Europe is not taking sides in the coming great power struggle
While we finally concluded our painful and excessively drawn-out withdrawal from the EU this week, a vastly more significant milestone, in geopolitical terms, was marked by the EU’s announcement of the conclusion of its long-negotiated investment agreement with China. The deal saw none of the back and forth with Europe’s geopolitical minnows like Ireland that made Brexit so tortuous. As Johnson attempted (and was roundly mocked for), Xi dealt directly with Merkel and Macron, and beneath them with Europe’s most senior diplomats Charles Michel and Ursula Von der Leyen. This was Europe’s Franco-German engine back to working at full throttle.
Rushed through by Merkel before the Biden administration takes office, the agreement aims to establish a level playing field for European and Chinese investment in each other’s markets. The likelihood of an increasingly assertive China being held to any of its commitments is of course dubious in the extreme, but perhaps that isn’t the point: it is a significant statement of geopolitical intent.
Simply put, the EU-China agreement is a far more meaningful expression of European strategic autonomy than anything seen so far in the heated debate over the concept, outclassing even Macron’s most headline-grabbing interviews. The indignant cries of American commentators that Europe should have waited to consult with the Biden administration miss the point: the lack of consultation is the message.
Of course, the US doesn’t defer to Europe when concluding its own equivalent agreements, and why would it? Similarly, it’s absurd to claim that the European bloc should subordinate its trade and foreign policy to the whims of an erratic and dysfunctional American political system: Europe may be vastly subordinate to the US in defence, but in trade the bloc remains a superpower, willing and capable of securing its own interests.
The moral arguments against the deal, particularly those focussing on China’s treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority, are stronger, but it’s not as if America’s mega-corporations have divested from China — they don’t even refrain from using Uighur slave labour to produce the shiny electronic trinkets whose consumption shores up the West’s economy.
The temptation is nevertheless strong for British commentators, particularly Brexiteers, to point at the deal as evidence of Europe’s and Germany’s hypocrisy, endlessly making high-sounding noises about liberal democracy and human rights while inking lucrative deals with an authoritarian dictatorship — but this shouldn’t be taken too far. The issue isn’t so much whether the deal is ethically praiseworthy — of course it isn’t — but whether it’s sensible: and as an example of realpolitik it’s surely hard to fault.
After all, the agreement accords well with the seeming European policy of neutrality in the coming great power confrontation between China and the United States. As recent pronouncements demonstrate, Europe’s leaders have decided that China’s rise — which is of course concomitant with America’s decline — is most likely unstoppable, and that it’s better to reach a modus vivendi with the new economic hegemon than become embroiled in a titanic clash to preserve America’s faltering position.
Europe’s global pre-eminence was destroyed by the two great power struggles of the last century, and there’s little appeal in the bloc becoming too active a participant in the one to come, not least when its imperial benefactor’s victory seems so doubtful. How this dispassionate, self-interested European analysis tallies with the EU’s military dependence on the United States will then surely become a major flashpoint with the Biden administration: beneath the soothing rhetoric that after Trump, everything will go back to normal lies the hard truth that in an increasingly multipolar global system, the interests of Europe and the United States are growing ever more divergent.