Looking back, future historians may see 2023 as the year when the idea of Europe’s “strategic autonomy” was given its definitive burial. Even with confrontations brewing globally between Western democracies and China, Iran, and Russia, Europeans have played a meaningful role only in the last one: assisting Ukraine financially, hosting Ukrainian refugees, and providing lethal aid to Kyiv.
With pro-Russian governments in power in Hungary and Slovakia, it remains to be seen whether the EU has the needed stamina to support Ukraine until its final victory, and whether it can also secure Ukraine’s peaceful and prosperous future. In other theaters, the EU has been reduced to irrelevance. “Europe has been relegated to the role of a well-meaning NGO,” Politico’s Matthew Karnitschnig writes irreverently, “whose humanitarian contributions are welcomed, but is otherwise ignored.”
In the aftermath of Hamas’ terror attack on Israel, the presidents of the European Commission and of the European Parliament respectively, Ursula von der Leyen and Roberta Metsola, headed quickly to Israel to express their solidarity. Almost immediately after the October 7 attack, one of the Commission’s members, Olivér Várhelyi, announced that the EU would be suspending “immediately” its aid to the Palestinian authority.
The same day, however, Várhelyi was contradicted by one of his EC colleagues, who said that aid “will continue as long as needed.” Eventually, the Commission announced a review of its Palestinian Authority assistance in order to make sure that funds do not fall into terrorists’ hands. Meanwhile the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, stated that more, not less, aid to Palestinians will be needed. “Over the course of just 24 hours,” Karnitschnig notes, “the Commission went from announcing it would suspend all aid to the Palestinians to signaling it would increase the flow of funds.”
The visit of von der Leyen and Metsola, meanwhile, prompted a revolt of sorts within the Commission, with close to 850 European civil servants signing a protest letter lambasting von der Leyen’s “unconditional” support to Israel.
Of course, Brussels’ “deep state” has very little mandate to opine about the subject, and its views should best be ignored. Alas, the same holds true for the EU’s leadership, whose morally righteous and (in my opinion) substantively correct reaction to the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas was disconnected from the far more diverse picture offered by the EU’s individual member states.
In Ireland, President Michael Higgings had few qualms in creating moral equivalence between terrorists and the government of Israel, not to mention his spreading Hamas’ propaganda about the strike on Gaza’s Al-Ahli Arab Hospital being an Israeli—rather than Hamas’ own—atrocity.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Czechs are discussing moving their embassy to Jerusalem. The Czech foreign minister, Jan Lipavský, was the first foreign government official to visit Israel and to express the Czech Republic’s support after the attack. More recently, the country’s defense minister Jana Černochová has called for a Czech withdrawal from the UN, following the General Assembly’s vote calling for a “humanitarian truce.” While a Czech exit is highly unlikely, it is notable that Černochová hardly stirred a controversy in the country, having received sympathetic responses from the prime minister, the Czech president, and even from the leader of the opposition, Andrej Babiš.
In between, France’s Emmanuel Macron was quick to flaunt his anti-Islamist credentials in Israel, calling for an extension of the already-existing coalition against ISIS to take on the threat from Hamas as well. In his characteric, “en-même-temps” approach to politics, Macron also pushed for a restart to the peace process.
A cacophony, in which EU institutions are left with little choice but to pursue a lowest common denominator policy, is not an exception but rather the norm here. If the EU has outperformed expectations in Ukraine, both in terms of its gradually escalating sanctions regime and through the amount of support it has afforded to the country (which now far exceeds U.S. contributions), it is in part because the relevant expectations were set very low to begin with.
Nevertheless, there is no reason for delusions of grandeur. The EU’s delivery falls short in some critical areas—such as in ramping up its own military production to a scale allowing a steady supply of ammunition and other military equipment to Ukraine. Additionally, there are signs that the broad-based surge of support for Ukraine and the clarity with which the EU has acted might be a one-off.
With Orbán and Fico playing the role of Moscow’s fifth column in the EU, the price that Ukraine’s European supporters will have to pay to stay the course will only increase. And whereas the outcomes of Germany and France’s elections, to be held in 2025 and 2027 respectively, are anybody’s guess, it is fair to assume that they offer a far greater chance of splintering the EU’s unity on the subject, rather than of strengthening it. And how likely is a coherent European response if the bloc is confronted with a challenge as geographically distant yet as a Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific?
Those still clinging to a vision of the EU as an autonomous geopolitical actor suggest that there is a technical solution to the problem: a reform of the bloc’s decision-making rules, which would apply qualified majority rule to questions of the EU’s foreign and security policy. This would make it easier for clearcut decisions to emerge in real time.
Yet, the unanimity rule exists for a reason. It is precisely because EU countries disagree on matters of foreign and security policy—so central to their national interests—that they prefer to seek consensus (however unsatisfying) over deferring to the will of a qualified, population-weighted majority of their members. An EU that eschews consensus on sensitive matters would give a new lease on life to the very centrifugal dynamics that sent the UK on its way after the 2016 referendum.
Now, it is possible to argue that a leaner membership base would be a good thing for the EU. Hungary’s government has turned its disdain for the EU’s institutions into an art form. Perhaps forcing the Hungarians to decide whether they want to be in or out may be good for a bloc that seeks to define its identity around shared values. That, however, is not the argument being made by the proponents of strategic autonomy—quite the contrary. In fact, they frequently invoke moving away from unanimity in the context of preparing for future enlargements, particularly Ukraine’s accession. The latter, however, will only make the EU more diverse, thus placing a premium on institutions that can accommodate such diversity instead of blowing the EU up.
In a different context, “strategic autonomy” has been presented as an insurance policy against a second Trump term, which could easily erode the U.S. commitment to Europe’s security. The argument is well taken: another isolationist administration in the United States would pose significant risks to Europe’s security. However, from the perspective of say, Warsaw or Riga, those risks need to be weighted against the risks of being ignored or outvoted in the EU’s Council by the very Western European partners that have frequently disregarded the interests of “new Europe” in the past.
In other words, one does not have to be enamored with Donald Trump to be willing to tie up one’s country’s security in an arrangement giving a future President Le Pen or Chancellor Wagenknecht the effective power to overrule Poland or Latvia’s critical interests.
From an institutional perspective, the unsatisfying status quo is Europe’s best bet if it is to balance unity against its inherent pluralism. The EU needs to act jointly and decisively in areas where there is consensus, such as Ukraine’s future in the European Union. However, trying to do the same in areas where countries vehemently disagree is a very different and much riskier proposition.
It is worth noting, nevertheless, that the question of “autonomy” is only weakly linked to the continent’s defense capabilities. It would be hard to find more eurosceptic governments than the ones that have led Poland since 2015—yet Poland’s military build-up and its simultaneous contribution to Europe’s security has been exemplary. For some countries, taking their defenses seriously might mean deeper cooperation with likeminded European allies under schemes such as PESCO or EDF—and that is okay. For others, such as Poland, it has meant buying a plethora of US- (and Korean-made) equipment—and that is okay, too.
I, for one, was heartened by von der Leyen and Metsola’s leadership on Israel and Hamas. It was equally clear from the beginning, however, that their genuine and well-intentioned efforts would not survive a first contact with Europe’s internal divisions. The resulting picture is a disappointing one, but it ought not to be surprising to anyone with a basic appreciation of realities, which make the prospect of the EU as a unitary geopolitical actor nothing more than a pipe dream.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. and a contributing editor with American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.
Image: "Free Palestine" graffiti in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Unsplash: Wassim Chouak)
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