In the latest issue of the prestigious ‘International Affairs’ magazine, British expert Ian Klinke, professor of geography at Oxford University, refers to an issue that preoccupies the chancelleries of the world today. Namely Germany’s potential hegemony over Europe. In other words, is there today a German propensity to build a pan-European architecture that would serve its interests? The expert’s answer to this question is very brief. In Germany, after decades of neglect due to various reasons, especially to its toxic use on the eve of and during the Second World War, geopolitics has started to be cultivated in the mainstream intellectual and political landscape due to the Old Continent’s economic and security imperatives.
Germany’s image as “a central power” has gained consistency ever more in the debates in that country, after previously being lodged in the right-wing circles at the fringes of the political spectrum. This is also confirmed by a recent ‘Der Spiegel’ article on Germany’s relations with China, in which its authors insist that a recent change has occurred. Whence so far in the last decade Germany was the leader of this bilateral relationship, the situation has changed, the danger that Berlin would become a partner second to Beijing in the near future has taken shape, unless changes of substance intervene in German commercial policy but also in the commercial policy of the European Union alike.
In this article we find out not only that Germany has started to realise that Beijing not only wants to copy the successful model of German post-war economic development but that it has become a competitor, being threatened by massive Chinese investments in top-level domains right at home, that China invests massively in Europe (in contrast to European investments in China), the investments totalling EUR 70 billion in 2016-2017 alone, but also that “With the Silk Road Initiative and the 16+1 format, China is already in the process of driving a wedge through Europe, they argue. The 16+1 format includes the 16 Central and Eastern European countries plus China. Beijing initiated the format six years ago as a counterbalance against Russia and the EU. It includes countries like Serbia and Macedonia, but also EU member states such as the Czech Republic and Hungary.” It is obvious that such preoccupations and conclusions are subsumed to the geopolitical analysis and Germany is unsettled, among other things, by this wide-scale division that has occurred in Europe but also within the European Union in particular, through the “New Silk Road” plan that Beijing launched in 2013. Basically, through the “16+1 format,” Beijing has become the main economic player investment-wise in Eastern Europe, replacing traditional partners. Hence, in Berlin there are direct concerns regarding the continental order, even though it is admitted that a promoter of this German-Chinese interdependence on an economic plane was Germany at first.
But, in the current circumstances, with America having a hostile position toward Europe on an economic plane, but also with Russia waiting for the fruits of international developments that project it as urgent destination of the main European leaders, Germany becomes aware of the responsibility it has as a central power of the EU. Similarly, the same geopolitical frame must be used to interpret recent events too, from the start of the construction works on the North Stream 2 underwater pipeline that will transport Russian natural gas to Germany – despite the protests of the Baltic States, Poland, and Ukraine, but especially of the U.S. –, to the Putin-Macron deal on ensuring an end to the Syrian civil war through cooperation and on starting the reconstruction of that country. Preoccupied with China, threatened with a trade war by the U.S., the EU and its central power – Germany – see fit to maintain a geopolitical openness that suits their own continental interests. Let us also add the fact that, last week, the new Italian Government, seen as Eurosceptic and critical of Berlin’s austerity policies, was unexpectedly toppled, new elections taking shape, which, without resorting to conspiracy theories, shows that a performant EU foreign policy in the global arena requires internal unity.
Against this backdrop, a Council of Foreign Relations – Europe meeting that took place in Paris last week, in the presence of high-ranking European officials, as well as experts and representatives of European think tanks, outlined the preoccupations, trends, and ideas circulating in the EU in what regards the future of the organisation. Here are some of them, as noted in brief tweets during the talks that took place under the generous topic: “Defending Europe in the New World Disorder.” A major idea that permeated the debates was that “to save international liberal order we need first protect liberal democracies at home!”, launched by John Ikenbery, the well-known American theoretician of the liberal international order. Even more so since “The age of disorder and disruption is with us. Within 5 years 90% of global population covered by mobile broadband. Within this century 40% of working age global population will be in Africa,” as Carl Bildt pointed out. The need for closer attention to the issue of European defence was noted, being emphasised in this context that the construction of a common strategic culture is imperative. One question raised was: “what one does when UK, which is leaving EU, shares same strategic culture as France, but Germany clearly does not?”.
The answers covered a series of trends that can be seen today in the European thinking in this field. It was thus noted that “Europe cannot defend itself. It may be that today this does not matter, because of the transatlantic insurance through NATO . But who here is dead certain that this will still be the case in 30 years? This is not a Trump story, it is a structural question.” But also put up for debate was the thesis that “Europeans facing terror or aggression will need response and solidarity quickly. No time for committees and wavering discussions.” In this context, French Defence Minister Florence Parly announced the launch of the “European Intervention Initiative” (EII), a proposed construction of continental defence which shifts the accent from the construction of capabilities to operations that must be immediately carried out. As noted immediately, “The European Intervention Initiative will go ahead,” and this means “the UK’s involvement,” being also the expression of the “focus on operations rather than capabilities” or, according to another opinion, “focuses on intervention versus institutions, develops a club of 9 able and willing nations.” It was also said that “Institutions are good. Concrete actions are always better,” in reference to the urgent need for action. Particularly emphasised was the importance of initiative in connecting the UK to continental defence, even though the Brexit process is continuing, and the experience in Mali has shown that European cooperation is necessary.
The EII is complementary to both NATO and other EU initiatives (PESCO), being open to all members with the will and necessary capabilities required to take part in it. Florence Parly offered details on this French proposal: “the European Intervention initiative is not an inclusive process. The question is who do we work with best/?/ 9 countries that have been involved in all kinds of co-operation. In June we will start with a letter of intent.” Those interested in the ideas expressed at the CFR’s meeting in Paris must access #ECFR18.
Hence, beyond the complex geopolitical assessment of the current international situation, the European debate is generating the first conclusions derived from this analysis, identifies ways of action to hasten the equipping of the EU with adequate instruments for immediate intervention and for the status of global actor, the development of a common strategic culture, but also the courageous overcoming of some of Brexit’s consequences by consolidating continental unity and solidarity.