Imagine Europe as a target on a radar screen, and you can see the warning alerts flashing red and ubiquitous. Europe is undergoing a multipronged, hybrid attack. The assailants do not coordinate and their goals may vary. But what these flashing signs represent is clear: In the new great-power competition among the United States, China and Russia, Europe has become prey. Its political allegiance to a weakening West, its internal divisions, its attractive assets and its market of 500 million consumers make it an ideal target.
According to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, over the past couple of years Russia has managed to increase its economic footprint in European Union countries that are more welcoming than others, notably Austria, Italy and the Netherlands. China uses a different approach. Under the guise of the concept of a new Silk Road, with its echoes of Marco Polo, Xi wants to connect Europe to China economically. This has meant buying the port of Athens and some other crucial gates to southern Europe. Greece was desperate for money, Germany could see no wrong. The new Silk Road, now more prosaically described as the “Belt and Road” initiative, has also involved setting up an organisation called 16+1 (16 European former Communist states, 11 of them European Union members, plus China) to kindly help them build infrastructure. More daringly, the highlight of Xi’s visit to Italy, a founding member of the European Union, was the signing on March 23 of a Memorandum of Understanding to endorse the “Belt and Road” initiative.
No longer content with the periphery, China is aiming for the heart of Europe with newfound tenacity: When Washington and Brussels expressed their displeasure with his move on Italy, Beijing doubled down. The United States, supposedly Europe’s greatest ally, has its own fight with China — a big fight over trade that has already slowed economic growth in Europe, and over technological dominance. In a normal world, Washington would have enrolled its European allies in its fight. But this is not a normal world. President Trump’s America treats Europe either as a competitor or as a vassal.
Then came warnings against choosing the giant Chinese tech company Huawei to develop fifth-generation wireless networks, and threats by Richard Grenell, the American ambassador to Germany, of retaliation involving restrictions on intelligence sharing. Gordon Sondland, the United States’ ambassador to the European Union, warned of retaliation if Brussels limits the involvement of American companies in European military projects. Donald Trump threatened Europe with “severe” economic pain if no progress was made in delicate trade talks. Soon enough, reports came out of Washington that Trump wants to bill European countries for the deployment of American troops, plus 50% for the privilege of hosting them, according to Bloomberg News.
Europe is a soft target. A close group of 28 states, but not a federal state, it is hampered by its complex decision-making process. The Brexit chaos will inevitably leave its mark. As the French historian Pierre Nora has noted, Europeans, once masters of the world, are now pushed to its periphery.
But Europe does not have to accept defeat.
A senior European intelligence official recently said there was a wake-up call in the range of threats confronting the EU, including interference from Russia and the alt-right, and America’s “weaponization of extraterritorial laws in order to weaken our companies.”
For that to take place, unity and political will are essential. Within the European Union as it is, that would be an uphill battle.
Europeans need more than a wake-up call. They must decide whether they can contemplate the prospect of their continent being cut up piece by piece by competing bigger powers, or whether they want to regain enough collective strength and common sense to control their own destiny. 5G networks will be a test. Though Huawei has the technological lead, strong doubts persist about its security. There are European alternatives.
But what role would Europe play in this new world? On March 5, France’s President Emmanuel Macron issued a solemn call for “A European Renaissance” that was published throughout Europe. “Europe is not just an economic market. It is a project,” he wrote, adding that the European civilisation “unites, frees and protects us.” In an understated reaction titled “Getting Europe Right,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer of Germany, the new leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Union, set out a different vision. The contrast could be called the status quo vision versus the strategic vision.
The lack of accord between these two close, major European nations shows the extent of the challenge. On China, though, they finally seem ready to act together. Moved by a sense of urgency to counter the Chinese divisive strategy, Macron has invited Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the president of the European Union’s executive arm to join him in what was originally planned as a bilateral meeting with Xi, on March 26 in Paris.
Some European leaders still see their continent as the last defender of democracy and multilateralism. Few, unfortunately, are ready to unite to take up that fight.
Sylvie Kauffmann is a renowned French journalist. She was the first female to serve as the executive editor of Le Monde