Europe in a changing era: where to go?
Published: May 16, 2023 09:41 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

When French President Emmanuel Macron got back from his China trip, he talked a lot about European strategic autonomy. The Americans were quick to criticize and some Europeans expressed a sharply different view. Decoupling or de-risking, as they put it, points to a call for policy reorientation toward China amid rising tensions between the world's two largest economies. 

However, Macron's position is not without supporters, among whom is President of the European Council Charles Michel who visited China late last year on his own, breaking the tradition of joint travel with President of the European Commission. Europe is mired in a debate on how to approach international relations. 

With the Ukraine conflict dragging on, such a debate has only increased. Europe is going through Zeitenwende, to use German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's words, and seems perplexed in a changing era.

Boisterous Atlantic, bleeding Europe 

Ukraine is undoubtedly the game changer. It seems a foregone conclusion that as a result of the fighting, the world will see a more united Europe and closer trans-Atlantic ties. However, the effects of the crisis on the two sides of the Atlantic are so different that one cannot help but doubt that thought. While the US keeps sending arms and watching from afar, Europe is suffering the pain of war again since the end of the two great wars of the last century.

The old security framework has been lost. The nightmare of territorial rivalry once thought to be ancient has come back. With Russia becoming an enemy and more European countries joining NATO, any reconciliation seems illusive. Europe finds itself in a situation of insecurity and uncertainty. With the explosion of Nord Stream, the energy route linking Russia and Western Europe, the vital and arguably the last connection, has been removed. 

Socioeconomic consequences are obvious. High energy prices and skyrocketing inflation are wreaking havoc on the European economy. People are struggling to get used to a new and much less comfortable life. When they fail, they take to the street. Capital is fleeing to the US who is already scoring a big win from Europe's shifted energy dependence. Businesses are leaving too, due to America's exploitative Inflation Reduction Act. What is left for Europe is job loss and meager industries. As Henry Kissinger once said, "To be an enemy of the US is dangerous, but to be a friend is fatal."

World changing: more connected, more players

The world has changed in a way that multipolarity is no longer a concept but a reality. In this increasingly multipolar world, not only is the economic weight distributed among more players, but there have also been more diverging views on world affairs. 

European leaders acknowledge that the West has not won the discourse on Ukraine. The developing world is not siding with the West on their rounds of sanctions against Russia. Countries understand that in a globalized world, any action has spillover effects, and peace needs to be achieved in a well-designed global architecture, not to be dictated by any single power or group of powers.  

The Brazilian president is calling for a political G20 to resolve the Ukraine crisis, and China is promoting reconciliation in the Middle East and sending its envoy to relevant countries to seek political settlement on Ukraine. This would be unthinkable several years ago. The ability and willingness of the developing world to be part of the solution to world affairs is a sign of the emergence of a truly multipolar world. 

The situation, as it is, has caused uneasiness among some Europeans. The garden and jungle metaphor about the European civilization and the rest of the world laid bare that uneasiness and anxiety. 

Autonomy matters 

How would Europe identify itself in a new world? President Macron speaks of the "third superpower." Indeed, as a frontrunner of industrialization and the first region that has achieved a single market, Europe is seen as a qualified major player in the world community. European leaders have confirmed Europe's role, stressing the importance of strategic autonomy. 

Revisiting the trans-Atlantic relations is a necessary first step. The word "vassal" by Macron may be harsh, but it hits the point straightforwardly. For a long time after WWII, due to US aid for Europe's reconstruction and the Cold War, alliance with the US seemed well reasoned for Europe. The Atlanticists are obsessed with the default setting of ideological antagonism, which is delusional and out of time. In the wake of globalization since the 1970s, Europe's success has no longer relied on the US, but its own integration and closer ties with the rest of the world based on independent decision-making. 

Globalization is a double-edged sword. Connection brings opportunities and leads to dependence which can be risky. Risk builds when some members of the world community tend to take all the benefits and refuse to accommodate others. The US chooses to set up barriers and unilateral legislature to maintain its superiority at the cost of its allies and the world economy. In other parts of the world, countries seek to solve problems through collaboration and coordination, knowing that win-win is achievable. In the near term, the US can still easily deliver, thanks to the dominance of the dollar, its absolute power of technology and so much more. In the long run, however, its credibility is at stake and the behavioral pattern of "live and not let live" is clear for all to see. 

Some clear-minded Europeans keep warning their governments of the dangerous dependence on the US and point to China as a builder of peace and a contributor to global prosperity. But their views are being ignored. A more vocal China questions bluntly that how come a country that has never started a war is a threat, while a country that keeps fighting is the savior. China is now actively engaged in seeking political settlement to the Ukraine crisis. Interestingly, would China be seen as a bigger threat if it succeeds, as it is now powerful enough to do something that even the most powerful countries are unable to do? 

In a changing era, there is no fixed default setting. New challenges require cooperation by all. Some in the US are hysterical about maintaining a unipolar world which has never existed. Reality proves them wrong. Many in the world are looking for arrangements more inclusive and effective to uphold the post-WWII international order and promote justice in the international community. Where does Europe stand in this multi-polar world? As one of the major forces, Europe is expected to offer its own answer. 

The author is an observer on international affairs. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn