The EU is now a geopolitical irrelevance
Brussels has been excluded from the US-Russia talks, and the significant thing is that nobody is surprisedROBERT TOMBS11 January 2022 • 6:00pm
Russian and American representatives are discussing, and perhaps deciding, the future security of Europe. High-level meetings are not always significant. Participants are sometimes inadequately briefed, tired, and in a hurry to announce success at a press conference. But occasionally, such meetings can be very important indeed.
I am reading Tim Bouverie’s vivid history of 1930s appeasement. Central to that disaster, as he shows, was the chronic incapacity of Neville Chamberlain and his closest advisors to understand what kind of men Hitler and Mussolini were, despite the reality, quite literally, staring them in the face. Sometimes, politicians have to judge their opponents. What do they really want? Are they bluffing? Can they be trusted? Perhaps this has to be done by people looking each other in the eye. Chamberlain was absurdly confident that he had succeeded with Hitler. It matters a lot that the Americans do better in their meetings with the Russians this week.
It also matters who else is in the room. In 1938, the Czechs were excluded from the Munich conference and the French were marginalised. This time, the EU has been excluded from the talks in Geneva: an astonishing void – except that no one seems to be astonished. In a matter that so fundamentally affects its security – the future of Ukraine as an independent state – the EU is on the sidelines.
One might argue that Nato is the actor here, and hence that US-Russia discussions are the obvious step. But what does that tell us about the EU’s repeated ambition to be a major independent actor on the world stage?
Federalists such as Emmanuel Macron (who has declared Nato “brain dead”) would doubtless say that this proves their case: only when it has real sovereign powers and its own armed forces will the EU count. Perhaps. But at the moment this is fantasy. France is the only bloc member with considerable armed forces. Much of the EU has allowed itself to become dependent on Russia for energy. Several larger members are in a political and legal standoff with Brussels.
If Vladimir Putin invades Ukraine, will that pull EU states together, or – as seems equally likely – drive them apart? Somehow I cannot see Ursula von der Leyen issuing a clarion call to resist the aggressor. It’s Nato or nothing and weakening Nato is Russia’s main object.
As for Britain, its position is, as always, that of Europe’s leading Nato member. As such we are assisting Ukraine to strengthen its defences, and maintaining a military presence in the Baltic states to show that aggression will not be a walkover. In what sense have we lost “influence” by leaving the EU?
The problem with the EU, in geopolitical terms, is its vulnerability; political, economic and military. It is incapable of ensuring the security of its own frontiers or its “near abroad” – the preoccupation of every empire in history. Some people used to fear (some still do) that the EU was a superpower in the making which Britain could not afford to stay out of. The reality is that for the foreseeable future it will remain largely impotent.
We have an interest in a stable, secure and confident EU. It would be a better neighbour, able to accept Brexit and build a positive future relationship. But its own uncertainties make it want to punish Britain “pour encourager les autres”. It seems unable to accept its limitations and try to function as an economic union of sovereign states. It pursues an illusory federalism without democratic consent.
EU politicians have clearly given up on winning popular support for the “European project”. Instead, they rely on the Court of Justice, the Central Bank and the secretive Council to build an unaccountable technocracy. Such a shallow system is doomed to weakness.
In Britain the debate – if it can be called that – drags on. Rejoiners still flourish every anecdote, however trivial, to prove that “Brexit is a failure”. At no point do they discuss the EU’s direction and whether we would ever again want to be part of a faltering and increasingly post-democratic system. “Tell me one thing we have gained from Brexit,” they say triumphantly. Imagine Mrs Pankhurst being confronted by some red-faced reactionary in the 1920s: “Tell me one thing you women have gained from getting the vote!” I think we can guess her response.