For the longest time, the European Union has tried to project itself as a player on the global stage. Successive EU Commission and Council Presidents have been invited to major geo-political forums and summits, from the G7 to World Economic Forum. In Brussels, the European External Action Service puts out press releases on emerging issues around the world, and MEPs talk about foreign policy in the plenary chamber in a tone that would imply that the EU had an ability to act with some degree of firmness.
And yet, despite all of this, Europe’s role in the world seems to be less of a major global player, and more of a playing field for other powers. Increasingly we are seeing Russia, China, and the United States locked in a struggle for influence in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and the Balkans. With agents of influence active on all levels, and an increase in the use of hybrid tactics.
Perhaps the best example of this declining position is the desperation with which the European Commission is trying reach a deal over its Investment Agreement with China. Whilst there is no doubt that China is a major investor in research and development in EU academic institutions and industry, the way in which the EU offered the communist state an agreement showed a total disregard for the dangers that such investment pose – especially to academic freedom.
This agreement has been compelled by the desire of many ‘convinced Europeans’ in Brussels to carve out their own path in terms of looking for strategic partners. In the estimation of many in the European Commission, China, rather than the United States, is the preferred partner. Not because China invests more than the United States, but because the naïve belief is that Beijing will not try to exert as much influence as Washington DC.
The reality is the opposite of this. Already the European Union has found itself taking a weaker position when addressing the human rights and labour issues that are present in China today. Rather than challenging the communist regime over their use of forced labour, and the internment of millions of Uyghur Muslims, the European Union has instead chosen to turn a blind eye for the sake of an agreement. Similarly, the EU has taken a weaker position on the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong, and over the treatment of Chinese Christians.
These are not the actions of a geo-political player, but rather the decisions of a regional bloc that cannot afford to stand up for itself without suffering economic or political damage.
Similar issues play out when it comes to the relationship with Russia. The recent visit by EU High Representative Josep Borrell to Moscow has further highlighted the lack of firmness, and experience, when it comes to dealing with the Eastern European superpower.
Vice President Borrell fell into every trap in the book. He allowed his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, to publicly condemn the EU without a response at a joint press conference, whilst at the same time not speaking up about the expulsion of European diplomats from the country. Equally, he refused to meet Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny in prison – or his supporters.
In effect Russia walked all over the European Union publicly, in footage that was broadcast across state outlets as well as in other hostile powers as propaganda. The accusation that Europe is an ‘unreliable partner’ directly referencing the way the EU had referred to their American allies under Trump. These actions not only undermined the EU’s position as a global player abroad but undermined the integrity of the EU at home.
Like the relationship with China, the EU’s misplaced belief that it can cooperate with Russia is based on economic necessity. Central and Western Europe are on the verge of facing severe energy shortages and need cheap Russian gas. To this end they are willing to lessen their criticism of their authoritarian neighbour.
In both cases – external influence plays a heavy role. There is an establishment in Brussels, Berlin and Paris that is driven by business lobbying and the belief that neither Russia nor China poses a direct threat to the EU. Much of this lobbying is also driven by Chinese and Russian money, which flows through business into think tanks and political parties to influence their views on the issue.
These states leach off the influence of powerful figures – often offering them high paying jobs in state-run companies. The prime example of this is former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who since leaving office has become the Chief Executive of Nord Stream II, a subsidiary of the Russian state energy company Gazprom. He has used his connections and influence to persuade parts of the German establishment that the new pipeline is necessary, and at the same time succeeded in underplaying the strategic risks that energy dependence on Russia pose.
Similarly, the Chinese company Huawei has an incredibly active lobbying operation in many European capitals, sponsoring conferences and events unrelated to telecoms, to portray themselves as a neutral patron of political discourse. This for a while allowed them to get close to figures of power and influence them to allow the company a stake in the infrastructure in many European companies, whilst turning a blind eye to the toxic corporate culture of the company.
In cases where they cannot simply influence decision-makers, these powers have taken to influencing the fringes. Many far-right and far-left political parties are supported by Russia. There has been a growing trend of leaders from far-right political parties visiting Russia and being received by the governing United Russia Party. In the past the leaders of the Alternative for Germany, French National Front and Italian Lega Party have all been welcomed to Moscow by the government. In the case of former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl – appointed by the right-wing Freedom Party – Vladimir Putin himself made an appearance at her wedding in 2018.
This support from Russia – including through the publication of sympathetic articles and news items on Kremlin backed media outlets in the West, and by hosting their profiles on the social media site VK – has translated into support for Russia in European institutions. In recent votes to introduce new sanctions against Moscow over the arrest of Alexei Navalny, both the far-right and far-left groups in the European Parliament voted against.
Far-left MEPs routinely speak out against so called ‘Russophobia’ and claim that the EU should take a less aggressive stance against the country to the East, even though the current Russian government espouses anything but socialist values.
This constant low-level interference, paired with the influence of senior politicians in major EU member states, demonstrates that Europe is increasingly being used as a playing field by those nations that seek to undermine the Western world. In many ways, the delusion in Brussels is that they continue to be a serious player – without noticing that the emperor has no clothes.
The only remedy to this is a return to a policy in which the EU supports NATO, partners with the United States and other transatlantic allies, and recommits itself to being a part of the Western democratic world.