Two well-respected analysts and commentators, John Mearsheimer (2022) and Wolfgang Streeck (2022a and b), have recently put forward a persuasive thesis that historical and contemporary fault-lines are placing the EU in a position where its political and economic independence may be terminally challenged (see especially Streeck (2022b) in an Unheard interview.
In summary, the thesis appears to have three axes. The first is that, supported by the expansion of the NATO military alliance to the borders of Russia, an opportunistically US-driven policy of unconditional support for Ukraine, following the Russian invasion, has effectively surrendered EU foreign policy independence. The second is that, again US-led economic sanctions against Russia, and the negative feedback from them imposed on EU countries, are reversing earlier EU economic links with Russia, especially in the energy sector. Furthermore, as Streeck observes, the German export-led economic model that has been the main engine of the EU economy, internally and externally, is also threatened by global economic and political factors. Third, these twin factors will lead to a global bifurcation in which Russia will be pushed ever-closer to China, in a Eurasian bloc, leaving the EU as a dependent unit allied inextricably closer to the US (a similar position as Canada is forced to adopt with the US). Hence, forming a trans-Atlantic bloc.
That all the above analyses represent clear and present tendencies is difficult to refute. In this essay I want to agree with the broad thrust of the Mearsheimer and Streeck position, though suggest that there may not necessarily be as pessimistic a pre-destined future as they both imply.
My position rests on three propositions.
First, within the EU the foreign policy position of France is not aligned with that of the EU, as represented by the European Commission, especially its President and also the President of the European Council. Traditionally, France has always taken a policy position independent of the US. In relation to Russia during the present Ukrainian conflict, President Macron has maintained an open dialogue with President Putin. It is likely that France and Russia have active diplomatic “back-channels” between the two countries. The position of France appears to be that at some point – that may be closer in time than is suggested by other countries’ politicians and reflected in the media coverage of the Ukrainian conflict – the conflict will be halted and the earlier peace talks between Ukraine and Russia will be restarted, though not without obvious difficulties.
It is also the case that, in NATO, Turkey, though not a member of the EU, has also taken an independent line from the anti-Russian, US-led NATO position. Indeed, Turkey hosted the earlier peace talks in Ankara and brokered the Ukrainian-Russia grain-export deal from Odessa.
Moreover, the EU positioning on the Ukraine conflict and the economic sanctions is by no means united. Poland is the most virulently anti-Russia, due in part to historical antipathy. The three Baltic countries are also supportive of an aggressive EU stance on the conflict, perhaps understandably. Their attitude about Russian intentions is not helped by hysterical rhetoric from Zelensky suggesting that invading these countries is next on the Russian agenda. On the other hand, Hungary and Austria are less anti-Russian in their rhetoric and Prime Minister Orban maintains good relations with Russia. Nor is the German population united in its support for Ukraine, despite the formal German government position. Similar divisions exist in other EU countries (and in the UK).
For the time being, these partly suppressed divisions do not threaten the overall EU position in support of the NATO and US position on the Ukraine conflict. However, if the point is reached, possibly as early as this late autumn (the cessation of hostilities is principally in the hands of Russia), when the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict may emerge, the divisions will be made manifest. What is clear is that the massive, continuing financial cost of the impact of the energy sanctions on the EU (running into hundreds of billions), exacerbated by the Russian desire to maintain revenue by continually increasing international gas prices by reducing direct pipeline gas supplies to the EU, is unsustainable. Even if the denouement of the Ukrainian conflict takes longer, at some point this scenario will unfold. In so doing the current, almost umbilical, attachment of the EU to the US-NATO position on Russia is likely to be severed, if not entirely then weakened to a significant degree.
Second, the internal economic as well as political, tensions within the EU appear serious, accompanied by Streeck’s suggestion of the failure, or at least decline, of the validity of the German global and internal EU economic model. However, to an extent the suggested declining ability of the German-led centre of the EU (accompanied by the Netherlands, Belgium, and Northern Italy), dependent significantly on exports to China, rests on two propositions. The first tendency is that the global trading economy will divide into regional trading blocs. This is happening to a degree, but it is not total or complete: supply chains and export/import markets are increasingly regionalized (as indeed they always have been, as gravity trade models imply), but there will still be a substantial inter-regional dimension, maintaining EU trade with China. The second tendency is that the centre-periphery model of the Euro area will break down. This fear is almost certainly exaggerated and the trade elements of the optimal currency area, exhibited by the euro area, will be maintained, at least sufficiently to ameliorate centrifugal tendencies within the area.
Third, the forecasted bifurcation into a Russian-Chinese Eurasian bloc and a transatlantic US-EU bloc is predicated on two propositions. The first tendency is that the cementing of a China-Russia-centric economic and political bloc is a desirable outcome for both parties. This appears unlikely. Russia would be the junior partner, an eventuality that Russia will steadfastly wish to avoid. Moreover, such a close alliance is not how China views its foreign partnership approach to the external world, it would not be desirous of such an entanglement.
The second tendency is that the close linkage between the EU and the US will not be desired in the longer term, either by the EU or by the US. In practice, freed from having to support the Ukraine in their current conflict and the associated breaking of decades of trading and political partnership with Russia, the EU will, to a greater or lesser degree across the nation-states of the EU, revert to the former relationships. It should be noted that the EU was established, in part, to emancipate Europe from reliance and political dominance by the US (a point that the UK never accepted during its 45-year membership of the EU). Moreover, the US, in the longer term, may withdraw into a more isolationist global role. Signs of such a tendency informed the Trump administration, though it was not thought through and there were countervailing tendencies, supported by senior “neo-con” groups in the State Department, now exhibited in the Biden administration’s foreign policy.
Hence, though the deeply pessimistic vision of Mearsheimer and Streeck is certainly a plausible scenario, it is not clear that one should attribute the high probability to it as do these two authors. Certainly, one should devoutly wish that, as I have suggested, such a scenario does not manifest itself.
Mearsheimer, John (2022) ‘Playing with fire in the Ukraine’, Foreign Affairs , August 17, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/playing-fire-ukraine
Streeck, Wolfgang (2022a) ‘The Fog of War’, New Left Review, 1 March, https://newleftreview.org/sidecar/posts/fog-of-war
Streeck, Wolfgang 2022b) ‘The end of the German empire, Unheard, interview, 26 August, https://youtu.be/mUYrsA4sJeE