Just as countries around the world are often uncertain whether they prefer to deal with a Europe that is fragmented or united, Hubert Védrine, France’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, notes that Europeans are themselves deeply divided over how to position themselves in today’s fast-changing world
Europe unified or Europe fragmented; which do our international partners prefer to deal with? In general, countries that expect something of Europe prefer a united Europe, because they think this unity makes the EU stronger and better-placed to help them. On the whole, these are countries that are unhappy with the current state of affairs in the world and feel disadvantaged, economically, politically or strategically, and see themselves as victims that are owed revenge, as often as not for real or imagined grievances dating back to their colonial past. In short, a hotchpotch of Arabs, Africans, some Latin Americans, China – what used to be the “south” – peoples and countries long drawn towards the EU by the French stance on a “powerful Europe” in a multipolar world. They see this powerful Europe acting as a counterbalance to an overly powerful United States, as an alternative to the UN Security Council that is very often paralysed and as a stabilising influence in the Near East and elsewhere. They recognise that a strong and independent Europe offers new options in a unipolar world that has been globalised since 1989 by American influences.
But these hopes of a European-led alternative to US hegemony have been dashed. The European leadership scenario was in any case ambiguous, given that some countries with past colonial ties to Europe have since become economically powerful, and have developed new interests they do not necessarily share with Europe. They are therefore more concerned with pursuing their own interests than with seeking Europe’s support. What they want instead from Europe is concessions, while in its turn Europe often seems tempted to try and protect itself economically against these countries now that they have become such formidable trade competitors. This has now become clear within the WTO, and involves competition in manufacturing as much as in agriculture. It is also reflected in the rapid growth of bilateral trade agreements that allow these countries to enjoy the fruits of their conversion to economic liberalism.
A more united Europe is also not automatically a Europe that is independent of the United States, nor is it necessarily a counterbalancing power. Many national governments in Europe, and a clear majority of countries in terms of national public opinions, seem reluctant to go down that road for reasons, including a spirit of Atlanticism.
Having said all this, hopes for a strong and united Europe are still alive and well in many parts of the world. Much of the international community, with the exception of Asia, which has other priorities, is deeply unhappy with the international or economic policies of the Bush administration. There are also a number of countries like Japan that do not have major political links with any of the European states, and so find it easier to go through Brussels rather than deal with each European capital separately.
But although they may claim otherwise, there are also countries that are quite content with a fragmented Europe. The United States has throughout the Union’s 50 year history encouraged its successive enlargements, whether by conviction or calculated self-interest, for they made Europe stronger vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The EU’s enlargement strategy also ensured that Europe remained in sync with NATO, and that in turn reduced the risk of a more “political” Europe.
Although Europe’s international partners of course have to talk to Brussels, whether it be with the European Commission or with Javier Solana as the High Representative for CSFP, where and when they can they also take advantage, of the diverging positions of Britain, Germany, France or other member states by playing one off against the other. This of course applies to the United States, but also to Russia, China, Israel and others, who know this game well. They are not actually against a more united Europe, provided that the EU’s ever-closer union consists of no hostile or inconvenient elements for them. African states would often like Europe to toe the French line, while China would be delighted with a Europe unified along the sort of axis that existed between Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder when he was Chancellor of Germany. So would Russia, although it would be less delighted with a Polish or Baltic axis. Israel would be reassured, and the Palestinians driven to despair, by a Europe run on a German or Tony Blair axis. Turning to specific policy areas, Russia does not want a European energy policy, while China would not like to see a more protectionist Europe, etc.
The United States has long oscillated between different stances in its approach to Europe. For many years, the urgent need for Washington was to keep Europe from becoming more dependent on the USSR, and this led the US to support just about any European integration initiative; at times, America even felt moved to encourage and push Europeans towards closer unity, as they did with France to ensure that West Germany would become part of NATO. Americans were therefore the first to champion European integration, which they saw as the economic counterpart to NATO. But later, in the name of Euro-Atlantic cohesion, they began resolutely to oppose any moves toward a Gallic-model for Europe, even when it clearly enjoyed the support of most other European nations.
For some time now, US administrations have not encouraged any new unification projects that might further strengthen Europe. They waxed ironical on the euro, but did not take it seriously enough to fight it properly, and so found themselves reluctant witnesses to its birth.
The more sophisticated American analysts and academic observers, and perhaps even some diplomats and politicians, consider it in the best interest of the United States to have a strong Europe as a partner when facing the new risks and problems of today’s uncertain world. Did President Kennedy not speak of a “two-pillar alliance”? The Clinton administration and its Secretary of State Madeleine Albright seemed open to the idea, but that was a far cry from the views of the present administration, and especially of the Pentagon, which is particularly hostile to any suggestions of a European “caucus” within NATO. It is now unlikely that this situation will change very much in the years ahead, for it is not related to any one president, nor even to the neo-conservative movement. It reflects a structural and lasting shift in American thinking. The United States will continue to deplore the national divisions between Europeans, and the complexity of their decision-making system, while at the same time taking advantage of it. Kissinger’s famous question “What’s Europe’s phone number?” never meant that Washington was seeking change, unless of course it would be certain that the European interlocutor at the other end would be understanding and docile.
What about us Europeans, what do we want? The real question is the extent to which the nation states of the EU want to unify further and integrate politically? At present we know that they are far from being in agreement on this subject; one might perhaps surmise that the maximum point of integration most people in Europe could envisage and accept would be something near the point reached in the EU’s stillborn constitutional treaty. If the EU-25 were to try to negotiate another treaty instead, the contents would not be much different. It is therefore quite probable that despite the clear reluctance of four to five member states, EU enlargement will carry on, albeit with greater difficulty. This means the Union will sooner or later number 35 or even 40 members, with the strong risk that this strategy will stir disagreement between member states, and also between political elites and their electorates, thus bringing about a serious crisis in years to come. The Turkish question will remain the hardest of all. While further fragmentation, as in the case of Montenegro, is more than just a possibility in the older member states too.
The other key question concerns Europe’s role in the world; will Europeans be content to go on distributing aid and advice in their effort to show the world by example how to tackle its structural ills? It may be that so many Europeans now want to inhabit a “post-tragedy” international community largely populated by people who are clones of themselves, both culturally and politically, so that for them “soft power” would seem the perfect means of creating this idyllic world. Or on the contrary, will they decide instead to make Europe a real power so as to avoid becoming completely dependent on the rising powers that will dominate tomorrow’s American-Asian world? Some of Europe’s elites want to do just that, even though European public opinion is predominantly opposed. The average European would prefer to go on enjoying the geo-political advantages that result from past centuries of European power politics. It is a legacy that has so far provided liberty, security and prosperity without the need for any corresponding sacrifices. But it is also as fragile as snow in the sun; whether or not it can be altered by a new generation of more visionary and courageous European leaders remains to be seen. Right now, to use the vernacular, it looks a toss-up, with no indication of whether the political coin will land face up or face down.
The full version of this article will be published in the autumn issue of Europe's World