We must stop pretending the EU is a great power

This is a tale of two delusional think tank meetings I have recently attended, illustrating how far gone is most political risk analysis regarding the status of the EU. Cheerleading has taken the place of thinking, as the simple fact is that Brussels is funding many of the supposedly independent observers at such conclaves. To expect critical thinking from “experts” whose financial imperatives revolve around keeping the EU’s mandarins happy is to expect too much.

At the first meeting, I found myself sitting on a panel with an American Wilsonian. He was representing the Democratic Party view of US relations with China, while I represented the Republican Party view. After a good discussion, questions came from the primarily European audience. The first revolved around the fact that the questioner wanted to know where the EU fits into the strategic picture of the Sino-American cold war, as wasn’t it so that Brussels must be counted as the world’s third great superpower?

Even though it was a Zoom call, my Wilsonian counterpart — whom I agreed with over almost nothing — and I exchanged ironic glances. Finally, for all his innate pro-EU inclinations, he brutally told the questioner the truth: The EU, while a trading superpower and a huge internal market, simply doesn’t play at the global strategic level as a great power (let alone a superpower), as it is less and less economically dynamic, is endemically politically divided and is militarily (other than France) impotent. In the shocked silence that followed, I quipped that I wanted to cede all my time to my Democratic counterpart for having the temerity to tell the brainwashed audience the truth — that the EU simply isn’t a great power.

If this is so, my second think tank meeting focused on the nub of the problem: A mercantilist, neutralist, isolationist-leaning Germany. In standard fashion, the German think tank denizen sent to debate me made all the usual excuses; while I am right to be critical, Germany (in that most galling of phrases) “would now do its homework,” easily overcoming a generation’s-worth of historical and empirical evidence to the contrary, and would decisively right its ship of state over the coming months.

Exasperated, and tired of the analytical lying at cocktail parties, I brutally interjected that the reality is that Germany would do nothing over the next year and change nothing, as its people prefer their cosseted lifestyle (and genteel decline) to the real sacrifices that would be involved in paying for a relevant military and crafting a common European foreign policy. I was met by hateful stares and a sullen, unchallenged silence, for what could they say, given the last decades of Berlin’s holiday from history?

Crises intellectually clarify, even for the most obtuse observers. Two recent challenges to Brussels from the world’s revisionist powers, China and Russia, ought to make plain that wishful thinking has taken the place of facts-based political risk assessments of an EU that is so much less than meets the eye.

First, tiny Lithuania — to the fury of Beijing — has decided to favor Taiwan in the crafting of its foreign and economic policy. China responded by putting pressure on Vilnius and defying the EU, particularly Germany, to do anything about this. While in the past few days, the EU launched a legal action against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO) after Beijing restricted or blocked imports from and exports to Lithuania, Berlin responded precisely as I would have predicted — that is, in a neutralist, isolationist, mercantilist manner — and not as EU cheerleaders would have it. Glumly aware, as an export-driven superpower, that China, for the fifth year in a row, is its largest export destination, Germany is pressing Brussels to tone down its criticism of China and to de-escalate the controversy.

Major German companies, particularly carmakers heavily dependent on trade with Beijing, have warned Vilnius that they will pull out of Lithuania unless the dispute is quickly settled. For, despite all its usual blather about how much the EU means to it, when push comes to shove and with its now economic interests on the line, Berlin has seen to its commercial interests  at the expense of European unity.

Likewise, over the Ukraine crisis, in a basic way President Vladimir Putin is airing his grievances. As such, in the earliest days of the crisis, Moscow met with the US, NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, not with the EU.

Why should he? In practical terms, Moscow met great power to superpower (the US), with the world’s most important military alliance (NATO) and with the largest gathering of transatlantic states (the OSCE). The EU simply does not play a major role in strategic terms; for Putin to prioritize meeting with Brussels would have been a colossal waste of time. While a shocked Brussels looked impotently on (and I am shocked that they are shocked), Putin made it clear that, in a crisis, the EU simply does not have the relevance its cheerleaders dream of. Nor is this state of affairs likely to change.

Instead of swallowing comforting, if delusional, fairy tales about its far-flung importance, it is time to analytically shout from the rooftops the obvious: That the EU emperor simply isn’t wearing any clothes.

This post was originally published in Arab News.