(CN) — Europe must strengthen its position on the world stage or face becoming the “chessboard” on which superpowers vie for “power and glory,” a pan-European think tank said in a wide-ranging report Tuesday.
The European Council on Foreign Relations urged the European Union to exert more influence on the world stage or face becoming a pawn in a growing struggle for power in a “new world order” where the United States, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are competing ever more fiercely.
“Unless it acts soon, Europe may become not a player in the new world order but the chessboard on which great powers compete for power and glory,” the council said in the report.
The council cited the actions of U.S. President Donald Trump in particular as threatening Europe’s sovereignty and self-interest.
The think tank said Trump’s unilateral decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and punish companies that do business with Iran “exposed European vulnerability.”
It said that even though companies such as Total, a French oil company, and Airbus, a French airplane manufacturer, were conducting lawful business with Iran, the U.S. sanctions forced them to pull out of their Iranian investments.
“But the fate of the Iran nuclear deal is just the tip of the iceberg of European vulnerability,” the report said. The council warned that the United States in the future might seek to restrict European trade with China or Russia “in the same way they have done with Iran.”
The EU does an estimated $216 billion each year in trade with Russia and $400 billion a year with China.
The report found Europe “increasingly vulnerable to external pressure” that prevents the EU from exercising its sovereign interests.
“This vulnerability threatens the European Union’s security, economic health, and diplomatic freedom of action, allowing other powers to impose their preferences on it,” the report said.
In this world of increasing conflict, the report said Europe must seek to continue backing its alliance with the United States while also exerting its independence from the U.S. and supporting the international system of laws.
“Most fundamentally, the EU needs to learn to think like a geopolitical power,” the report said. “European governments’ ability to have a voice in the world is under threat.”
It warned that advances in technology, with the creation of a 5G network and a cyber world dominated by artificial intelligence and machine learning, the so-called “Internet of Things,” will make Europe even more vulnerable. Advances in artificial intelligence might leave Europe on the sidelines if the rules of this huge new emerging market are set by China and the United States.
The report painted a picture in which Europe could be forced into submitting to the wishes of the United States, Russia and China even in matters such as helping troubled countries on the doorstep of Europe, such as in Africa and Eastern Europe.
To ward off this possibility, the think tank urged Europe to do more to develop its own military and technological might.
“Europe also struggles to guarantee its security. What could the EU do if Russia decided to treat Poland or Latvia in the way it has treated Ukraine, using a combination of cyber attacks, disinformation, and direct action to destabilize an EU state and perhaps overthrow its government?” the report asked.
The council, which has offices in Berlin and London among other countries, also said that in the coming decades the EU primarily will face threats to its sovereignty that come from outside the boundaries of the EU; it characterized this as a shift, as up to now the EU’s most dire threats have come from internal domestic problems and disputes.
It said that the EU must do a better job of developing its foreign policy voice.
“A core part of the European narrative is that, in a world of superpowers, collective action can allow Europe to be a player in geopolitics,” the report said.
But the council said the EU historically has suffered from an inability to act a single voice to protect its interests during major crises, such as the conflict in the Balkans and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
However, in striking the Iran nuclear deal, the think tank said Europe played a key role in persuading China, Russia and America to back the deal. The deal, which was backed by U.S. President Barack Obama, entailed Iran curtailing its nuclear weapons program in exchange for lifting of sanctions. The deal was signed in Vienna in 2015 after marathon multilateral negotiations led by the EU.
Trump, though, has called it the “worst deal” ever signed and vowed to dismantle it, even though it was a lawfully binding accord and a signature piece of Obama’s foreign policy. The United States has dropped out of the deal and Iran has resumed its nuclear weapons program. This tense standoff threatens to explode into armed conflict.
“They [Europeans] remained united behind the nuclear deal and were willing to put resources into upholding it. The failure to protect the deal [against Trump’s decision to withdraw from it] was a real wake-up call — and showed that there had been a structural shift in the world order,” the report said.
What’s taken place over Iran has swept away assumptions about how the post-Cold War system functions, where international relations were based around a multilateral, rules-based order “that insulates economic relations and global problems from geopolitical competition,” the report said.
In this past era, Europe saw its position in the world defended by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with the United States and by a global capitalist system underpinned by free and fair global trade that “benefits everybody and that allows state policy to focus on consumer protection rather than the interests of producers,” the report said.
“These core assumptions are increasingly in question,” the council said.
It said the multilateral order — as represented by the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund — “is under assault from multiple sources as the world descends into geopolitical competition.”
It said that the United States under Trump “is now actively undermining many core international arrangements, from the World Trade Organization and the Paris climate deal to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the UNESCO.”
“Meanwhile, Europe’s alliance with the U.S. is becoming more instrumental and transactional every day,” it said.
Still, the think tank warned against damaging Europe’s alliance with the United States, even as many Europeans now see the U.S. as using its military superiority as a way to limit Europe’s ability to pursue its own interests.
The council also said core assumptions of the past must be questioned.
“The idea that globalization benefits everyone no longer has much currency anywhere, including within Europe itself,” the report said. “And many in the West have particularly acute concerns about the pressure that China’s model of state capitalism puts on the global system through its closed markets, subsidized production, and forced transfer of intellectual property.”
The report found that recent events have made it clear that Europe is isolated on the world stage.
“A time of fiercer geopolitical competition and an America more focused on its narrow interests have exposed the EU’s lack of independence in new ways,” it said.
It said the EU’s “highly fragmented internal power structures” leave it unable “to stand up to more centralized powers, such as Russia and China.”
“The goal should not be protectionism, aspiring to abandon the transatlantic relationship, nor ending interdependence,” the council advised. “But it is important for Europeans to be clear about their own interests and values, how best to defend them, and the areas in which their dependence on others could lead to a loss of sovereignty.”
The report laid out numerous policy recommendations for the EU to pursue in a quest to become more assertive on the world stage and ensure that it is able to defend its economic, military and political interests.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)