The pivot to Asia and the future of Europe

If the goddess Europa, were to be alive in 2021, she would need to muster all her wisdom, diplomatic and political skills with a great amount of economic, social, and cultural knowledge of herself and others, which, according to international actors, she does not possess. In the end, instead of being abducted, it would simply live an insignificant life, unnoticed… or?

When talking about the future of Europe many dwell on it as becoming globally insignificant with the rise of Chinese economic hegemony, a deeply self-assertive Russia and the global retreat of U.S. power. Current rivalries are not focused on the European continent, but towards the Indo-Pacific region. The question is, where lies the significance of the European continent in the current shift of global power and the formation of a new multipolar international order? September has been turbulent enough for the continent, let along the coming six months. On the brink of the 4th pandemic wave, the strategically flawed US-led exit from Afghanistan possibly instigating a new migratory wave, power is changing within and outside of Europe including new leaders in Germany and France. 

First, the issue of Chinese influence on the continent has been part of heated political debate in the European Union. Current numbers show, Chinese investment on the continent fell to a 10-year low, to only 10% of its 2016 peak of 44 billion euros. Currently, the main question is not if FDI in Europe is useful or not, but how it can become less dependent on investments from abroad including technology, manufacturing, security and innovation. Raising Europe’s global significance first requires the EU to reimagine its own economy. The Commission President’s idea of a new European Chips Act is only the first step to become self-sufficient and globally competitive. Because of the complexity and immense computing capacity semiconductors are the key to winning the future both economically and security-wise. They will be integrated as health-suppliers, communications, transport and security systems which people use on a daily basis. The EU’s new Horizon2020 program is also a good opportunity to develop new technologies and foster innovation among the 27 Member States. Only a joined-up approach can make the EU competitive and less dependent vis-á-vis the US or China.

Second, the United States as the “main” European security provider has continued its partial retreat from the continent. Trump’s plan to remove American troops from Germany, Biden’s exit from Afghanistan and reviving “The Quad” including their joint pivot to Asia have put the safety and security of Europe into question. As frightening as it may sound this also creates a window of opportunity to continue building a true defense Union. Von der Leyen’s State of the Union speech mentioned situations where NATO or the UN will not be involved but the EU “should be”. Referring to the complex hybrid nature of future security challenges, the EU can bring to the table a set of tools and knowledge that stems from its sui generis nature. It has a greater capability -including democratic legitimacy stemming from the European Council- in instigating institutional renewal, than other international institutions created in the aftermath of World War 2 such as the U.N. or NATO. It is the diversity of capabilities of Member States that make it weak and strong at the same time. When uncoordinated it is weak in action, however when the institutions and member states coordinate the EU can instigate a lot of change, such as taking on climate ambitions or providing rapid aid through its Civil Protection Mechanism. Moreover, the EU is regionally active with 17 civilian/military missions and operations as part of its Common Security and Defense Policy. This shows that it is capable of a limited hybrid power projection.

Finally, while it was relatively successful in creating economic integration, social integration has been less visible, while its security is only based on member states capabilities. Even though the Permanent Structured Cooperation has been somewhat invisible; the establishment of a 5000-strong rapid reaction force has been backed up by 14 EU members during the Slovenian Presidency. A new military doctrine and the Strategic Compass will be ready by 2022 as the effects of Brexit in the area of defense still linger in the air. The coming years will define what path the EU will take in this uncharted territory, but with enough political leverage from its Member States it can become a regionally significant actor. It all comes down to closing the gap between ambition and capabilities. The road will be difficult and challenging, still, Europa has the chance to shape her own future.

29.09.2021. Aron James Miszlivetz