“It is time for Europeans to take their fate into their own hands because the era in which Europe can totally rely on its ally for support and protection is over.”
That recent declaration by German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been widely regarded by observers as the modern-day European version of the Monroe Doctrine.
The Financial Times even commented that Merkel’s assertion might signal the beginning of the end of the Trans-Atlantic alliance which has been in existence since the end of the Second World War.
However, talking tough is one thing; putting it into practice is quite another.
Can Continental Europe really stand on its own feet politically, strategically as well as militarily and be on an equal footing with the United States in global affairs like Merkel has envisaged? I doubt it.
Even to this day, Europe has yet to fully recover from the 2008 global financial tsunami and the subsequent European debt crisis, not to mention the persistent structural problems of the eurozone and widespread doubts among global investors about the EU’s economic outlook.
True, the US has also undergone difficult times after the 2008 financial crisis, and is not totally out of the woods yet, let alone the structural crisis that is still haunting its economy.
However, America’s economic size and combined national strength have allowed its government to take drastic measures in drastic times in order to successfully guide the country through difficulties.
Those measures include the successive waves of “quantitative easing” that the Federal Reserve carried out.
The EU just can’t compare with the US in this regard.
Strategically, the EU is even worse. For example, it was simply shrugged off by Russia throughout the Ukraine crisis and its subsequent annexation of Crimea.
Above all, the EU has remained completely powerless in dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis and the waves of terrorist attacks mounted by either the Islamic State (IS) or lone-wolf terrorists on its own soil.
The EU might be a giant economically, but is literally a dwarf strategically and diplomatically.
Militarily, as Britain is withdrawing from the EU and the US under President Donald Trump has begun shying away from commitments to preserving collective security in Europe, there is recently talk among European leaders that EU members should enhance their military strength in face of Russian aggression and other potential threats.
That is easier said than done. In countries like Germany and France, public opinion is largely against any substantial increase in military spending. In fact, defense expenditures only account for a relatively small percentage of government budget in most EU countries over the years.
Besides, raising military budget means you will have to cut spending on other policy areas such as education and social welfare.
Many key EU members are welfare states, and as such, their governments are unlikely to risk angering voters by raising defense budgets substantially while slashing social welfare expenditures.
Most Europeans and their leaders are highly skeptical about establishing a “superstate” military command mechanism. Without a unified command structure, any plan to build a combined European armed force is hardly viable.
Over the years the EU has been relying on its “normative power” to exert its international influence, i.e., by setting an example to the rest of the world on promoting democracy, human rights and compliance with international law and claiming the moral high ground.
However, this “normative power” has serious geographical limitations: Under most circumstances it only applies to the European continent, the Mediterranean, or at best, up to North Africa. The EU’s diplomatic influence rarely goes beyond these areas.
As a result, when it comes to international crises in other parts of the world, all the EU can do is offer moral support.
On issues like coordinating international efforts in fighting climate change or seeking peaceful resolution of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the EU can hardly play a decisive role.
But still, as a unified economic entity with half a billion consumers, the EU is no doubt a force to reckon with, at least in economic terms.
Given that, for the time being, perhaps the only thing that can give the EU diplomatic leverage with other great powers is its huge market.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 7
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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