PREMIUM TAG BLOG – The Transatlantic relationship: no business as usual

Written by Rob de Wijk

Both the US and the UK will have to deal with an EU that is rapidly turning into a geopolitical player.

“The European Union and European countries have a strategic choice to make, either to wait for the United States and the Biden administration, or to move on”.

So said France’s minister of finance and the economy Bruno Le Maire said in an interview. 

Most European governments agree with his viewpoint. This is not new. For two decades, the Trans-Atlantic gap has widened. President George W. Bush’ war against Iraq and the withdrawal from international treaties such as the Kyoto climate agreement and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, brought him on collision course with the Europeans, especially the EU.

President Barack Obama who was initially hailed by Europe as the new messiah, pivoted to the east and withdrew troops from the continent. 

His successor, President Donald Trump, has trashed America’s relationship with Europe in every imaginable way. 

Europeans trust President Biden, but they also see America’s future as less predictable. 

This brings us to European Strategic Autonomy.

One can say of course that the US and Europe need each other against a rising China and a resurgent Russia. That could be true, but at the same time the EU has become a completely different player. 

China is seen as a strategic competitor. Russian hybrid threats are seen as the main security risk. The refugee and migration crisis made Europeans aware of the need to collectively protect their outer borders. The 750 billion Euros recovery package for dealing with the economic consequences of the Covid-19 outbreak has opened the door to Eurobonds. The result is an EU that will be a crucial geo-economic player on the capital markets, thus challenging the position of the Dollar and London.

Unsurprisingly, the debate on the vague concept of European Strategic Autonomy (ESA) is now embraced by what were staunch opponentsto the idea such as the Netherlands.

Indeed, the October 2020 Defense vision 2035 argues that the Netherlands should fully embrace ‘Europe’. For the Netherlands as one of America’s most loyal allies, this is no less than a revolution.Why this radical shift?

Brexit has been the accelerator for change. The United Kingdomstrengthened French-German leadership. The post-Brexit EU will reflect German economic preferences such as financial prudency, competitiveness and innovation. 

Regarding foreign policy and defense, France as the EU’s only nuclear power and member of the UN Security Council, will be accepted as the undisputed European leader.

And this leads logically to the lack of European capabilities.

A key problem is that military operations are difficult to execute without American support. 

The European-led Maritime Awareness in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASOH) that was carried out in 2020 next to the American led International Maritime Security Construct (IMSC) to maintain order in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz is a case in point. Due to the American decision not to support the European mission with intelligence and satellite information, mission effectiveness was limited. 

In the December 2020 issue of Survival Barry Posen asked the intriguing question whether Europe could defend itself against Russia. His answer was ‘a qualified yes’. Despite deficiencies in interoperable C3, intelligence and strategic reconnaissance I tend to agree. The main explanation is the changing nature of the threat, French nuclear deterrence and Russia’s military-technical challenge to launch an all-out attack on Europe. 

Is Europe then becoming a geopolitical player? 

Both the US and the UK will have to deal with an EU that is rapidly turning into a geopolitical player. In 2020 President Xi and Putin tried to make use of the perceived chaos in Europe, but they were confronted with a much more unified player than they expected.

In December Brussels agreed on an investment pact with China aimed at creating a level playing field on European terms. Despite Biden’s objections Brussels moved on. 

Brexit resulted in almost 2000 pages of rules and regulations that were at odds with the idea of ‘take back control’. 

Regarding defense most governments agree that Strategic Autonomy requires new initiatives. At the same time, they agree that defense against Russian hybrid tactics requires a completely different approach and that China and Russia will deny them UN Security Council mandates for interventions and peace support operations. 

Interestingly, European ideas on foreign policy and defense start to look surprisingly similar to those of the Biden administration. 

The President embraced a humble, less ambitious ‘middle-class foreign policy’ that seems to reject regime change wars and ensures that decisions are made to benefit common people. 

This, and a shared belief that China is a strategic competitor, couldbring the EU and the US closer together. This, however, does not mean that the Europeans will wait for American leadership. They will move on.