The recent failure to keep the Iran nuclear deal afloat is just the latest in a series of underwhelming attempts by the Union to project power, even at the regional level. Albania and North Macedonia, Brexit, Ukraine, Syria and Libya all reflect on the EU’s ineffectiveness at articulating and defending its interests in its immediate neighbourhood. But these heavy statements hide fundamental questions. Is there any such thing as EU global interest? And if not, and for now there are only the member states’ individual interests being to some extent coordinated, then should there be an autonomous EU foreign and security policy? Is “European sovereignty” (Macron) or “EU strategic autonomy” (von der Leyen) desirable? And above all, is it realistic?
One ought to be rather careful in choosing one’s level of ambition in answering these questions, as they imply one’s judgments on the general nature of power and sovereignty.
By analysing the dynamics of Germany on the one hand, and the Visegrad Group on the other, in terms of EU Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) – their perceptions of national and EU interest and aspirations in achieving regional and global goals – we might just learn more about the future options for EU foreign policy as well.
The global environment surrounding Europe
The intensifying discourse on the future of the CFSP emerged as part of the broader debate on the future of the EU. Nevertheless, significant changes in the global environment are also contributing to the significance of the discourse. Many such developments have been ongoing for years or even decades, but their consequences have only recently started to surface.
The imaginary territory of a “rules-based world order” that is even reflected in some EU documents and that, even if it is wishful thinking, to some extent guides the CFSP, has suffered major setbacks due to actions and communications by players both global (USA) and regional (Russia). An appetite for decreasing the importance of inefficient and controversial multilateral organisations and for instead putting faith in unilateral action and non-universal coalition building have seen the EU’s role diminish. The EU’s relatively slow, procedural foreign and security policy decision-making functions quasi-normally in a slow and procedural multilateral format where cultures of compromise coincide. In a world of unilateral action, however, the power of initiation, speed of response, and a foreign policy toolbox equipped for prompt response all gain importance – and these are exactly what the EU lacks in comparison with the United States, China or Russia.
It is not only the moves of external actors that are putting EU foreign policy in a weak position. Due to internal disagreements, the lack of capabilities and an overall hiatus in the Brussels foreign and security policy machine’s geopolitical and strategic thinking have led to strategic misjudgement and inaction in cases of escalating tensions in the very neighbourhood of the EU. The EU failed to: efficiently and predictably cool the situation in Ukraine in 2013/14; limit damage to state stability in Libya and Syria; mediate an amendment of the Iran nuclear agreement; and participate in a timely manner as a stabilising force in the clash of Syrian Kurds and Turkey. All these failures have had and will have lasting consequences for the EU’s internal affairs. The Arab Spring and its consequences, seen especially in Libya and Syria, partly triggered the migration crisis that has been undermining EU integrity and solidarity since 2015.
In words aiming at a global power status that would correspond with its economic and demographic might, the EU cannot even project its regional power, also giving Turkey leverage over the EU. The mismanagement of the Ukraine troubles led to the present scenario in which a large and populous associated neighbour country is in a state of domestic war, and the EU’s largest neighbour, which is also a strategic supplier of energy to many member states, is entangled in a regime of mutual sanctions with Brussels.
If we further consider the regional projection of power, or at least representation of interests, we see trouble not only in the Eurasian East and the Middle East, but in the West and South as well. The fact that one of its major economic and military powers, the United Kingdom is leaving the EU, has far-reaching implications for the EU’s ongoing influence in the world. The uncertainty of the terms of the post-Brexit relationship represents an Achilles’ heel for Europe’s status in the global (dis)order.
As far as the European South is concerned, we see a lack of recognition of the fact that the EU is part of a geopolitical and geo-economic competition for influence – not only in the Eastern Neighbourhood but in the Western Balkans as well. Communication understating the willingness, resources and opportunities of challengers (Turkey, Russia, China) in the Western Balkans are paired with policy actions that limit the concerned nations’ hopes of (and processes towards) accession. The most notorious examples have been the Juncker Commission’s “no enlargement under my term” statement and the latest French veto of starting negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
The discrepancy between EU power projection in foreign policy and the EU’s position in other areas of global competition/cooperation is clearly visible in two further areas. The EU is a leading global economy and trading bloc; access to its vast market represents an important goal for various global powers. Trade policy and global trade representation within the EU is integrated, which makes its trading clout greater. Could this be translated more efficiently into foreign policy? The other area is international development aid and assistance, in which the EU is a global market leader, yet the efficacy of the programme in terms of serving strategic EU goals in the global arena remains highly doubtful.
Before turning to specific actors and problems, we must also emphasise the global megatrends that the EU is facing and will face in its external relations.
We see a shift in the dynamism of economic activity to East and Southeast Asia.
- Global value chains play an increasingly defining role in the global economy. Their development and distribution is key in global power relations.
- Digitisation and knowledge economy services are gaining increasing significance in the global economy, as reflected by the emergence of global corporations such as Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet. None of these companies are founded or headquartered in the EU. In a global economy where “every company must be a software company”, we shall experience a redistribution of global influence from energy companies and manufacturers to digital service providers.
- The EU faces further losses in its demographic significance after Brexit, in contrast to a population boom in Africa and certain parts of Asia.
The United States
Donald Trump’s presidency brought a more America-centred foreign policy, with many crucial implications. America ceased to export its values or model of democracy, as the new administration sees enormous cost and little benefit to such a strategy. “America First” means a more transactional approach to US foreign policy and, accordingly, the vastly asymmetrical relationships the US had developed with its allies and partners are apparently obstacles rather than opportunities for projecting US power around the globe. The new formula is quid pro quo, and thus the Trump administration also started shaking up the current model of financing the global system of trade and security, irrespective of the individual players’ moves, as a given good. The new US foreign policy assigns greater significance to competition than to cooperation, and sees many relationships and developments through this lens.
The EU, once animated with the help of the US government’s security guarantees and financial assistance, has long been seen by Washington both as a friend and ally, and as a fierce business competitor.
In the role of ally, most EU member states are dramatically underperforming in Trump’s eyes. They do not or cannot live up to their self-proclaimed defence-spending goals and they hamper certain goals of the White House on principle and not on political grounds (e.g. Israel). As a competitor, the EU as a trade bloc, with Germany (and to some extent France) as its main economic power, has increasingly clashed with US interests in various areas, such as aviation manufacturing subsidies (Airbus v. Boeing), agricultural products (soy beans, GMO crops), etc.
While the US is largely withdrawing from regions and affairs of non-vital US interests, some of these very regions and issues represent a direct problem for the EU, including Syria, the climate change accords and the Iran nuclear deal. Brussels or the member states need to take active measures to counter this withdrawal, mostly by asymmetric measures. But compensation cannot be avoided, as other players (China, Russia, Israel and Turkey) are all too happily capitalising on the shift in power.
While the US is withdrawing from certain places, it is also increasing its presence and investment in other places of interest. The Trump administration regards the post-Brexit United Kingdom as its key economic and security ally in Europe on the one hand, and Poland, the V4, the Baltic states and Romania on the other. The Three Seas Initiative, despite its many present shortcomings and slow development, is a project promoting a stronger CEE–US alliance through increased economic cooperation, mostly based on actual, viable business interests. Germany proved to be aware of the potential of the 3SI project as it has obtained observer status in the initiative.
Through its zigzagging moves, the United States is actually preparing for a world of new bipolarity, with China as the only global challenger to its power.
China has indeed emerged as (or is still on its way to becoming) the single systemic challenger to the United States in the global arena. China has become a direct competitor of the EU’s somewhat “German-manufacturing-heavy” economy and as a relatively new phenomenon it emerged as a rival to the EU’s innovation-&-technology-based future economic status, having developed key technologies such as 5G or AI to an extent that makes it practically unavoidable in certain developments. Last but not least, China is challenging the EU as a geopolitical power in its immediate neighbourhood (the Western Balkans) through vast infrastructure development and other investments and loan programmes.
Nevertheless, China also plays a constructive role for Europe as it emerged as an unlikely partner in preserving or creating multilateral structures over unilateral moves in global affairs and as a self-proclaimed champion of free trade in contrast with the new US administration’s more restrictive view on global trade. In parallel, global (BRI) and regional (17+1 or China–CEEC) Chinese foreign policy initiatives cut through the EU’s borders and may paradoxically create added value for EU external trade and intra-EU economic cooperation, especially within the CEE region itself.
The EU must deal with China as the only global player apart from the US to have real influence in the development of international relations.
Russia qualifies as a partly global but mostly regional power that has found itself in an economic hiatus for half a decade now. Low world oil prices and Western sanctions keep hurting Russia’s economy while, as a result, its economic reliance on the US and EU member states has decreased significantly.
Russia is the EU’s largest and most proliferate neighbour, with a long tradition of geopolitics and strategic thinking so far unmatched by EU foreign policy. Russia has in the past decade established its status as a rogue troublemaker in international affairs and is challenging the EU’s influence in Ukraine while deeply involving itself in every single enlargement country of the Western Balkans and state in the Eastern Neighbourhood.
At the same time, Russia is a rather reliable economic and trade partner for the EU, an important and established energy supplier to continental (and especially Central European) member states, investing in lucrative new business opportunities such as Nord Stream 2 or the Paks 2 nuclear power plant, irrespective of tensions in other realms. Apart from its established status as a business partner, Russia serves as a surprising stabilising factor in several EU neighbourhood areas such as Syria or Iran.
Its opportunistic yet constructive role calls for a more nuanced approach by the EU in terms of political relations in a new era of global competition. Yet, attitude and policies regarding Russia constitute a major issue between the V4 countries and Germany, as well as within the V4 itself.
The V4 and Germany: shared and conflicted interests in EU foreign policy
On EU foreign policy, the Visegrad Group and Germany relate to each other very similarly to how they relate on other questions of integration policy. The general principle is that in a post-Brexit EU the role of the V4 and the broader CEE region has the best chance to emerge as the Union’s third power centre, providing an opportunity for Germany to balance the influence of the French-dominated Euro-Mediterranean alliance. While the V4 and Germany share the idea of a more potent and powerful EU presence in global affairs, they disagree on how to get there, as well as on some regional and issue based questions.
First and foremost, there is a shared general understanding among the V4 and Germany in making the economic development of the EU a priority that can serve as the basis for its global influence. Should the EU keep falling short in global competition with the US and emerging economies, both the prestige and the financial tools necessary for an established global status will remain beyond reach. The strengthening of the EU’s global influence is a mutual interest, but there are serious disagreements on what a EU foreign policy should look like. The V4 countries, having gained massive economic growth in the past decade and having now enjoyed national sovereignty for 30 years, are advocating for a pragmatic, interest based foreign policy in which the EU does not issue statements and take action in the international arena based on debated moral or ethical points of view. Rather, these actions shall be based on pragmatism and international law. These differences of approach have shown themselves several times in the cases of Israel and the disputed territories, China or Turkey. CEE countries cherish a stronger US involvement in the region, but they do not miss the Obama administration officials’ constant criticism – bordering on meddling – in internal affairs. The Germany of Angela Markel, who was nominated “leader of the free world” after Obama’s departure, and who mismanaged the 2015 migration crisis citing compassionate moral affections, does not come across as a fully credible holder of that title. The same goes for the decommissioning of Germany’s nuclear power plants, which is widely seen as an ideologically driven approach.
Another disputed point is how to realise the potential in EU foreign policy. The V4 countries, especially Poland and Hungary, do not favour qualified majority voting (QMV) in this area in the current climate. National sovereignty and the freedom to shape their own foreign policies are factors of great sensitivity for these formerly occupied countries that endured Communism under duress. In the infamous case of mandatory resettlement quotas, they experienced how “older” EU members twisted and interpreted the rules in an attempt to make way for a very political decision that would have required a unanimous decision in fact. Another outstanding example of “overriding” a member state’s veto is reflected by the event of the upcoming Finnish presidency presenting an EU statement at the UN Security Council despite Hungary’s veto (29 April 2019). Therefore, the V4 is highly unlikely to accept QMV in the absence of an alternative decision-making mechanism (e.g. introducing a limit to the number of occasions on which a single country can veto and that, when it does, the option must be off the table for the subsequent months) or a written guarantee to take these countries’ interests into account. One must not forget that a veto mechanism exists for the reason that the European Union is not a federal state but an intergovernmental organisation that also shows signs of supranational structures and mechanisms. Foreign and security policy, though, as has been mentioned several times during our discussion, requires statehood-like characteristics; otherwise, it must be bound by consensus. And as there seems to be a lack of appetite for establishing a full-fledged political union, the QMV should not be introduced to EU foreign policy at this moment, either.
Germany’s general attitude toward V4 countries conducting their own foreign policy with various great powers around the globe also calls for precaution. While Germany is glad to have major business projects with China and Russia, it seems that the same option is not granted to the V4 countries. Germany from time to time voices concerns over the vulnerability of these countries to hidden or indirect political influence by China or Russia. Obviously, this double standard is received with frustration in the CEE region.
The V4 countries and Germany share an interest in keeping markets open and intact – both inside the EU and beyond. The Visegrad countries’ economies are heavily interconnected with the German economy and a large portion of their export of manufactured goods reach world markets through Germany-led value chains. Keeping open access through these value chains is a vital interest for Germany, too, as its export competitiveness is in a large part due to manufacturing outsourced into high-skill, lower-wage CEE countries. The fact that Germany demands further integration with the region by having the three reluctant members (Poland, Czechia and Hungary) in the Eurozone should not have a major impact on these realities.
While the V4 and Germany may together challenge US protectionism, they are divided on building stronger political relations with Trump’s America, as well as on defence expenditure. The V4 shows more interest in investing additional funds in defence capacities, and they see this as a step in strengthening the political relationship. Also, they are not concerned by the Trump administration’s more volatile and certainly more unilateral policies, or, if they are, it is never on ideological bases. Germany, though, is very vocal about the “rules based world order” and intentionally fails to meet its defence spending commitments.
The different attitude toward the United States is to some extent explained by the different attitude of Poland and Germany to Russia. At the discussion, it took this form: “Poland is not afraid of anyone but Russia. Germany is afraid of everyone but Russia.” Poland’s historical experience makes it question even Germany’s reliability to some extent, and balancing the two powerful neighbours internally (by the V4/CEE alliance) and externally (by the US) is a very realistic strategy. In the case of the three further V4 countries, it is definitely not a direct fear of Russia that is motivating their constructive approach toward America or NATO. The reasons lie instead in the fact that the American security guarantee serves as the basis for their balanced, sovereign foreign policy. While the US defence reassurance is close, the US as an everyday foreign policy actor is a bit further away, which increases room for manoeuvre for these medium sized states. A possible solution for these differences may be the revival of TTIP or a similar overarching trade agreement between the EU and the US in the long run.
Germany and the V4 share an interest in promoting the EU’s enlargement in the Western Balkans. This issue is made more contentious by the fact that France delayed the accession negotiations of Albania and North Macedonia by at least one year. Enlargement is an important issue in both economic and political terms. The Juncker Commission, while letting the British out, failed to bring the Balkans in to the EU. The V4 countries are convinced that enlargement would bring an economic impulse as well as gains in global prestige for the EU, and would contribute to regional security. The Western Balkans should be the EU’s new “great story”, after the Euro turned out to be less fit as a poster child for the Union. The Western Balkans’ accession represents an historic opportunity only comparable to the accession of the CEE countries in 2004, 2007 and 2013.
The Western Balkans leads us to the elephant in the room in this case: Turkey. It finds itself in an ambiguous situation: a NATO member, an EU Associate Member with ongoing (paused) accession negotiations. A geopolitically crucial neighbour keeping millions of migrants from arriving at the EU border, yet a challenger to Brussels, as it is asking a high price for doing so. Turkey’s EU accession is increasingly unlikely under Erdogan’s leadership, regardless of the popular and democratic losses he suffered at the Istanbul election. The EU’s ever-moving secular-liberal rule of law criteria do not favour progress for Turkey – and Erdogan is also not pushing for membership. Turkey is a player in the EU neighbourhood of the Western Balkans, the accession zone that was severely affected by the French veto on starting accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. The V4 countries are advocating for pragmatism in the EU–Turkey relationship, though Germany has actual political issues not only with what is happening in Ankara but what Ankara is doing in Germany in terms of the country’s Turkish residents.
Last but not least, Brexit itself should be a boosting factor in V4+Germany foreign policy cooperation. The UK leaving the EU will have not only economic but considerable geopolitical impacts on the community. It did, to some extent, make up for the gap caused by Germany’s lack of enthusiasm for the defence policy. It served, as it had for centuries previously (though on different terms), as a balancing force for the continental EU. Thus, Brexit implies that Germany needs to invent – or rediscover – new balancing forces to counter a Franco-Mediterranean surge led by Emmanuel Macron’s presidency. The V4 countries are strongly advocating for an orderly, constructive exit and the closest possible post-Brexit relationship. In contrast with France and the Benelux countries, it may be that in Germany they find a reasonable partner for achieving that aim.
The project covering publication of this article is co-financed by the Governments of Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia through Visegrad Grants from International Visegrad Fund. The mission of the fund is to advance ideas for sustainable regional cooperation in Central Europe.