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, notes Britain “New Statesman”.

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.

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.

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.  

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?

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, Europe’s unity will crack, concludes “New Statesman”.