The EU: “strategic suburbia”?

I’m flattered that David Miliband has quoted me in speech on Europe he gave in Poland.  The former Foreign Secretary believes that “America’s attention today is on the home front” while China is cautious about asserting itself on foreign policy issues.

So Europe faces a choice. Breathe a sigh of relief that the world is not being carved up by others, and become what Richard Gowan has called a “strategic suburbia: a collection of small, quiet and obsessively inward-looking communities suspicious of the outside world” ; or recognise that nature abhors a vacuum, and move forward into it?

It’s always nice to be cited, and Miliband’s speech is a serious and well-argued plea for “a vision of Europe in the world based on clear ideals, hard heads, and real delivery.”  But I have to quibble with his argument that the EU should be trying to fill a global vacuum created by American exhaustion and Chinese caution.

In the piece Miliband cites, published by E!Sharp last month, my case is that EU”s economic woes and its desire for investment from China, India and other emerging powers create the conditions for a “Scramble for Europe”.  This would involve the BRICs buying influence in the EU, making it harder and harder for European leaders to develop and defend independent foreign policy positions:

Unless the major emerging economies suffer significant setbacks in the years ahead – by no means impossible – they should have little difficulty dividing and ruling in Europe. It’s possible to imagine a scenario ten years from now in which the UK regularly stands up for India’s interests in the EU while France and Germany speak for China. That won’t be a problem if Sino-Indian relations are stable – but if the two Asian giants are in a state economic or strategic tension, their friends in the EU might also find themselves at odds.

This hardly means that French or British troops will rush off to fight on different sides in a Himalayan war. Yet, as Russia has shown through its energy diplomacy over the last decade, it’s not difficult for outside powers to manipulate individual European governments, making it well-nigh impossible to define coherent EU positions. In 2020, the greatest potentates in Brussels may be the Chinese, Brazilian ambassadors – alongside their U.S. and Russian counterparts – lobbying against each others’ interests.

If European governments coordinate their economic and foreign policies more effectively, they may be able to play the rising powers off against each, balancing India’s influence against China’s or Brazil’s. But EU policy-makers should not imagine that they can somehow rake in cash from Asia and Latin America yet insulate themselves from competition between the emerging powers and the U.S. for global influence.

Strategic irrelevance is not an option. Europe’s ability to shape the outside world may be shrinking, but that doesn’t mean that outsiders will refrain from shaping European politics to suit their needs.

So, whereas David Miliband sees the EU filling a vacuum in global affairs left by the U.S. and China, my concern is that China and other powers will rush in and fill the political-economic vacuum that the EU itself could so easily become…