Europe’s Strategic Dilemma: Unity or Division?

In recent years, Europe has entered an eventful season and has been caught in multiple crises from which it is difficult to extricate itself. The Ukrainian crisis has pushed Europe into the morass of war, exposing its strategic dilemma. Faced with changes in Europe and the world, Europe stands at a historic crossroads–will it unite or divide? Should it take the path of strategic independence or continue relying on the United States?

The era of quiet prosperity is over

After World War II, Europe achieved overall peace, economic prosperity, and social development through integration, realizing the longest period of peace and prosperity in European history. However, in recent years, Europe faces negative population growth, deindustrialization and declining competitiveness caused by high welfare, and is at a geopolitical disadvantage. Inequality is growing within and between European countries, with wide disparities in opportunity, wealth and power. European integration not only needs to tackle internal challenges like the rise of populism and protectionism, but also bears external pressures from intensified great power competition and the return of geopolitics. As a military “pygmy” and economic “giant”, Europe must rely more on the U.S. and NATO for security, and depend more on Russia’s cheap energy for its economy. To this end, Europe hopes to regain its strategic initiative and competitiveness through transformation and strategic autonomy.

However, the Ukrainian crisis has disrupted Europe’s progress in green and digital transformation and strengthening strategic autonomy, making it fall into the double trap of reliance on the U.S. for security and energy. As Europe cooperates with the U.S. to implement unprecedented sanctions against Russia, relations between Europe and Russia have fallen into a zero-sum game of “decoupling”, followed by high energy prices, severe inflation, rising living costs, accelerated industrial outflows, economic recovery under pressure and social conflicts one after another. Large-scale strikes and demonstrations broke out in France, the Czech Republic and other countries, and Italy and other countries had to change leaders.

Political fragmentation and internal differentiation exacerbate the lack of consensus, leading to multidirectional and multispeed development in Europe. The twin demands of transformation and autonomy are overtaken by emotional politics, crisis management and wartime economics. On the one hand, Europe cannot free itself from dependence on Russia’s fossil energy, let alone smoothly transition based on ensuring energy security. On the other hand, Europe cannot escape its military dependence on NATO, let alone rely on its own strength based on safeguarding geopolitical security. Fears of looming recession and lost prosperity, coupled with fears of security threats, are seeping into mainstream European society and shaking the foundations of the European order.

Deep dilemma

Europe’s dilemma is a multidimensional crisis of interlocking and clustered nature, an all-round challenge of political failure, economic disorder, and loss of security control, reflecting the nested relationship between internal and external dilemmas.

On the one hand, Europe’s internal cohesion has declined. For 30 years, the single market has been a key tool for meeting challenges. The free flow of goods, people, money and services has guaranteed EU countries’ economic development. However, regional integration and economic globalization have also created an imbalance of winners and losers within the EU, exacerbating political rifts within and between EU countries. At the same time, when European integration extends to the political and security fields, internal differences among member states become increasingly prominent. Populist forces take advantage of people’s frustration and sense of victory and loss to continuously impact mainstream European politics, resulting in political fragmentation of member states and a significant increase in the trend of EU de-integration. As “veto politics” has become the norm, the process of consensus building has become more tortuous, and the decline in internal cohesion is difficult to reverse. Europe needs to define its core interests more clearly.

On the other hand, Europe lacks strategic autonomy. Europe has long failed to realize its lack of strategic autonomy, but is willing to survive and develop under “U.S. protection.” Changes in the geopolitical situation and intensified competition among major powers calls for Europe to become a geopolitical actor and take its own destiny into its own hands. However, what the U.S. pursues is a hierarchical international order. Once the logic of America’s priority and hegemony fuse, Europe will inevitably become a victim of American hegemony. At the same time, the decline of internal cohesion in Europe provides policy space for the U.S. to divide and rule. The U.S. exploits its asymmetric dependence to weaken EU unity and make it more vulnerable. If internal cohesion cannot be enhanced, Europe will inevitably be in a subordinate position in the U.S.-dominated global and regional order. If Europe cannot define its own core interests, Europe will inevitably fail to strengthen its internal cohesion, its strategic dilemma will become more acute and its strategic autonomy will become empty talk.

The future of Europe is uncertain

In the context of the Ukraine crisis, although Europe has taken many risky measures against Russia, it still maintains a degree of strategic restraint. At the same time, Europe and the U.S. are synchronized on opposing Russia and supporting Ukraine, but they are not in agreement and their differences are far greater than imagined.

As the engine of European integration, cooperation between France and Germany is particularly critical. When German Chancellor Scholz reflected on how Europe should maintain its autonomy in an increasingly multipolar world, he proposed the concept of “a turning point of the times” in order to actively seek change. This shows that Germany not only hopes to build a stronger European Union with more initiative in geopolitics, but also will pay more attention to Germany’s role and status in adjusting the European order. French President Emmanuel Macron will continue to promote the ideas and paths he advocated, such as “strategic autonomy” and “strategic sovereignty” in Europe.

For European elites, fostering the resilience of the European order and stability of the global order has become an unprecedented priority in a world rendered highly volatile and uncertain by multiple crises. For a long time, the framework of European integration has been the best option for European countries to ensure peace and prosperity. Europe has been promoting changes in the global order through “effective multilateralism.” Therefore, strategic autonomy is not about decoupling or deglobalization, but about achieving pragmatic cooperation and mutual benefit through interdependence.

If the visions of European elites for Europe’s future cannot guarantee or even strengthen EU unity and strategic autonomy, these visions will become utopian. Likewise, if European societies’ solutions are marked by ideology and dominated by prejudice and fear, then Europe’s future will only be one of centrifugal force and a sense of vulnerability.

In the historic position of changing times and world changes, Europe must find new tools to solve the plight of European integration and the decline of its international status, discover new impetus for the international community to solve the global governance deficit, and promote the leading role of the international community in seeking development and promoting people’s livelihood.

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