling and smaller countries in the North are hostile to integration toward a federal state. They know that they would lose much more through further transfers of sovereignty than the big countries, which — thanks to their economic potential and the size of their population — could still assert their interests more easily.

The new subcenter is not a temporary phenomenon but an expression of tectonic shifts that will permanently shape the EU’s further development.

Indeed, moralizing references to the “Stingy Five” hide the fact that this conflict is not just about money. The underlying reason for it is, ultimately, a different idea of the future of integration than the supporters of “More Europe!” have. Moral judgments, especially those blinkered by Eurocentrism, only cloud a more realistic perception on the relationship between nation states.

For when it comes to real solidarity, the Southern countries are no better — as shown, for instance, by spending on development aid. According to OECD figures, Denmark exactly meets the UN’s target of devoting 0.7 percent of GDP to such aid, Sweden exceeds it outright (1 percent), and even the Netherlands spends 0.6 percent. Meanwhile, Italy and Spain offer only 0.2 percent of GDP in solidarity with the poor countries of the Global South.

East-West Conflict

Another subcenter of power has also long existed: the Visegrád Group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia). Although the Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán was the focus of attention at the summit, the group sticks together when it comes to demanding more money from EU funds.

In particular, these states are sealing themselves off from accepting refugees and migration, and also from Brussels’ guidelines on the rule of law and democracy — denouncing them as an encroachment on their national sovereignty. Indeed, the attempt to use the crisis as a lever to “make an example” of Hungary has failed: the compromise in the Council’s final declaration means postponing the issue, keeping it in limbo. As Council president Charles Michel said, “There is still no complete clarity on the procedure.” Presumably, the conflict will break out again at the next opportunity. Orbán is already threatening that Hungary will not ratify the July Council agreement on the Recovery Program, if it comes with conditionalities regarding the rule of law.

This eastern subcenter of power isn’t going to disappear soon, either — rather, it is likely to become even more solidified as the conflicts escalate.

The Basic Problem: Imperial Overstretch

In addition to the long-standing fragmentation — such as between the Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries, NATO members and non-members, Schengen area and non-Schengen states — these North-South and East-West divisions will increasingly leave their mark on the EU’s further development.

The coronavirus pandemic shows once again that the EU structures and procedures, designed for fair-weather conditions in the 1990s and 2000s, are not up to the scale and complexity of the crises faced today. Pre-pandemic problems have not simply disappeared. These include an increasingly probable hard Brexit, the conflicts with the United States, the Cold War with China and Russia, the refugee crisis and migration, the defects of the euro, and, of course, climate change.

The overall picture is taking on more and more of the features that we know from the decline of empires past. Due to overstretching and the resulting heterogeneity, the EU is visibly losing its ability of control and management. Its vulnerability to external shocks and internal conflicts is increasing.

Of course, unlike classical empires, the current EU came about as a voluntary association. In making major decisions regarding the EU’s future, it operates by way of a hybrid combination of “supranational” EU  structures and intergovernmentalism. And since the Maastricht Treaty signed in 1992, it is a constitutionalized rules-based system (the neoliberal “iron cage”) concerning, for example, the Single Market, the Stability and Growth Pact, and the ever more restrictive euro-regime after 2010.

The growing weakness of the center, its incapacity to implement substantial reforms even in their own ruling classes’ interests, the growing self-confidence of the periphery, and the strengthening subcenters are intensifying the centrifugal forces in the EU — and deepening its further fragmentation.

The capacities of the current EU are perhaps just enough for crisis management. Indeed, somehow muddling through is the only means to secure its very survival. But it’s on a course that is sloping ever further downhill.