On the foreign policy front, the EU remained on the sidelines
in the Middle East, especially during the war in Syria and
Yemen. These are almost forgotten conflicts despite the
violence, the hunger, the tens of thousands of displaced
people and at least three million children deprived of even the
most basic schooling and health. While the EU provides
substantial assistance to non-governmental agencies working
on the ground in the region, that soft-power is a hands-off
one. The EU's role as a diplomatic mediator, which is an
element of soft power, has been entirely absent.
Trump's trade war with China was another chance for
European governments to pull together and adopt a united
policy as Beijing became more authoritarianism, all but
snuffed out democracy in Hong Kong and has written its own
narrative about the origins of Covid-19. (According to the
latest narrative, the pandemic was caused by Western food
exports to China).
Trump, to his credit, repeatedly supported the protestors in
Hong Kong and applied sanctions against several Chinese
officials involved in suppressing the protests. Most EU
governments in contrast have gone their own way with China.
Indeed, as a whole, the EU has been shamefully weak over
how the rule of law and accountability has been trampled
upon in Hong Kong, not to mention the increased surveillance
of Chinese citizens on the mainland.
As for China's use of its 5G technology network as a security
and intelligence gathering tool, it is remarkable how Europe
still fails to speak with one voice when it comes to something
as critical as security. Here again was a chance for Europe to
stand up to China and champion European IT companies.
Instead, Europe continues to allow Beijing to divide and rule
Europe and weaken transatlantic ties. Perhaps the incoming
Biden administration might encourage the United States and
the EU to forge a common, coherent and strategic policy
towards China. Essentially, it is about preparing the West to
compete with China.
In the case of Russia, the EU's sanctions, imposed in 2014
after Russia invaded parts of eastern Ukraine, have been
consistently rolled over. But they do not amount to a strategy.
Even when Alexei Navalny, the prominent Russian opposition
leader, was subject to a chemical attack in August 2020, in
most cases, the Europe's rhetoric was loud but the actions
were weak. This was the chance for Chancellor Angela
Merkel to abandon the almost-completed NordStream2
pipeline. She refrained from doing so. The first pipeline is
already bringing gas directly from Russia to Germany. The
second one will complete the Kremlin's goal of bypassing
Ukraine and increasing Germany's dependence on Russian
With these few foreign policy examples, Europe could have
made a difference. But it didn't for several reasons.
First, EU member states do not share a common threat
The northern countries see Russia as the main threat. The
southern tier of member states regards migration and refugees
fleeing the wars, conflict zones and the desertification of parts
of Sahel, as the main threat. For France, Islamist terrorism is
the major threat. For Germany, it’s a mixture of migration,
cyber security and to some extent Russia.
Despite Russia's chemical attacks on opposition figures in
Russia or in exile, its cyber attacks on the German Bundestag,
or China's use of technology as a disruptive tool, collectively
European governments do not see both regimes as threats to
their values, their economies and their democratic institutions.
If there is no consensus on a common threat assessment, it is
extremely difficult for the EU to act and think strategically.
Second, Europe's reliance on soft power has run its course.
The soft power, anchored on the highly successful
enlargement policy and disbursing billions of development aid
- often directly to authoritarian regimes - needs to be
"modernized." Soft power is traditionally anchored on
diplomacy, sanctions, aid, and defending values and human
rights. But the EU's soft power has been particularly timid
about defending human rights.
When President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet
for his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,
on December 7, he did so against the background of the
widespread abuse of human rights in Egypt. Arbitrary
detentions, disappearances, torture, suppression of free
speech, of advocacy groups and an independent opposition are
This is how Macron justified the reception given to Sisi. "I
think it is more effective to have a policy of dialogue than a
policy of boycott which would reduce the effectiveness of one
of our partners in the fight against terrorism and for regional
stability," he said. Making human rights a major issue would
be both "ineffective on the subject of human rights and
counter-productive in the fight against terrorism, that's why I
won't do it," Macron added.
As for the EU's role in Belarus, its direct neighbor, the EU
reacted by imposing sanctions on some of President
Alexander Lukashenko's entourage. The sanctions have been
ineffectual. If anything, sanctions have become a classic EU
reflex whose value is questionable.
Other EU countries, such as Lithuania are adopting different
measures. Lithuanian prosecutors have launched a pre-trial
investigation into crimes against humanity under a complaint
by a Belarusian citizen, Maksim Kharoshyn. Surely other
European governments should adopt similar measures and
launch investigations under the principle of universal
Such measures could make a difference as to how the EU uses
Hong Kong is another example of Europe's inability and
inflexibility to use soft power that could include supporting
the social media, providing legal aid to speaking, providing
special internet access out consistently against China's
imposition of its security measures. The reality is that several
EU countries prefer to keep their trade contacts with China
intact rather than defend basic values and fundamental human
rights that the EU supposedly prides itself on promoting.
And third, even if the EU did modernize its soft power, it
needs to be complemented by hard power. France and now
non-EU member Britain know what hard power means. But
the EU is not prepared to embrace the idea of using its
military capabilities to project hard power. Somehow, hard
power is linked to aggression, to war, to interference in other
But isn't hard power also about protecting and saving lives
and using it to end a conflict? The fact that NATO is still in
Kosovo, twenty-one years since it attacked Serbian forces in
order to stop the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in that
province, shows the EU's failure in building strong institutions
(soft power again) and its inability to use Kosovo as a chance
to establish a EU defense force.
Finally, there is the fundamental issue of values, specifically
the rule of law, media freedom and an independent judiciary.
When it comes to the defense of values, pro-democracy
activists outside Europe view the EU as a model to emulate.
But when those values are being chiseled away from within
the union, by Hungary and Poland, to cite just two examples,
they seriously undermine the credibility of the EU as a bloc
based on values.
These values are not particular to the EU or to the West. They
are universal. But the Hungarian and Polish leaders claim the
EU is 'picking' on them and imposing its values on their
societies. The fact is when both countries joined the EU in
2004, they signed up to the EU's commitment to defend the
rule of law and the set of values essential for safeguarding
democratic institutions. And they subscribe to the United
Nations Declaration of Human Rights. If the EU is serious
about defending its democratic institutions, it needs to have
the political will to use the bloc's treaties to take renegade
member states to task instead of being blackmailed by these
member states. If not, the union get write off its reputation as
a defender of the rule of law.
In short, the lack of a common threat perception, the weakness
of soft power, the unwillingness to consider hard power and
the EU's ambiguity about defending the rule of law inside its
own house means that Europe could end up betting, not
acting, on its future as a geo-political player.
The article gives the views of the author, not the position of ‘Europe’s Futures
Ideas for Action’ project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).