Published: 17:44, May 19, 2023 | Updated: 17:44, May 19, 2023
Europe must forge its own path
By Wolfgang Rohr

Continent should pursue strategic independence, without aligning itself with global powers


An interview with French President Emmanuel Macron during his state visit to China in April has given rise to a renewed debate about European strategic autonomy. 

Macron stated that Europe should take the role of a third power alongside the United States and China instead of becoming a vassal to one of them. He was criticized in Europe and the US for allegedly endangering transatlantic solidarity at a time when the Ukraine conflict required full NATO cohesion. But he also found support.

The issue is not new. The current German chancellor Olaf Scholz stated already as vice-chancellor of the Merkel government in 2021 that “the largest foreign policy challenge of the next years is that Europe has to find its place between the powers of the world — the US, China, Russia, but also soon other powerful Asian, African or Latin American states”. 

Before his visit to China in November, Scholz wrote that Germany has no interest in the building of global political blocs and that demands for the isolation of China were misguided. 

Later he stressed that Europeans should remain independent actors in an increasingly multipolar world; and that Germany and Europe had to play active roles in a balanced partnership with the US. He denied that a new Cold War between the US and China is approaching, and said that Germany and Europe do not aim to pit democracies against non-democracies.

Macron may have a point in believing that European strategic autonomy has already been achieved. No one in Europe doubts that the EU has to find its own voice in world affairs and not let its views get shaped by others, whether they are in Washington, Beijing, or elsewhere.

Economic developments make this imperative. In 2022, four European countries figured among the 10 largest world economies. By 2050, this number will halve: Germany and the United Kingdom, taking places nine and ten. The most important global economies will be China, the US, India, Indonesia and Brazil. Even the largest European economy, Germany, will not be able to make an impact alone. That is why just a few days ago nine EU member states set up a group to promote qualified majority voting on foreign policy issues.

However, agreeing on speaking with one voice does not clarify which positions to take. Currently, European states often do not see eye to eye on the policies they should pursue. Some hold that Europe should base itself on a variation of a theme well-known from the Cold War: Keep the US in, Russia down, and China out. Others claim that this would lead to more or less blindly following the US and getting involved in crises in which Europe has little, or no, interest.

The “transatlanticists” point to the historical links between the US and Europe, the positive role the US played in the reordering of Europe in the 1990s, its overarching significance for European security and the close economic relationship underpinned by the “Washington Consensus”: balanced budgets, little regulation, open borders for goods and capital, and fair competition. That was all true.

Others, however, stress that the Joe Biden administration, while still supporting European security, has effectively canceled this Consensus: Under the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors Act (CHIPS Act) and the Inflation Reduction Act, more than $1 trillion in mostly borrowed federal funds will be invested in computer chips and green technologies — as long as the precursors are sourced in the US and companies do not have too much business with China. That is a violation of WTO rules and could lead to European companies decamping to the US. 

And it is the Biden administration, widely seen as pro-European, that pursues these policies. What could happen under a future president?

It is therefore imperative for Europeans to recalibrate their foreign policy orientation — not toward Beijing or toward Washington, nor aiming at equidistance between the two. A truly autonomous European foreign policy will have to find a third, independent path, to guide it in a multilateral world in which it should aim at being another power, alongside the US and China and new, upcoming partners such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Africa and, yes, also one day again, Russia. 

This should be part of the new China strategy that the German government is currently developing. The upcoming seventh Chinese-German intergovernmental consultations scheduled for June would be a fitting occasion for a first step toward such a new European path.

All significant global issues should be viewed within the framework of this independent policy which should be based on reciprocity. Trade should be fostered, and companies should be left to trade and invest unencumbered by too many government directives. 

Contacts in science and technology just as in culture should thrive without undue fears of negative foreign influence. Political issues should be decided on the merits of European interests alone. That means — and here, again, Macron is right — that problems which are not important for Europe should not exert undue influence on relations to other states. 

This, in turn, would mean not to join disputes other countries might have with China — unless, of course, European interests are at stake. Looking at the most important current issue in European politics, the Ukraine crisis, it also means that the EU should continue to stand firm to deal with the challenges emanating from it.

Such an independent and autonomous foreign policy would bring about prosperity for Europe in a 21st century that promises to hold many challenges, but also a multitude of opportunities.

The author is a former member of the German Foreign Service and a researcher at the German Studies Center at Tongji University. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. 

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.