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18 October 2023

The EU is the “illusory giant” of geopolitics

Despite its wealth and ambition, the European Union is limited as an actor in the great conflicts of our time.

By Wolfgang Münchau

If you want to know the leanings of politically engaged Europeans, ask them where they stand on Israel and Palestine. In all likelihood, the centrists – both centre-left and centre-right – will tell you they support Israel. Those on the hard left support the Palestinians. And the far right hates them both. The decades-long conflict between Israel and militant pro-Palestinian groups has been one of the defining issues in European politics in many EU countries for many years.

Even if you are not a member of the Jewish or the Muslim communities, or do not have links to them, chances are that you have strong views on the matter. Vladimir Putin managed to unite Europeans, for the time being, in support for Ukraine. But Israel and Palestine divide us.

[See also: History offers Ukraine slender hope for a decisive victory]

Divisions showed up in EU politics two days after Hamas’s terrorist attack, when Olivér Várhelyi, the European commissioner in charge of neighbourhood relations, announced an immediate suspension of EU aid to Palestinians. He had obviously not thought this through. His statement triggered a push-back from member states and his fellow commissioners. The suspension is now suspended.

La France Insoumise, the coalition of the French left headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, issued a statement that talked about “the armed offensive by Palestinian forces led by Hamas”. That prompted a predictable backlash in the National Assembly. War breaks out in the Middle East, and Europeans are at each other’s throats over a choice of words.

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Yet I wonder: if the issue is of such importance to us, why does the EU have so little political clout in Middle Eastern and North African politics? Our diplomacy seems mostly about paying governments to stop refugees from entering the EU. While others act, EU diplomacy is often busy finding the right words in joint declarations: do we accept Israel’s right to respond to Hamas’s terror attack unconditionally? Or shall we add the phrase “in accordance with international law”? Or should we make acceptance conditional on Israel not causing an escalation? These were the debates the EU had in the days after the attack. As though it mattered.

As EU foreign ministers struggle to find the right words, real diplomacy takes place elsewhere. The US is the only Western power that has any influence on the Israeli government. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey offered to mediate. So did Vladimir Putin. Both have contacts with the parties involved. Putin stands to benefit from a war that deflects attention from Ukraine and that redefines its nature – as a war between West and the East.

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The contrast between Brussels’ lack of influence and the prominent role of the Middle East in our own domestic debates suggests that there is something fundamentally wrong with the EU’s foreign policy. The EU is dependent on the US militarily. Despite its size and its wealth, it cannot support the financial aid flowing to Ukraine unilaterally. Its ambitions are reduced to that of a single market, a customs union, an agricultural policy and a single currency.

One instance in which it used its powers in pursuit of a geopolitical objective was in applying sanctions against Russia. These had an effect for sure, but ended up hurting the EU more than Russia. Western leaders underestimated how quickly global supply chains adjust, and how difficult it is to isolate a country that size. The latest IMF forecast has Russia growing more than Germany, France, Italy and the UK this year. Western leaders also misjudged the war itself. Remember the exuberant statements that nothing but total victory will do?

For some, the EU’s soft-power approach to geopolitics is a feature, not a bug. Fair enough. I see soft power as a euphemism for chequebook diplomacy. It was well suited to the relatively mild geopolitical climate of the past 30 years. But the war in Ukraine exposed its limits. Some European countries were struggling to strike a balance between Ukraine’s request for weapons and maintaining their own defensive capabilities. Unlike the US, many EU countries do not have the capacity, let alone the nerve, to fight two proxy wars at the same time.

What is happening is the culmination of decades of geopolitical complacency. The EU is also woefully unprepared for a return of Donald Trump, or indeed any future US president who is not Joe Biden. European leaders have not agreed an exit strategy for the war in Ukraine.

When the time comes to cut a deal with Moscow, and to pay the massive reconstruction costs for Ukraine, I would expect Europe’s unity to crack. The costs will end up higher than current estimates suggest. What few people have factored in is the impact of high interest rates on any such programme if they are funded through debt – as they surely will be. The EU’s large net contributors, such as Germany and the Netherlands, would become even larger contributors. Many countries that are currently net recipients of the EU budget, such as Poland and Hungary, would turn into net contributors.

An image springs to mind from my early childhood – from a German children’s book, more than half a century ago. One of the minor characters in it was an illusionary giant – who looked huge from a distance, but became smaller the closer you got to him. The EU is the illusionary giant of geopolitics. Make sure you don’t get too close.

[See also: The return of the two Germanys]

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, War on Three Fronts