Austerity is not an option that should be on the table. Jeremy Rifkin

Very Old World

European foreign policy in Syria has failed. Has Europe become powerless on the world stage?

There are certainly many reasons to identify “Europe” with “crisis” in May 2013. Yet the failure of the European project is most evident in foreign policy debates: When the EU rescinded its Syrian arms embargo on May 28, bowing to pressure from France and Great Britain, a heated debate erupted across the continent. Austria announced to withdraw its UN forces from the Golan Heighs, since their security could not longer be guaranteed if European weapons were once against shipped into the region and could end up in the hands of extremists. “We are troubled and worried,” said the Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann. He was speaking not only about the failure of European countries to reach an agreement on Syria but about European foreign policy more generally. Almost any question that requires member states to make a concrete decision (and cannot be answered simply by declarations of goodwill) now results in a European gridlock.

Syria is quickly becoming a wedge in European policy circles, but it’s far from the only one. Critics on both sides of the Pacific already scoff at divisions among EU members. The two world powers – the United States and China – have become increasingly convinced that there is no “European voice” in foreign policy. When the UN General Assembly voted on the status of Palestine in November 2012, the divisions within Europe were already evident to international observers. Washington and Beijing have also taken note of Germany’s tendency to make unilateral decisions: Berlin irked European neighbors by pursuing a separate trade policy with China and by refusing to participate in the Libyan intervention.

Bilateral agreements instead of European alliances

The US and China – both of which are currently building alliances before confronting each other in the Pacific region – have abandoned the idea of a partnership with Europe and instead focus their diplomatic energies on bilateral alliances. In the Chinese case, this translates into a benevolent “divide-et-impera” approach. For the US, it means a retreat from continental Europe, a deepening of ties with Great Britain, and a pivot into the Asian region. When America’s global security strategy was presented at the Pentagon in January 2012, Obama already dispelled hopes that the US might anchor its global position in the transatlantic alliance: Europe was too cacophonous, too divided, without a clear foreign policy agenda, focused on short-term initiatives instead of long-term policies, lacking military and diplomatic force, exhibiting unclear geostrategic positioning and general unpredictability.

Internally, the signs of crisis are painfully evident as well. And it’s not just “business as usual” squabbles that one might reasonably expect among member states: Last fall, negotiations over the EU budget for the fiscal years 2014 to 2020 failed. In December, a EU summit led to the postponement of necessary reforms. Great Britain continues to demand special treatment. Corruption is on the rise (according to “Transparency International,” Italy occupied 72nd place in its global corruption index. Greece is 94th). Economic growth has been stagnating even in countries like Germany. Nationalism is on the rise, a secession of Scotland from the United Kingdom and a retreat of Great Britain from the Eurozone seem possible.

Not surprisingly, then, is the description of Europe as a continent on the descent. The word “crisis” has become almost synonymous with the word “Europe.” The Nobel Peace Prize changes little: After all, it’s a prize given by Europeans to other Europeans. In much of the world it was perceived as a desperate attempt to cling to a positive narrative during a time of helplessness and extreme problems, and not as a deserved reward for Europe’s special contributions to world peace.

But is it fair to brand Europe as the world’s “crisis continent” and lament that the EU has increasingly divorced itself from the rest of the world? Has Europe become so preoccupied with its own web of conflicting interests that it has paralyzed itself? Has Europe become so delusional that it rewards itself with peace prizes while failing to recognize the need for action?

It seems so. But the solutions are well known: Europe needs to grow into a true political union, it needs a more networked banking system, continental regulation of financial and monetary policies, a strong central bank, a foreign office with executive and decision-making power, a European government that respects the subsidiarity of individual states, and the common celebration of cultural diversity. As Mario Draghi recently argued during a visit to London: “The answer to the crisis has not been less Europe but more Europe."

Will Europe renege its global role?

Draghi is correct, but his statement does not describe the obvious European realities, as the fruitless fight over a common position on Syria – arguably one of the easier geopolitical exercises – has symptomatically shown. How can we expect European leaders to find common ground on the future of the Euro or on European integration if they, despite strenuous attempts to broker a compromise, cannot even agree on an arms embargo to Syria?

Unless Europe finally – and quickly – finds more common ground, but without the unfortunate detour of a European “super-state,” it will quickly become irrelevant as a global actor. Europe’s states aren’t big enough to compete against geopolitical alliances in Asia or the Americas on their own terms. A first opportunity for Europe to regain its footing might present itself this summer: On May 26, Europe’s foreign ministers agreed to reconsider the “Syria question” during the planned international conference on Syria. A belated agreement is still better than none.

Yet Jean-Claude Juncker’s insistence that “we don’t want the United States of Europe,” voiced shortly before he resigned as president of the Eurogroup, hints at the staying power of old-school European politics. The path towards greater unification is far from secure, but it’s the only path available – unless Europe is ready to renege its global role.

Read more in this debate: Robert Born, Dietmar Bartsch, Matthew Amroliwala.

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