For Germany to have allowed non-Nato member Ireland to set parameters on Brexit is a gamble

The EU's dependence on Nato for security and Germany's dependence on Russia for energy has created a disjunction at the heart of the European project.

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Geopolitical matters have long raised awkward questions for the European Union. Indeed, its existence is in part a geopolitical paradox. For a political entity with substantial confederal features it looks historically odd. Confederations have tended to have a geopolitical justification, and they have vested what common powers their centres possessed in the security sphere. By contrast, the EU states do not perceive a common geopolitical threat and the union lacks a coherent foreign policy or common military capacity. In some respects, the EU aims to be an example to the world of how geopolitics can be transcended.

Since geopolitics is in reality inescapable, the EU faces some sharp questions without much capacity to answer them. These problems are evident in matters of where the EU begins and ends, and beyond its present borders. The treaties the EU has negotiated in recent years for associate membership for Ukraine, withdrawal for Britain and a singular new framework for Switzerland’s economic relationship could not be ratified in the non-EU or exiting state. In the Balkans even the appearance of common union decision-making has unravelled, first over the agreement struck with Turkey in March 2016, and now in managing relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

But at the centre of the EU’s geopolitical confusion sits Nato and Germany’s relationship to it. During the Cold War years West Germany was both the reason why American presidents pushed west European states towards forming a common political entity and why the political entity that emerged lacked common security powers. For Washington, a west European confederation with military capacity would have been preferable to a European Economic Community based on a customs union that discriminated against American exports. Without it the US had to contribute disproportionately to western European security via Nato. But French governments in the 1950s could not accept sharing French military power with West Germany. Consequently, West Germany’s rearmament took place under the auspices of Nato, not the abortive European Defence Community.

Nato was, however, far from unproblematic for West Germany. And it did confront an identifiable geopolitical rival, and one that West Germany could not treat in quite the same way as the United States. Any prospect of German reunification ultimately depended on the Soviet Union relinquishing control of East Germany. From the early 1970s, when the US became a net oil importer and Britain militarily withdrew from the Gulf, West Germany had a strong spur to turn to the Soviet Union to supply oil and gas.

When the Cold War ended and a reunified Germany increased its influence inside the EU, this disjuncture between the EU’s security dependency on Nato and Germany’s partial repudiation of its geopolitical orientation deepened. Under German leadership, the EU accepted membership applications from non-Nato members in Austria, Sweden and Finland. But in its eastern enlargement, which Germany supported and France opposed, the EU has only admitted those states that first or near simultaneously entered Nato. Now it is compounding the ensuing muddle in the Balkans, having started accession negotiations with non-Nato Serbia while holding back Kosovo, a state whose independence was realised by Nato’s war against Serbia.

Ukraine has been the primary casualty of this disconnection between the EU’s territorial form and its geopolitical disorientation. If Nato is supposed to provide the EU with external geopolitical foundations, Ukraine should have entered Nato before the EU thought about pursuing associate membership. But because Germany cannot have overly confrontational relations with Russia while it is dependent on its energy, the German government joined the French, in 2008, in vetoing Nato membership for Ukraine.

If and when Brexit occurs, the EU will have a new border running between a non-Nato member inside the EU (the Republic of Ireland) and a Nato member state beyond. This border has, of course, been the primary political obstacle to an orderly Brexit. Whatever the EU immediately gains from defending the idea of there being four inviolable freedoms to the single market, for Germany to have allowed non-Nato Ireland to set parameters for the EU’s future relations with Britain constitutes a geopolitical gamble.

Only if the EU can provide its own security via a renewed German military commitment would this dilemma diminish. President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on the EU and threats to withdraw from Nato create an acute incentive for change. But any political entity that seeks to enhance its military power domestically needs palpable geopolitical reasons for doing so, and what the EU could agree these were is far from clear. No German government, for instance,  could persuade the German electorate to support an increased military capability directed at Russia, even if any were willing to abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

The EU has survived as long as it has as a geopolitically deficient political entity because nuclear weapons prevented direct wars between the major powers during the Cold War and the US had insufficient will or power to insist when détente fell away in the late 1970s that West Germany make hard choices. Now, in a world becoming increasingly turbulent, Germany has accumulated too many conflicting commitments to decide between them without substantial disruption to the EU. 

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University. Her column appears fortnightly

Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University and a regular on the Talking Politics podcast. 

This article appears in the 12 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The state we’re in