Authors: Yang Haoyuan, ZengXixi & Hu Yongheng*
In 1946 when Winston Churchill addressed in Zurich, Switzerland, he called on urgent union of Europe, but not many people took his remarks seriously if not suspicious at all.This was because that economic recovery and social stability of the day were more urgent to the people across Europe. Since then in one decade, Europe has not only witnessed a rapid and robust social-economic reconstruction, but also an increasing integration of sovereign states coming of the age. It is true that throughout this process of the European integration, the United States has played a sort of patron role—at first as a passionate advocate publicly and then a powerful supporter through the Marshal Plan and finally a lead ally of the NATO.
In1963, the United States endorsed a fully cohesive Europe which, whether it functions as a grouping of nation-states or as the European Union, has shared America’s burden in terms of the Atlantic collective security. Yet, this strategic tie is not unconditional, for example, the EU support to the Washington’s policy decision depends upon only if its objectives parallel with America’s own and if it deems that without its contribution the common purposes will not be achieved. The diversions in policy between the two sides of the Atlantic are essentially more philosophical than technical. As a result, American unilateralism which usually comes out of Washington has been challenged by the EU involving three key structural issues: the EU’s self-image; the impact of the EU policy; and the U.S. attitudes toward the different options for European integration. As Henry Kissinger argued, in defining the role of Europe in the future world, the EU depends upon more their historical experiences than abstract concept of universal goodwill as a facilitator of diplomacy, or put it simply that “persuasiveness in negotiations relies primarily on the options the negotiator has available or is perceived to have at his or her disposal.”
Since the beginning of the new century, the EU has become close to an equal to the United States economically, technologically and socially. In terms of soft power, European cultures have long had a wide appeal in the rest of the world, and the sense of a Europe uniting around Brussels has had a strong attraction to East Europe and Turkey as well. Samuel Huntington put it in the 1990s that a cohesive Europe would have the human resources, economic strength, technology, and actual and potential military forces to be the preeminent power of the 21st century. Although the EU has effectively constrained American unilateralism, it is out of the question that the U.S. and the EU would move on the road towards political conflict. Due to this, the EU has vowed to play a new role in the world affairs that might be termed as the “civilian power”.
According to scholar Helene Sjursen, civilian power is defined as playing a primary role in the international system but differing from the traditional great power which has pursued power politics by military means. The EU prefers acting a civilian power since it has committed to economic cooperation and social justice in the age of globalization. Accordingly, the acquisition of military means, or the EU’s ambition to acquire such means, might weaken at least the argument that the EU is a civilian power and could provoke a shift towards a policy more akin to traditional great powers. Despite this, this article opines that the EU has acted a civilian power in the world affairs. For sure, this is not an easy mission to achieve in view of the complexities of the world affairs.
On September 16 of 2020, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed her first annual State of the Union, painting a sober picture of Europe grappling with a pandemic and its deepest recession in its history and calling for EU members to build a stronger health union amid COVID-19. She laid out ambitious goals to make the 27-nation bloc more resilient and united to confront future crises. In order to demonstrate the EU’s resolve and sincerity, she doubled down on the flagship goals sheset out on taking office in 2019: urgent action to tackle climate change and a digital revolution. In addition, von der Leyen unveiled a plan to cut the EU greenhouse gas emissions substantially and vowed to use green bonds to finance its climate goals. She also called for greater investment in technology for Europe to compete more keenly with China and the United States and said the EU would invest 20 percent of a 750 billion euro economic recovery fund in digital projects. Meanwhile, she said that the coronavirus pandemic had underlined the need for closer cooperation since “the people of Europe are still suffering.” It is noted that the competition mentioned involves only the unconventional rather than conventional security issues.
As a matter of fact, solidarity among the 27 member states performed badly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as they refused to share the protective medical kits with the worst-affected and closed borders without consultation to prevent the spread of the virus. Also the EU leaders jousted for months over a joint plan to rescue their coronavirus-throttled economies. Yet, since last July,27 member states agreed on a stimulus plan that paved the way for the European Commission to raise billions of euros on capital markets on behalf of them all, an unprecedented act of solidarity in almost seven decades of European integration. Addressing the EU Parliament, von der Leyen pledged her commission would try to reinforce the European Medicines Agency and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, promising a biomedical research agency and a global summit. In effect, the EU has all the means and resources at its capacity.
Yet, externally the EU has to deal with the troubled talks with the United Kingdom on the future links after the Brexit divorce is done. All the deals and pacts between the two sides could not be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. Von der Leyen reiterated that “This is a matter of law, trust and good faith… Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”The EU leaders also have the same attitude towards the United States and Russia since Europe is located between the two giants in all terms. Yet, the U.S. under the Trump’s administration has provided the EU with diplomatic rows. In a long run, the EU remains hopeful of improving relations and believes common ground can still be found, despite their current differences. As she reiterated “We must revitalize our most important relationships – we may not agree with the White House, but we must cooperate and build a new transatlantic agenda on trade and other matters.” Regarding the great challenge from Russia, she reiterated her condemnation of Russia over Navalny – though the Russian government has strongly denied any involvement – and said that the EU is on the side of the people of Belarus. They must be free to decide their own future and they are not pieces on someone else’s chessboard. However, the EU leaders seem to forget that the “color revolutions” have caused the disasters across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
Under such circumstances, the EU has to deal with China strategically and smartly, which during the first seven months of 2020becomes the top trading partner of the EU, a position previously held by the United States, followed by Britain, Switzerland, and Russia on EU’s main trading partner list in the first seven months. As France has suggested that the EU and China, as the defenders of multilateralism in international order, should set the tone for multilateralism and lead the international society to cement cooperation in areas such as vaccine research and climate change. Yet, it was arguable that von derLeyen defined China a “competitor and a rival” although she previously admitted that the latest video summit between China and the EU was “frank and open”. In fact, she said that progress had been made on a host of key areas and hailed the potential of a fruitful future trading partnership with China although there was still much work to be done. Understandably, as one of the key leading figures of the EU, von der Leyen used her speech to again address the challenges both sides face in working together in the years ahead in spite of their conflicting political ideologies. But this is what she said, “The latest EU-China summit highlights one of the hardest challenges. China is a competitor and rival. We promote very different systems.”
In sum, the EU has several challenges ahead to deal with. First, it must update its long-term climate change goals to meet the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement signed before. Second, the EU must manage the numbers of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe from Asia and Africa. As von der Leyen said that it is of vital importance that the EU’s member states work together to share the burden of taking in migrants and refugees and providing them with the tools for a brighter future. Third, since EU member states have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, it has much to be done and in its response to the pandemic and continued efforts to cooperate with other nations to find a vaccine. As she called,the EU stepp ed up to lead the global response. With civil society, G20 and the World Health Organization and others the EUhas brought more than 40 countries together to raise $19 billion to finance research on vaccines, tests and treatments for the whole world. This is the EU’s unmatched convening power in action.
Meanwhile, the EU leaders have openly called on China to do more to aid the world’s collective fight against all the challenges mentioned above. As von de Leyen said recently, China has shown willingness to dialogue on climate change and fight against pandemic. She also warned of the dangers of countries not working together on vaccine research, with the U.S. recently announcing its plans to withdraw from the WHO. Both China and the EU share the common ground that vaccine nationalism puts lives at risk, only vaccine cooperation saves lives. We endorse a strong WHO and a strong WTO – but reform of the multilateral system has never been more urgent.
In view of this, it is fair to say that the EU wants to lead reforms of the WHO and WTO. But it is possible only if it works together with other responsible powers including China.
*Yang Hao Yuan from the School of Governance, Technical University of Munich; Zeng Xixi & Hu Yong Heng from SIPA, Jilin University