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The European Union is a supranational institution and political project that could become one of the world’s superpowers. However, its success is being undermined by the interests of the US and Russia, who wish to weaken the political stability of the union. Here we discuss why European cohesion causes headaches in Moscow and Washington D.C., and how the two superpowers are trying to deal with the increasingly strong presence of the European Union in international affairs.
Until the end of the Second World War (WW2), Europe dominated the world stage from a geopolitical perspective: the first advanced civilizations emerged in the Mediterranean region, culminating with the Greek polis states and the expansion of the Roman Empire, until the establishment of the British Empire during the 19th century, and the rise of Germany in the early 20th century. These are prime examples of how Europe has been the world’s economic and military hotbed.
It is no surprise that even the world map is dominated by the old continent, which occupies the central position in most maps. Although this dominion has lasted for more than two millennia, it came to an abrupt end following the two devastating wars that ransacked the continent at the start of the 20th century.
The conclusion of WW2, with the defeat of Nazi Germany and imperial Japan, culminated in the establishment of the United States as the greatest economic and military power, only challenged by a rising Soviet Union. In this new world order, Europe’s position became marginal, and dependent on the military protection of the United States. In fact, in the words of its first Secretary General Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) – the joint defence organization that provides military security to its members – was created to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Although Europe’s position was becoming marginal during those years, it was already clear that the technological resources and the progressive societal background of the old continent would have paved the way for an economic rise in the years to come. Ismay – a former British army officer – with his historical sentence, placed Europe as the geopolitical world’s middlemost once more. Though, as he admitted himself, the survival of Europe required the United States to play a decisive role.
Americans themselves clearly understood the renovating potential of the main European powers and tried to maintain their dominant position by leveraging them as trading partners, promoting their economic growth while maintaining their military dependency from Washington. Expectably, in the 40 years following the catastrophic WW2, Europe’s economy grew immensely, but Europe’s military remained substantially weakened and its defence fully dependent on the United States.
In the meantime, European powers were experimenting with new forms of political cooperation to prevent possible economic competition that would trigger yet another war.
With the 1951’s Treaty of Paris, six major European countries (Belgium, France, Italy, Luxemburg, West Germany and the Netherlands) created the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The ECSC was an international organization aimed at creating a common market for coal and steel, created in order to avoid competition for these resources between its members. This was believed to be one of the basic reasons for European states to go to war against each other. As Robert Schuman, who is a posteriori considered as one of the founding fathers of the European Union (EU), said in 1950 about the ECSC, the organization would make war “materially impossible” between the historic rivals, France and Germany.
In 1957, further steps towards the constitution of a supranational institution were made, with the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC), a customs union between members of the former ECSC. The EEC expanded in the following decades to include Denmark, Ireland, the UK (in 1973), Greece (1981), Portugal and Spain (1986).
The EU was established following the Maastricht Treaty (1992), after which many other member states joined. In 2002, the Euro currency entered the market replacing individual currencies of many member states and thus establishing the EU as a truly joint supranational economic power but characterized by the autonomous political sovereignty of individual member states.
All these steps were politically reasoned solutions to create a stronger Europe, in which all individual states would be able to benefit economically, and in which cooperation would override competition.
As mentioned, given the historical events that ended WW2, Europe remained fully dependent on the US both militarily – up to the present day – and economically – until the economic boom of the ‘50’s.
Instead, during modern history, the Soviet Union could only influence the Eastern regions of Europe, including East Germany. Although the end of the Cold War stripped the Soviet Union of its predominant position of power, the rise of Russia in the 21st century and the increasingly energetic requests from European states – Russia is Europe’s largest exporter of natural gas – placed the old continent under Russia’s sphere of influence. Further, American hegemons still exerted their influence on European countries – influence that was never interrupted – thus re-establishing the bipolar competition over the continent that characterised the Cold War period.
What are the interests of Russia and the US in Europe?
The continued steps towards a united Europe have constituted and still constitute a threat for the American and Russian positions of military dominance. In short – the following points will be discussed in detail over the next paragraphs – maintaining their influence would allow the two powers to keep trading with the EU, but according to their own rules. At the political level, it would allow them to maintain bipolarity in the mediation of conflicts, or in their freedom of intervention in international conflicts. They would be able to substantially keep the crown of decisional smart powers in international institutions.
The economic aspect
As we previously highlighted, a strong economy in individual European states is beneficial for the United States, as they have always considered a free and globalised market to be the best solution to maintain their global hegemony, taking inspiration from the British model of the 19th century. That said, given the relatively small population of European countries, and their structural limitations for economic growth, wealthy European states cannot constitute any sort of competition to the US economy. In 2019, the International Monetary Fund estimated a nominal GDP of 21,439,453 $ (USD) million for the United States. The wealthiest European state, according to the same data, is Germany, with a nominal GDP of 3,863,344 $ (USD) million. The US’ economy is therefore 5 times larger than that of Germany. Though, if taken as a whole, the EU is the US first competitor, with an estimated nominal GDP of 18,705,132 $ USD million.
It follows that, although Americans have no gain from harming European economy, maintaining a politically weak Europe may allow them to direct its trade patterns to meet their expectations. A recent example is the economic aftermath of the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal, with Donald Trump forcing European businesses to halt their economic relations with Iran. A stronger political EU, especially when its members states disagree with Washington’s policies, may raise a strong voice of dissent that could strongly influence the US’ foreign strategies. The difficulties of the EU to protect Iran are actually a sign of its weakness, and this is what the US is trying to target: the Achilles heel.
The capability to mediate conflicts
As we previously discussed, the rise of Europe as a strong supranational institution is posing a challenge for the US and Russia, as the EU is increasingly seen as a more impartial and trustworthy mediator in international conflicts. For instance, the credibility of the US as an impartial mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is questionable, and the EU may sooner or later take the lead and propose a tangible solution to halt the divide. Peace talks in Syria are another example. The US, and certainly Russia, will definitely play a role in defining a future for Syria, but they will do so to protect their own interests in the region. The EU though, could also be seen in this case as a powerful – and yet disinterested – mediator.
In conclusion, the US and Russia see the EU as a threat for their soft power, which is the capacity of a state to influence global political decisions without resorting to the use of military (hard) power.
Decisional power in international institutions
Several international institutions were established at the end of WW2 to set economic and political rules that favour cooperation between states. The US has been among the major promoters for the creation of such organizations. Among those, there are mainly two types of institutions that are of interest for our analysis. The first category comprises those organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), in which decisional power is shared equally among its member states. The second category, which includes organizations such as the World Bank, is based on a voting system in which individual members are given a larger decisional power based on their economic contribution to the organization.
The UN was founded in 1945 to enforce international law and security, and to make sure each individual state would respect human rights. The UN also promotes economic and societal development. It serves as an organization to foster international debate, and in which each state has one vote. In theory, this means that the US and Botswana have the same power in the institution. In practice though, powerful states often make use of their power to influence political decisions (and the vote) of other member states. In this case, a cohesive Europe could exert a larger influence on other states, challenging American influence, and to a lesser extent, Russian influence.
The World Bank, created in 1944, is another institution that promotes economic growth and aims at ending poverty. Though, its funding system is based on donations coming mostly from richer and influential states. The bank lends money to poorer countries in the form of loans or grants. Each member has a number of votes that correlates with the share of the Bank’s capital stock held by that member state. According to this system, the United States has a 15.49% share of the voting power, whereas Germany only has 4.09% of it. Though, if summed up with the voting power of France (3.81%), the UK (3.81%) and Italy (2.58%), even without considering other members, the EU as a strong and cohesive political entity could seriously undermine decisions taken by the World Bank, decisions that normally coincide with the US’ preferences.
How do the US and Russia weaken the EU? What are their strategies?
Until now, we have discussed different reasons why the US and Russia could benefit from a politically weakened European Union. But what are the two superpowers’ plans to achieve this geopolitical objective, and is there any evidence supporting this claim?
The American strategy to weaken the EU
- NATO: Trump has repeatedly condemned European countries for contributing too little to NATO. Trump is right: the US spends 3.39% as a share of its GDP for NATO, whereas European countries contribute much less to the organization (e.g. France 1.82%, Germany 1.23%, Italy 1.15%). Obviously, the US would benefit more if individual European states invested a larger proportion of their GDP to NATO, as this would strengthen the organization’s joint military defences (implicitly coordinated by the US). At the same time, Trump has strongly condemned any proposal by European leaders for the creation of a joint European military force. The reason for these seemingly contrasting opinions is the difference between the strength of the military of each EU and NATO member state. As previously discussed in economic terms, the military strength of individual states cannot compete with that of the United States. Though, as a cohesive political – and military – entity, the EU could pose a threat for the transatlantic military hegemony of the US.
- Brexit: the US government has expressed their opinion in favour of Brexit, as it is an important step in the process of political weakening of the EU. Trump has repeatedly shown support for Brexit, promoting a potential trade agreement between the US and the UK to compensate for the UK’s trading deficit following the exit from the union. Trump has further personally attacked pro-European high-level politicians such as Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London.
- Economic threats: in contrast with their support for Brexit and the UK, The US government has recently imposed tariffs on European goods, targeting, among others, cheese, wine and olive products. In combination with its foreign policy on Brexit, the US wants to send a strong signal that European integrity is a factor promoting economic destabilization, whereas a politically divided Europe, with independent sovereign states, would provide economic benefits for the continent. In contrast, maintaining a strong united front would actually prevent the wounding of EU member states’ sovereignty by the US.
- Political and economic marginalization: the US is attempting to marginalize the effort of European politicians that incite a stronger political, economic and also military union of the continent. French President Emmanuel Macron has placed himself as a possible leader to guide a “European renaissance” and has been repeatedly targeted by Trump for this reason. In the case of the Iran nuclear deal, in which the EU is possibly playing the role of the guarantor, the US has bribed European institutions and businesses when their view was not in line with Washington’s foreign policy. Clearly, a united European front that is sustained by a strong joint economy would pose a threat to the US’ ability to use bargaining power to shift political decisions in its favour.
- Support for far-right parties: Trump has never denied supporting far-right politicians in EU countries, including Marine Le Pen in France, Matteo Salvini in Italy or Nigel Farage in the UK. Basically, Trump supports political factions that are against the EU or are at least Eurosceptic, hoping that this could aid in destabilizing European cohesion.
The Russian strategy to weaken the EU
Support for the far-right: as mentioned, Trump has given political support to European far-right parties, hoping this would help in destabilising the political unity of Europe. Russia has made a huge step forward in this process, not only backing these political movements, but also providing large economic support for their electoral campaigns. In a video that was made public, Heinz-Christian Strache, the former vice chancellor of Austria (2017-2019), was filmed trying to obtain illicit Russian funds for his party. This revelation led to his resignation of the government earlier this year. Although a direct involvement of Russia could not be proven, Strache’s behaviour suggests he was fully aware of the possibility of receiving funds from Russia. Also, the party’s stance has always been pro-Russia and anti-EU, and supportive of the idea of halting sanctions against Russia – which were set in place due to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. A similar plot has been recently revealed in Italy, where the investigative television program “Report” showed the existence of a network that operated to fund the far-right party league (Lega), guided by Salvini. Through his associates, the league party has allegedly received large economic support through two Russian oligarchs, Kharchenko and Yakunin, who have strong ties with government officials. Unsurprisingly, Salvini threatened to use EU veto to lift sanctions against Russia. The reach of Russia’s economic support for parties that aim at weakening the European political project is likely not limited to Austria and Italy. As reported by the Financial Times, Viktor Orban’s governing party Fidesz in Hungary has given large support to the Russian International Investment Bank, inviting it to relocate to Budapest. The party has also shown support for a lift of sanctions against Russia.
Other alleged infiltrations in European politics involve the German’s “Alternative for Germany” party, Le Pen’s party in France and obviously the UK’s Brexit Party.
As we have seen, the commitment to politically weaken the EU is a shared objective of Russia and the US. The shared ties between these two countries have never been as strong as they are at the present day. As the Russians interfered in the 2016 American elections, it is likely that the Kremlin has meticulously planned Donald Trump’s rise, as this would have placed US foreign policies in line with Russia’s interests. This gives rise to the idea of a polarized world based on three superpowers instead of four: Russia aims at maintaining the status quo, as the largest geopolitical influence can be exerted by the US, Russia and China, with the latter two being aligned on many aspects. It follows that Russia perceives itself as being in a privileged position, whereas the EU’s rise as a superpower would balance the forces at play, constituting a truly multipolar world.
Russia is already seeing the effects of its global strategy. Europe’s influence is not yet strong enough to have a say in Syrian affairs, and the Americans seem to let Russia control the situation, as they did not try to support the Syrian revolution and indirectly recognized that Syria is territory under Russian influence. Implicitly, by cutting off Europe, the two superpowers are drawing lines on the world’s map, dividing the regions in which they can or cannot exercise political and military influence: South America to the US, Syria to Russia, the Gulf region to the US, Ukraine to Russia; a modern treaty of Tordesillas.
Whether this sort of cooperation between the US and Russia is a joint geopolitical strategy – a secret, illegal pact – or whether it is just the result of Russia’s well-designed plot is something that history will tell us. Yet, Trump’s and the Kremlin’s indirect support of orthodox Christian groups, which have ties with far-right movements, proves that international oligarchic political groups have now joined forces, even if they belong to countries that are historical enemies. The Russian and the American Christian oligarchies are attempting to control the world, and to impose their policies. Europe is seen as a political entity that, because of its bloody history, is less vulnerable to this kind of rhetoric, but nevertheless that has the potential to be infected by extremist doctrines. For this reason, the old continent is currently kept hostage by aggressive policies coming from the two opposite poles of the political world: the former communists and the expansive capitalists.
European institutions, whose supranational sovereignty is wounded, should rebel against their perpetrators, and raise public awareness of the issue. In this political scenario, the best way to defend the European political project is to give it new momentum. This would involve pushing individual states to agree on becoming a true economic, political and military union, able to raise a strong voice in international institutions, act as a mediator in international conflicts and contrast the aggressive actions of Russia and the US, whether against Europe or any other proxy state.