EU eyes geopolitical power in 2021 SOUA, loses faith in US
Published: Sep 16, 2021 08:46 PM
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech during a debate on The State of the European Union at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on September 15. Photo: AFP

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech during a debate on "The State of the European Union" at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on September 15. Photo: AFP

EU's 2021 State of the Union Address (SOUA), delivered by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, can be seen as a vow of the bloc - time to get real to make the EU a geopolitical power. 

Compared to the 2020 edition of the SOUA, much of which was about the anti-pandemic fight, this year, COVID-19 is no longer an overwhelming theme. A number of coordination plans among EU members and proposals on global cooperation have been raised. The EU has regained confidence, regardless of the still-lingering economic pressure. 

Von der Leyen applauded the EU's achievements in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, announced a new European Chips Act, a new Social Climate Fund, a new Afghan Support Package, stressed the EU need of a European Defense Union, and unveiled EU's new connectivity strategy called Global Gateway. "We are entering a new era of hyper-competitiveness," she said, suggesting Europe become "a more active global player."

The EU is no longer satisfied with being a major economic player. It hopes to turn into a vital polar of strategically autonomous geopolitical forces in the world. This is the vision signaled by von der Leyen when she swore to lead a "geopolitical commission" soon after assuming office. 

The most prominent example is that the EU has voiced multiple times its wish to boost the unions' own defense capability. "Europe can - and clearly should - be able and willing to do more on its own," von der Leyen noted on Wednesday, announcing that under the upcoming French presidency of the EU Council, a "Summit on European defence" will be convened. 

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is clearly a catalyst for the EU to take big steps forward on strengthening its defense. Europe opposes not only the withdrawal but also the way it was done. More importantly, many Europeans believe that the Afghan pullout is a sign that the US is returning to isolationism and becoming increasingly unreliable. So they want to reduce their dependence on Washington, Feng Zhongping, director of Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, told the Global Times. 

The EU and the US may seem to have coordinated closely on global affairs, especially on China strategy, but divergences between them are growing. 

Ganging up, the EU wishes to protest the West's advantage in the global order, while the US aims at maintaining its own hegemony, Sun Keqin, a research fellow at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times. Economically, Washington has been promoting a "decoupling" with China, but most European countries are against the call, as they will only sacrifice their own development opportunities and practical interests. US President Joe Biden has been trying to heal the wounds in the transatlantic relationship, yet he has achieved little. Disputes ranging from the North Stream 2 project to Iran policy still exist. 

Their value diplomacy may seem to be gaining momentum. For instance, von der Leyen proposed a ban on products made by forced labor, without naming names on Wednesday. On the same day local time, the US announced the creation of AUKUS, a trilateral security partnership among Australia, the UK and the US, to deliver a nuclear-powered submarine fleet for Australia to patrol the Indo-Pacific. China was also not mentioned, but everyone knows who the new alliance is targeting at. 

Nevertheless, it could be only a coincidence that these two cases occurred on the same day. The EU's tough rhetoric about China may be increasing, but it won't dare to go to extremes like the US has done, Sun said. Some observers are also concerned whether the EU's policy toward China will change after German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down. "At the government level, a U-turn will not come," according to Feng, as there will be at least one major political party in the future coalition government, and a major party won't make subversive moves. 

European diplomacy is driven by two wheels - interests and values. Once value diplomacy impacts interests, a pendulum effect will emerge. 

When the Western media outlets cover the Global Gateway, they tend to claim that its goal is countering the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This may partly be true. But don't overlook this fact - the EU is not interested in relying on a US-initiated Build Back Better World; it wants a "BRI" of its own. 

EU's aim to become a geopolitical power is not only a response to the era of major power competition, but also the result of losing confidence in the US. They will keep cooperating under the framework of alliance. Unfortunately, the framework is getting rickety.