Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The EU Is Being Reshaped by War

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The U.S. Congress gave Ukraine and its European allies crucial breathing room when it finally passed a $61 billion aid package in late April. But what happens after the U.S. presidential election in November is anyone’s guess. In the long run—no matter who wins—U.S. engagement in Europe is likely to have peaked. The upshot is that everything will soon hinge on whether Europe can step up to the plate as a geopolitical actor amid U.S. retrenchment.

The U.S. Congress gave Ukraine and its European allies crucial breathing room when it finally passed a $61 billion aid package in late April. But what happens after the U.S. presidential election in November is anyone’s guess. In the long run—no matter who wins—U.S. engagement in Europe is likely to have peaked. The upshot is that everything will soon hinge on whether Europe can step up to the plate as a geopolitical actor amid U.S. retrenchment.

Europe had many false starts since the end of the Cold War. During the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, the European Union confronted its own impotence in the face of war for the first time. For a while, it looked as if it might build up the institutions and capabilities necessary to transform itself into a bona fide geopolitical actor. It launched the Common Security and Defence Policy, set up the European Defence Agency, and launched the EU Military Staff. When nothing came of these efforts, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 seemed like another moment of truth. The years afterward saw the birth of Permanent Structured Cooperation—another framework for security collaboration—and the European Defence Fund. At every turn, however, efforts to transform the EU from a peace project into one that embraced hard power were scuppered by a lack of buy-in from EU member states. Narrow national interests always trumped bigger strategic ones.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 changed everything by bringing home the idea that there could be a full-scale war on the European continent. This is not simply a security crisis but one that goes to the heart of the EU’s identity. The more than two years since have not just forced Europeans to think differently about policy, but they have also changed something more fundamental—how different states think about their identity and the purpose of the European project. For the last few decades, European integration had been conceived as a peace project with a focus on prosperity, trade, and quality of life, but now the impetus of integration is coming from war. And through these deeper changes to the identity of key European powers, the outlines of a truly geopolitical Europe are beginning to take shape for the very first time.

The EU’s passage from peace to war project has a number of dimensions.

The first crucial change is taking place in Paris. After the Cold War, the EU preferred a cooperative, universal, and unipolar idea of Europe to a multipolar Europe with actors competing for spheres of influence. France was traditionally the biggest obstacle when it came to removing ambiguity around the countries stuck on the outside. It opposed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s proposed accession to NATO in 2008 and vetoed EU entry talks with North Macedonia and Albania in 2019. But over the past two years, French President Emmanuel Macron has undergone a complete shift in his thinking and become an enthusiastic proponent of enlarging both NATO and the EU, starting with Kyiv. The result is that for the first time, there is a pan-European consensus on the continent’s strategic borders and the EU’s refounding along strategic lines.

Perhaps an even bigger challenge has been Europe’s reluctance to truly embrace hard power. Now, however, Europe’s biggest obstacle to robust defense—Germany—has turned its strategy upside down. Since German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Russia’s invasion marked a Zeitenwende—a change of eras—the result has been a paradigm shift not just in defense spending (Germany is set to become the fifth-biggest defense spender in the world after the United States, China, Russia, and India) but also in mentality. A tangible indication of this shift is that European NATO allies will collectively reach the target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense this year. This focus on hard power has also transformed how EU institutions in Brussels think about economic policy. Previously, the EU believed that building interdependence was the key to turning adversaries into friends. Now, the EU is looking at the nature of interdependence, is busy de-risking its economy, and sees economic power as a geopolitical tool.

Finally, the emergence of a geopolitical Europe was always caught between two competing conceptions of what it actually meant to be a geopolitical actor. On the one hand, France pushed for strategic autonomy but in doing so risked European unity. On the other hand, Britain and much of Central and Eastern Europe called for trans-Atlantic unity—but at the cost of European strategic independence. Now, the war in Ukraine has solved this conundrum by highlighting to the United States that its biggest problem is not an independent Europe but an overdependent one while simultaneously demonstrating to France that the United States is so critical to Ukraine’s war against Russia that it would be impossible to unite the EU against Washington. Finally, if Britain’s Labour Party comes to power this year as expected, London would be much likelier to band together with the EU in the event that Trump were elected. Ironically, despite the ominous consequences for Ukraine, Trump’s return could conceivably create a framework for greater European cooperation.

Success in all these areas is deeply contingent and hardly guaranteed. National politics in these countries could fundamentally change their trajectories—perhaps nowhere more so than in France, where Marine Le Pen is leading polls ahead of the next presidential election. And it bears reminding that the changes in Europe’s culture, mentality, and sense of identity set off by Russia’s war will take time and patience to mature. But there are reasons to believe that this time will finally be different.

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