The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s army heralds a global ‘turning point’, so western pundits and politicians claim. How is the European Union (EU) dealing with this? And what about the EU’s aspirations to become a leading independent world power?
Not so long ago, the EU grandees were startled by the policies of US President Donald Trump: punitive tariffs on EU trade goods, ‘NATO is obsolete’, support for Brexit, etc. They were getting very worried about the stability of the transatlantic alliance between the US and the EU. From now on, they proclaimed, the EU would strive to become an independent world power: militarily, economically, and trade-wise on par with the US, Russia, and China. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen propagated this vision with pithy catchwords: geopolitical commission, common army of Europeans, strategic sovereignty of the EU.
Strategic sovereignty should be achieved in the military field, the major EU think tanks recommended at the time. The EU should also strive for global leadership in so-called ‘future technologies’ – such as chip production, big data, digitalization, artificial intelligence, platform economy, bio- and nanotechnology, genetic engineering, neuroscience, and ‘human enhancement’.
As far as armament, military build-up, and capacities are concerned, the EU has made rather slow or modest progress concerning the ‘Permanent Structured Cooperation’ (PESCO) or the EU Defense Fund. Neither there nor in the field of ‘future technologies’ does it come close to reaching a level on par with the US or China. The EU’s dream of strategic sovereignty is a mirage.
After Biden: Re-Alignment of the Global West
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has once again rallied NATO and the global West behind US geopolitics. The northern expansion of NATO to include Sweden and Finland is symbolic of this.
Just a few years earlier, France’s President Emmanuel Macron declared NATO “brain dead” and also rejected further EU expansion to the east. He called for an independent EU balancing policy toward Russia and pledged for increased EU geopolitical-military engagement in the Sahel (northern Africa). There is now an interesting silence in Paris about all this.
This is also because of the failure of the Mali operation (in which the German Bundeswehr was also involved). The declining ability of major EU-powers such as France and Germany to keep control over African client states is very telling.
Concerning the EU’s quest for strategic sovereignty at large, a different scenario is developing:
- The previous fault lines within the EU – the ‘frugal five’ (the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland), the EU South, the Eastern European Visegrad (Slavic) states – these still subsist and get mixed with new lines of conflict. The Berlin-Paris leadership axis has only been kept together in a makeshift way, finally facilitating agreement on the EU’s recovery programme or Next Generation EU to tackle the effects of the corona pandemic.
- The Franco-German leadership duo now subordinates itself to US geopolitics (proxy war in Ukraine between Russia and NATO). France’s government remains a bit hesitant, while Germany’s acts with increasing verve in support of the US and NATO;
- US President Joe Biden uses the loyal governments of Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltic states, (and increasingly Sweden and Finland) to press the rest of the EU into its geopolitical line and thus weaken the Franco-German tandem. This is reminiscent of the strategy of US President G. W. Bush in the second Iraq war: to position ‘New Europe’ (EU-Eastern Europe) in his coalition of the willing against ‘Old Europe’ (Germany, France);
- The EU’s energy boycott against Russia is not supported by some of its member states that are particularly dependent on Russian gas and oil supplies – not only Hungary and Bulgaria, but e.g., also Austria and Italy;
- French President Macron and more than a dozen other governments of EU countries were calling for an EU-wide gas price cap, while Germany and the Netherlands were opposing it. The recent EU-Summit could only agree on a face-saving compromise. They do not want to introduce a binding price limit, but rather a temporary ‘dynamic price corridor’ for emergencies, in order not to restrict the market forces too much and to leave it to national governments (according to their financial means) how to act …;
- The well-known conflicts of the EU with the governments of Hungary and Poland regarding compliance to the rule of law and democracy are boiling up again in the media. Ursula von der Leyen threatens Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with financial sanctions but keeps all back doors open for an ‘amicable settlement’ with Hungary;
- In the Eastern Mediterranean, the conflict between Turkey and the Greek government over Erdogan’s territorial claims to some Greek islands in the Aegean Sea and exploration rights to undersea gas and oil fields is only narrowly avoiding military confrontation.
The French and German leaderships currently are not only in conflict on issues such as the gas-price cap. Macron is dissatisfied with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s decision that the German government will buy a large amount of weaponry from the US and Israel for its €100-billion rearmament programme for the Bundeswehr (Federal Defence). The upshot: so-called national interests remain central to EU policy-making. These are at the core of the strategies and tactics of national bourgeois leaderships – in a spirit of ‘dog eat dog’.
Meanwhile, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, radically reinterpreted the previous EU vision. The ‘geopolitical Commission’ now aims to strengthen the strategic sovereignty of NATO and the global West as a whole – not that of an independent EU. Von der Leyen, on the other hand, is doing her best to dress up this fragmentation of the EU with flowery speeches. But it is obvious that the EU’s independent ability to steer and act is diminishing. It is increasingly acting as a subordinate vassal of the US Empire.
Toward a ‘Greater Europe’?
Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are now pleading for a ‘big bang’: the states of the Western Balkans as well as Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia should be swiftly admitted to the EU. Also, they (and Macron) want to tie Great Britain and Turkey into a loose ‘geopolitical community’.
Just how utopian this is can be seen in the fact that the governments of the UK and Turkey are pursuing independent agendas that run counter to the EU – tactical moves toward better co-operation with the EU left aside.
Even according to the EU’s economic accession criteria, Ukraine, in particular – and also the other envisaged candidates for Eastern enlargement – are not equipped for this. There are many doubts as well about compliance with official EU requirements on the rule of law (because of widespread corruption, restrictions on the freedom of the press, etc., in those countries – just to mention a few concerns). But that hardly counts anymore, because geopolitics now has absolute priority.
Ex-Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble dreams of a new EU leadership triumvirate of Germany, France, and Poland and a European ‘communitarization’ of the French and British nuclear weapons potentials. Other German commentators rightly consider this unrealistic and increasingly call for an independent German nuclear armament. So – let’s all make a bomb?
The ‘Greater Europe’ project coincides with NATO’s well-known strategy for its eastward expansion. If it were realized, those forces within an enlarged EU that further cement US dominance over Europe would be strengthened with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Scholz and von der Leyen may think that they can keep ’Greater Europe’ essentially under German leadership – in friendly co-operation with the US – but, not only in my view, this is equally a mirage.
Think about what might happen if the US Democrats lose control of the Congress and the Senate. Then Biden would be a lame duck. And what about the next two years toward US presidential elections – if the Trumpist camp should win, what then? The US would possibly be more concerned with an already sharpening internal polarization (Red vs. Blue), maybe even some kind of civil war emerging. What could this mean for Europe? EU pundits and experts who follow US developments are very alarmed. If Trumpists should come back with a vengeance, all the current tales of a successful reinforcement of the transatlantic partnership between the EU and the US under Biden – would be blown apart.
Shock Therapy 2.0 in Ukraine
The EU has already recognized Ukraine as a candidate for EU membership – initially more of a symbolic act. Ursula von der Leyen has further promised Ukraine easier access to the EU’s internal market. What is this all about?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initially put the costs of a reconstruction programme for Ukraine at $350-billion. Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs Robert Habeck had to swallow at first in view of this demanded sum. This could not be raised by the ‘community of democratic states’ – private investments would have to play a decisive role.
These have long been underway in the form of an internal land grab by Western investors in Ukraine, in the field of agriculture, raw materials, and especially ‘rare earths’. This is to be exacerbated by an even more extensive privatization program. The labour market in Ukraine has already been drastically deregulated by the Zelenskyy regime along neoliberal lines.
Ukraine’s ‘facilitated access to the EU Single Market’ is a project about which capitalists from the EU and the US, in particular, can rub their hands with glee: low labour costs, gagged trade unions, using the selling off of sectors of the Ukrainian economy as a springboard for cheaply exporting to the EU. However, that Ukraine could preserve or achieve its sovereignty via a ‘victory peace’ over Russia is also a mirage. It is firmly in the financial grip of the IMF, the G7, the US, and the EU. Whoever will govern that country will feel the effects.
From Aspiring EU Free Trade with China to Open Enmity
As recently as 2020, the EU wanted to conclude a free trade agreement with China under pressure from Angela Merkel – which did not materialize. It is well known that German capital, in particular, invests heavily in China and that Germany is the largest exporter of goods (especially for manufacturing) to China.
The US governments since Obama were different. They set their sights early on economic ‘de-coupling’ from China and striving for a global leadership role for the US in the aforementioned ‘future technologies’. They have always been concerned with containing, if not destroying, China’s economic rise. This was militarily flanked, for example, by Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy (expansion of US military bases in the Indo-Pacific region), by Trump’s punitive tariff policy, and by Biden’s AUKUS (Australia, UK, US) pact.
Meanwhile, at the Madrid summit, NATO classified China as “systemic competition” (= potential enemy). Complementary to the US ‘de-coupling’, a military investment programme for ‘future technologies’ was also launched – Defense Innovation Accelerator of the North Atlantic (DIANA).
Biden now calls for ‘pre-emptive economic sanctions’ by the West against China and has already stepped up its sanctions against China. The German government, in particular, is puzzling over how it can support this verbally but circumvent it practically. The debate about Germany withdrawing from business with China has been raging for some time. The German government – it seems – is most probably ready to bow to Biden’s pressure. Scholz is internally very much under pressure from the Greens on this.
What is the ‘Other Side’ Doing?
A new global bloc confrontation is emerging: the global West against the rest of the world. Antipode to the West is the perhaps emerging Eurasian bloc led by China – with Russia in tow as an energy, raw materials, and weapons supplier. Russia’s GDP is smaller than Italy’s, but its status as a nuclear power remains. As Perry Anderson analysed in the 2015 essay “Incommensurate Russia,” China and Russia are the core of a potentially enlarged East-South bloc that is still very heterogeneous, even if there are the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), with which Erdogan is now also flirting.
The Chinese leadership does not want to completely spoil things with the West, just as the ‘progressive’ governments in Latin America or the African regimes do not. They are pledging for a ‘multipolar world order’ – meaning playing for time to build a financial, trade, and investment regime alternative to the global West and escape the already devastating consequences of the Western sanctions regime. For Erdogan’s Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran, India (and perhaps Israel), their scope to pursue more independent ‘regional’ strategies is widening. These regimes’ policies were already reactionary when they were (more or less) aligned with the Global West in the past WWII settlements, and their regimes’ current policies do not promise anything progressive.
Western Sanctions Policy, Global Economic Warfare: ‘Blowback’
Already, sanctions policies are having disastrous effects, especially in the global South (increasing food shortages and energy price hikes – not only as a result of the Ukraine War). Inflation and the cost-of-living crisis also heavily affect the EU. Those who suffer are the wage earners and the poor: the loss of purchasing power due to high inflation and the loss of jobs due to company insolvencies are increasingly being felt. Germany’s Minister for Economic Affairs, Robert Habeck, estimates the loss of prosperity in Germany alone due to war and Russia sanctions at €160-billion. This is the social and ecological ‘blowback’ of this economic war, which harms ordinary people in the EU far into the so-called middle class more than Putin’s Russia.
The previous official declarations of wanting to fight climate change and biodiversity loss are now being set back in the face of LNG (liquefied gas) imports from US/Qatar, and the extension of coal use and nuclear power plants. The EU Green Deal and also Biden’s programme in the US (Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice) are in any case totally inadequate to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goals. Global climate protection programmes are being pushed further into the background, although the timeline to take bold action on this is only about 10 years.
The global ‘poly-crises’ (pandemic, increasing refugee flows, climate collapse, recession) are rather aggravated by this policy. A new (global) economic recession is widely expected. The interest-rate policies of the major central banks, US Fed, Bank of England, and European Central Bank (ECB), have a crisis-reinforcing effect. Inflation is essentially driven by higher energy prices, not by a wage-price spiral of the trade unions. General interest-rate hikes can do little against this.
There is a threat of a new euro crisis, because financial market players are again targeting highly indebted euro states in the EU South. This is also ‘politically’ motivated, as Georgia Meloni’s right-wing bloc with Berlusconi and Salvini won the recent election in Italy, and the new Italian government intends to drastically lower taxes (for the rich), as recently ousted UK Prime Minister Liz Truss tried to do (posing as a new incarnation of Margaret Thatcher). From this followed financial turmoil and a steep fall of the British pound. The spread of Italian government bonds (compared to German Bunds) could increase again. It remains to be seen whether the ECB, with its Transmission Protection Instrument (TPI), has a suitable means at its disposal to contain a renewed fragmentation of the eurozone and keep the smoldering euro crisis under wraps, as it has done so far. In any case, TPI is connected to demanding austerity from those countries that might need such support and protection from the ECB.
Review and Outlook
US economist Thomas Palley is one of the early critics of the monetarist architecture of the European Economic and Monetary Union and the euro regime. In his recent study on the global dollar hegemony, he also provides a remarkable analysis of the ‘geopolitical incoherence of the EU’.
“… it can be argued that the euro (and the European Union) suffers from over-expansion that has incorporated Central and Eastern European countries that are politically alien and have divergent political interests. Additionally, Europe has chosen to play camp follower to the US as regards geo-politics and conflict. (…)
“That has been visibly on display in the Ukraine conflict from which Europe has suffered enormously, whereas the US has been a net geo-political beneficiary. Europe has suffered huge economic costs in the form of energy supply disruption, inflation, and loss of the huge Russian export market for luxury and capital goods. Contrastingly, the US has gained new energy markets in Europe, ensnared Europe in even greater subservience to the US military, and created permanently heightened tensions with Russia that benefit the US geo-politically. Those factors are reflected in the 2022 surge in the value of the dollar and fall in the value of the euro.”
For decades, the EU propagated a self-image of itself as a ‘peace union’. Certainly, the arch-enmity between Germany and France from two world wars was overcome. But Western European integration (EEC, EC, EU) was in fact a product of the Cold War. The project of a peace union, if it were seriously pursued, is incompatible with economic and military-might power politics.
Russia’s mobilization, the annexation of territories occupied by the Russian army, and the threat of a nuclear strike have escalated the Ukraine war to a new level. This has become evident with the latest Russian missile and drone attacks on critical infrastructure of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. As in any real war, for the opponents there is no distinction between civilian and military targets. This is also true for the Ukraine governments since the emerging civil war after the 2014 Euro-Maidan with the regular bombarding of civil targets in the separatist self-declared people’s republics in the Donbas.
The antagonistic bloc formation, i.e., the global West against an emerging East-South alliance, does not bode well for the future. There is a much bigger wheel being turned than ‘only’ the Ukraine war at the heart of Europe. The governments of the US, NATO and Russia consider a nuclear war (with mini-nukes and hypersonic missiles) to be feasible. Biden warned of the very real possibility of a nuclear “Armageddon” and his administration is currently preparing for such a scenario (e.g., modernising US nukes in Germany, and making Australia fit for launching nukes in the Pacific). The devastation of a nuclear exchange between the US and Russia alone would be worse than that of WWI and WWII combined – and then think about the second front against China.
“What we need instead is a policy based on détente, cooperation and peaceful coexistence. (…) Because peace is not everything, but without peace everything else is nothing” (Oskar Lafontaine). Building pressure from below for freezing the Ukraine war, establishing an immediate ceasefire, and returning to the primacy of diplomatic negotiations – these are the order of the day. Even if initially, there are only small minorities campaigning for this.
Remember 1969: Edwin Starr (War, what is it good for?) – absolutely nothing! •
This article first published in German in the Zeitschrift-Marxistische-Erneuerung journal, Nr. 133, March 2023.