Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


Once acknowledged that the timing and nature of the Afghanistan withdrawal were set in Washington without involving the Europeans, it was not a phone call from one of his American, Australian or British counterparts that informed the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell about a new Anglophonic defence alliance designed to tackle China.

Perhaps more than anything,   the AUKUS affair (with the EU and

even France, losing to Washington a US$66 billion contract to provide Australia with a fleet of submarines) demonstrates the vastly different positions the EU and US occupy towards China.

AUKUS really shows that the focus on China is so intense as the disregard for the collateral damage on other parts of the world while American embassies continue to prod European capitals on a near-daily basis to toughen their positions on China.


The creation  of the institution of the High Representative (HR)  of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy was supposed to strengthen  the EU’s diplomatic capacity. Yet the Union’s achievements in managing conflicts and crises have been very modest. Weak political unity, institutional cohesion and policy instruments, including hard power to back up soft tools, are frequently cited reasons for the limited success.

The wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, in Georgia in 2008 and in Libya in 2011, and the talks over Iran’s nuclear programme have shown the limits of EU diplomacy. The United States initially chose to stay in the background, pushing the EU to lead but soon realized that EU countries , in  a rare show of diplomatic disunity,  failed to reach a common position both  in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and in other fora. Thus the US were forced to intervene  exposing the weakness of European forces and highlighting the lack of a common strategic culture of EU member states.

The rivalry and contestation of today’s world should be reason enough for the European Union to act as a cohesive force, if only to avoid being outmanoeuvred by major powers. Yet EU countries and institutions are still struggling to set aside their differences and focus on the common interest.

Are the EU Member States ready for a Geopolitical Europe  ?

China’s rising power, along with its growing geo-political and geo-economic ambitions, continue to raise concerns among the transatlantic community. The EU has yet to agree on a common strategy towards China. While member states differ in their approach, China has been successfully using various tools to undermine a coherent and strong challenge from the Union. Many ask when and what kind of red lines need to be drawn.

A new foreign and security policy approach is needed for the EU, an economic giant but a political dwarf. The challenges coming from China, Russia, and non-state actors are threatening the basic democratic values of the Union and are hindering its work on the global stage. Solutions should be found in strengthening the EU’s foreign and security policy, but also take a stand to protect democracy inside and outside the EU. One of the biggest threats are the attempts to divide the EU and reduce the confidence of the citizens in European institutions, values, and policies.

If the EU aims to be an influential foreign policy power, the EU member states need to act together towards a common strategic culture, to aspire to a common understanding of security challenges (both nominal and geographical), and to develop a coherent strategic vision of foreign and security policy.

Europe surely needs to become more united, federal and politically significant and reliable.  To help Europe in this regard an asset higher than economic power should intervene: the European culture. The sense of European identity and selfhood  started with the Greeks and the Romans and permeated the Old Continent towards a European federation based, in addition to economic and political goals, on explicit cultural ideals and objectives.

The fall of the Berlin Wall combined with the ensuing increased physical and intellectual mobility have created a perfect breeding ground  in which spatial, temporal, cultural, linguistic, and stylistic heterogeneity thrive. Europe is not only the geographical and imaginative space where these and other developments have taken place but it is also the project of a political integration based on a European literary identity out of linguistic and cultural diversity.

This is why comprehensive, multidisciplinary institutions, with a long-term vision, bright students and talented staff members are badly needed. Universities, by engaging with society and creating societal added value,  are one of the very few forces capable of  expanding the European cultural and literary identity while performing outstanding research and forging scientific breakthroughs.

How about decoupling Europe from US?

With the United States  withdrawing a portion of its armed forces from Germany, the leaders of major European states made a number of statements to the effect that the EU needs to become an independent geopolitical power and prepare to assume a new role in a world where the United States is no longer a leader.

These remarks may well herald the inception of a new strategic EU policy, which, even though marked by continued US military presence, will be based on the EU plan to take on a more prominent and independent role in building a security architecture in Europe. However, this will require the EU to not only become more independent in matters of defence and security, but also show greater cohesion and willingness to articulate and uphold its own political and economic interests.

However, while  France and Germany are advocating greater EU autonomy from Washington in matters of security and defence, not all EU states are supportive of greater EU autonomy from the United States. The Eastern European EU members (primarily Poland) chose to take advantage of the situation and reinforce their ties with Washington. Unlike Germany, they are willing to spend their budgetary funds on defence (the 2 percent of GDP in question) and even to allocate money for keeping the US troops.

Anyway, it should be borne in mind that even with the EU’s stronger desire to ensure its security, NATO is not going anywhere, but European states (primarily France and Germany) should  be able to assume the leading role in organizing NATO missions in adjacent regions (such as the Mediterranean) while assuming the bulk of the financial burden.

What's next?

Leading the charge is President Macron of France, then there’s chancellor Olaf Scholz of  Germany, the  successor of Mrs. Merkel.

For her last act of European leadership, Ms. Merkel tried to seal Europe’s orientation toward China. She pushed for the Comprehensive Investment Agreement, which opens China’s market to investment by European corporations, and tried to finalize it in December 2020. Coming just before Joe Biden took office, the agreement was Ms. Merkel’s version of European Strategic Autonomy: an assertion that on economic and climate Europe, unlike America, Europe preferred cooperation with China to confrontation.

But the attempt failed. The reality, starkly stated, is that neither the German chancellor nor the French government can lead Europe. And in the absence of leadership, Europe is headed for one thing: stasis.

How should the EU go ahead?

A strong global EU agenda is  needed to protect our interests and values. It has become clear that the EU needs to be ready to act collectively each time possible but autonomously each time it must. This Strategic Autonomy should, in the context of an increased Sino-American rivalry, also provide more leverage to implement our vision of what a cooperative, rule-based order should be in accordance with the values we promote, but also with our concrete interests.

There is no doubt that competition (economic, security, health, digital) between China and the US will be devastating for Europe’s security and prosperity and for the stability of our neighbourhood (East and South). We should not as well forget the spoiler role played by Russia in our neighbourhood. However, going its "own way" does not mean for the EU renouncing to cooperation with the US and China

The EU is  "trapped in the middle" of the two superpowers even if we share with the US essential values and interests that we do not share with China.  What we need to do, however, is to set policy options to redefine current asymmetric dependence (military, financial ones) and limit abuse of US central place in the international order. It is not just about burden sharing (NATO) it is also about taking responsibility on the international scene (or at least in EU backyard).

Systemic rivalry with China does not mean that we have no common interests with Beijing. We have to learn, as the Chinese teach us on a daily basis, how to practice constructive ambiguity and complex duality. For that we need to stop giving lessons to the world.

To achieve Strategic Autonomy the EU must be better prepared to move away from current "ad-hoc responses" which come with too little and too late to a true European vision of our own future with concrete priorities.


The EU faces the difficult task of managing its complex relations with Beijing and Washington in a way that protects the rules-based global order from further harm.

EU, which is instinctively multilateralist, sees that China’s priorities and values do not coincide with its own.  China’s military power is beginning to match its economic power. Its goal is to have forces by 2049 that can fight and win global wars. Moreover, China’s strategy of ‘military-civil fusion’ is designed to incorporate innovative civilian technologies into military systems.

China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas threatens Europe’s democratic partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Europe is watching nervously to see whether China and the US are caught in the so-called Thucydides Trap, in which conflict between the rising power and the status quo power becomes inevitable. Despite historical examples of such conflicts, however, the US and China are not in the same situation as Athens and Sparta: they are economically interdependent and nuclear armed.

The construction of the EU has not always been smooth. Periods of speedy European integration were followed by periods of “eurosclerosis.” The last 15 years were marred by crises. They started out with the failed draft European constitution followed by the Eurozone problems, the migration crisis and Brexit. The Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have effectively raised the question of the EU’s survival within the existing model.

Furthermore, the EU institutions (European Commission, European Parliament and Council) have diverging opinions on the aims and outcomes on the Future of Europe.


The 21st century started with a major economic and financial crisis followed by terrorist attacks on European soil, conflicts in Eastern Europe and in the Mediterranean, flows of refugees,  the UK decision to leave the EU, and an unprecedented global pandemic. To add insult to injury, an anti-European narrative started believing that criticizing the EU was much less complicated and much more convenient if done while remaining inside the EU instead of following the Brexit  example. Probably staying in the EU is very convenient, even if you do not like every aspect of the organization.

The EU cannot afford to leave the future of the world to be settled in a series of trials of strength between Beijing and Washington. For the foreseeable future, the three big economic and political powers in the world will be China, the US and the EU and the triangular relations between them will contain elements of attraction and elements of hostility.

But on the other hand, Europe is a very far from China, and Beijing poses no threat to the territorial integrity of any European states or to other basic elements of their national security. China is not going to invade Europe, attack it with nuclear weapons, or sponsor large-scale terrorist attacks there. Even a vastly more powerful Chinese navy is not going to sail halfway around the world and try to impose a blockade. Nor is China about to send millions of refugees to Europe’s borders. So what is there for Europe to balance against China?

Europeans are going to focus primarily on dangers arising closer to home, and most European countries will be deeply reluctant to put lives or prosperity at risk to help maintain the regional balance of power in Asia. Europe must therefore  steps up its efforts to define its own interests and priorities not only in geo-economic but also in geopolitical terms.

There’s clearly a tendency in the United States to try and build walls against China and to see China primarily as a threat. But in Europe, China is seen as an opportunity. The United States wants to confront China, the European Union wants to engage China.  The EU must be independent from the United States, able to defend its own interests, whether economic or strategic interests.