2022 could be a decisive year for Europe

The Covid-19 pandemic has left efforts to create a more assertive global Europe on the back burner – just as global politics of the past two years have created a myriad of problems for the bloc. These will only get worse if swift action is not taken.

Bold proposals have been made by the Commission which could, in theory, help to solve these problems.

On Russian aggression and other military issues, the EU has offered rapid deployment units tailored to specific missions, thereby reducing dependence on NATO and the United States to protect the continent.

On China, Brussels is trying to counter Beijing’s giant global infrastructure initiative by offering alternative investment options. In recent years, the EU has tried to walk an almost impossible tightrope by maintaining an economic partnership with China without alienating itself from the increasingly anti-Beijing United States.

The Trump years made Europe realize that it could not afford to rely entirely on America as an ally. Balancing this relationship between Washington and Beijing would prevent, perhaps naively believe Brussels, the EU from being crushed between the two powers.

Most European officials agree that the challenges the EU faces must be met, but the reality of trying to achieve a common foreign policy has been particularly difficult for a bloc of 27 countries with different national priorities.

“While the EU takes most of its major decisions by qualified majority, Member States have always been very reluctant to give up their veto power over foreign policy,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, chairholder Jean Monnet in European Union politics at Rutgers University. .

Therefore, any common EU foreign policy is at the mercy of individual member states exercising unanimity blocking vetoes which they are only too happy to use.

Countries like Hungary and Poland, which have participated in Brussels’ villainous push for anti-democratic and anti-EU policies, hold the power to block any meaningful European policies in retaliation for threats to withdraw funding or cut human rights. vote.

This creates a new problem for Brussels, as rivals like Russia and China can “deal directly with national governments, essentially making them a Trojan horse within the EU, agents of hostile regimes,” explains Kelemen.

Putin blames West for mounting tensions at year-end press conference

Former Lithuanian Prime Minister and current MEP Andrius Kubilius notes that the Kremlin in particular is exploiting this by seeking to “strengthen relations with individual member states” and not with EU institutions, as institutions are almost always more hawkish than national capitals.

However, the foreign affairs problems facing the EU are more important than the disagreements between member states.

“The way the EU is currently constituted fundamentally prevents it from dealing with the crises we are facing,” said Sophie in ‘t Veld, a liberal Dutch MEP.

“The Commission could take the initiative, as it did with the Covid, to achieve a positive outcome. But on foreign affairs, [it] is fully indebted to Member States who do not even have the mandate to propose [a] pan-European vision “, she added.

The question of the European Commission’s dependence on Member States often comes up in discussions with current and former officials. They recall that the current President of the Commission, Ursula von der leyen, only got the job after a fudge.

“She was not the first choice of her party, which limited her independence from the start,” said Julian King, a former commissioner. “It is more dependent on the capitals, in particular Berlin and Paris. Unfortunately, there is not as much political stability in either as before.”

Germany only recently installed a tripartite coalition government between the center-left Social Democrats, the Greens and the pro-business Liberal Democrats. And while their deal appears, on paper, to be some sort of continuation of Angela Merkel’s foreign policy, the Greens – whose leader Annalena Baerbock has been appointed foreign minister – have already taken a tougher stance on the EU. Russia and China as their coalition partners. .

Meanwhile, in France, Emmanuel Macron hopes to secure a second term, with the presidential elections due to take place in April. King notes that even if Macron retains the presidency, “then he must fight and win a legislative election if he is to govern the country effectively, which will likely focus on domestic issues and take us to the end of June.”

This date is important, as France holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2022. Macron has been by far the biggest supporter of a more geopolitical Europe, supporting ideas like a European army and a foreign policy that does not simply follow the American example. .

Indeed, Macron had hoped that during his presidency of the EU, the European Council of member states would endorse an ambitious new process called the “Strategic compass” at a summit in March.
The strategic compass – effectively an operational guide decision-making on security and defense issues – would provide the EU with standing troops and a common strategic policy.
The EU realizes that it cannot count on America for its protection.  Now he has a plan for a new joint military force

But many member states have serious reservations about the proposal, ranging from its cost to the fact that it does not adequately name and shame Russia. And with Macron focused on his re-election campaign, the capitals most resistant to these policies will simply be able to ignore the man who should, in theory, be Europe’s most powerful leader – instead, opting for his presidency of the EU.

But while Europe waits, the crises it faces will not. And his enemies know it.

“A lot of things are happening at the same time and the EU is historically very bad at dealing with simultaneous crises,” said Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

“It doesn’t take much for one problem to meet another: the migration crisis on the Belarusian border and the Ukrainian tensions both follow a path back to Moscow, raising Putin’s hand in any dialogue,” he said. she added. “It’s not hard to imagine how difficult things could get if China and Russia chose to coordinate.”

So what’s the way forward, given all these obstacles?

A senior EU diplomat told CNN they were not optimistic: “We have known what the problems are for ages, both internal and external. The problems have worsened: Russia and China are over. authoritarian; the United States is less predictable as allies, and we are more divided. Meanwhile, we are becoming smaller and less important on the world stage. “

The diplomat, however, added two caveats that could force both Brussels and member states to act: [if] Russia is getting more assertive, we might be shocked to take drastic action or feel powerless. ”

Most agree that radical action would mean much more spending and more power for Brussels.

“In federal states, the first thing that gets passed to the central government is foreign policy, security and defense,” says Keleman.

This year has seen divisions over democracy, vaccines and the climate.  2022 is unlikely to be an oasis of calm

Confronting all of this with untrustworthy Member States – or the Commission – will take more than 12 months. But 2022, if Covid gets off the agenda enough, could offer a window into the progress that can be made in the years to come.

The thing to watch will be how Brussels acts in response to hostility, whether from Belarus, Russia, China or even the United States.

It will also be worth watching if – and when – the EU backs its own members over undemocratic rivals with which the bloc has financial ties. Lithuania, for example, recently recognized Taiwan as a sovereign entity – angering the Chinese government – while the Commission reiterated to CNN that it still officially holds a One-China Policy.

The cost of inaction, several diplomats and officials told CNN, is a steadily diminishing status on the world stage for the unity project born out of decades of war and division.

Worse, if Europe does not defend democracies by defying its enemies, it could be seen as tacitly approving the rise of authoritarian states.

The stakes are higher than many in Brussels, who tend to focus on short-term politics, could realize. But in 2022, Europe finally has the opportunity to walk and take its place as a great world power, defending the rule-based order and Western values. Failure to seize this opportunity will almost certainly mean that those who oppose these values ​​will continue on the path of no return.

Mary I. Bruner