NEW DELHI: It’s ironic but not surprising that Europe’s problems seem to be mounting as Angela Merkel’s days as Chancellor draws to a close. The German Chancellor, [who has self-declared that she will give up the Chancellorship when her term ends in October 2021] has guided Germany and Europe for more than a decade and her upcoming exit leaves behind a huge vacuum that none of her potential successors seem able or willing to fill. Merkel’s chosen successor, defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer pulled out of the race in February this year and the other contenders have proved shockingly inept in their plans on dealing with the COVID-19 crisis or on any foreign policy matter so far. Their performance has been so wanting that German television and German opinion polls show the Chancellor’s approval ratings are currently at 70 percent, a desperate sign that they want her to hang on.
The rest of Europe hasn’t been polled but Merkel’s exit will certainly mark a worry for the 27-member bloc. In a Trumpian era that marks ‘America First’, the rise of China and the growing collapse of multilateral systems, Europe is emerging as the lost boy at the party. A major reason for this is the lack of collective leadership led by a senior statesman. For a while, the verdict was that it would be Macron and ‘Is Macron the new Merkel?’ was the question that resounded across the continent. For his part, Macron still believes that he is the chosen one. Ever since he took power in 2017, he advocated that France along with Germany should help the bloc increase monetary, political and defence integration. The problem is Merkel is on her way out and Macron hasn’t been taken seriously by other member countries as yet. France doesn’t have the diplomatic or monetary heft and Macron’s attempts at foreign policy has been seen as ‘showboating’ – the extended power handshake with Donald Trump and his calling NATO ‘brain-dead’ are just some examples. Add to this his seeming inability or unwillingness to build consensus and you find a French leader very much at odds with his European counterparts. So, when Merkel steps down, Macron may find it tough to become the ‘European’ man.
Where does that leave Europe? While it is foolish to say the EU is irrelevant or predict its end the bloc is simply unable to get its house in order. The COVID-19 pandemic has left the continent facing its worst recession since WWII little can be agreed upon without creating and accentuating increasing divides. Though Merkel used her diplomacy skills to hammer through a 1.8 trillion euro ($2.06 trillion) economic recovery package, the divide between north and south European nations was once again seen with the former feeling that the economic cost was too high and they would have to carry their southern counterparts. Economics aside, the challenges of EU nations politically are very different. For instance, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are feeling threatened after the Russian annexation of Ukraine, a concern that many West European nations don’t share. The reason is economic. The Nord stream pipeline from Vyborg to Griefswald ensures Germany is dependent on Russia for an estimated 50 percent of its gas requirements, a dependence that is only likely to increase when the sanction-hit Nord Stream II comes through. Given this reality, it’s no wonder the Baltic nations have put full sanctions on Belarus and even imposed a travel ban on President Lukashenko without waiting for the rest of the EU which has only agreed on ‘targeted sanctions’ so far. The reason is they see no advantage in unduly annoying Putin. It also may explain why when ‘poisoned’ Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was sent to Europe; Moscow saw it fit to send him to Berlin.
Russia aside we come to China. Beijing, which has already declared itself as a ‘Near Arctic’ power, is stepping up engagement and its influence on Scandinavian nations. Growth of Confucian centres, announcement of the Polar Silk Route and increased research bases in these areas suggests as much. But much of this influence is not benevolent. A recent report authorised by Icelandic politician Björn Bjarnason warned that the ‘Chinese military has begun to show an interest in the region,’ and more recently aggressive measures are being taken against the Scandinavian media that have published articles criticising President Xi or China. But China’s growing influence is being combatted by Russia and the US. The EU is nowhere in the picture.
Why? The simple reason is lack of interest. On the Scandinavian side, their deep sense of nationalism and high GDP (which is equal to or even higher than that of Germany) makes the Nordic countries feel superior. Scandinavian nations also believe while joining the EU free-trade market is a must and being part of EU politics may be useful it doesn’t address many of their concerns. Norway and Iceland certainly don’t think so. Their common policies and concerns are addressed by the Nordic Council most of which centres around China and the US. President Trump’s offer to buy Greenland last year is not as ridiculous as it was made to seem. In 1946, under president Harry Truman, the US offered Denmark $100 million for Greenland, an island they consider of huge strategic significance given the power games in the Arctic. Can the rest of Europe help or be willing to get involved? No, and neither do the Nordic countries want them to.
European politicians would argue that such differing voices and divergent challenges exemplify the bloc’s tolerance for democracy. They also point out that when it has come to the crunch the EU has voiced an independent opinion, the latest one being the rejection of the US demand for ‘snap-back sanctions’ on Iran. This is true and while the EU will remain an independent, authoritative voice it is hard to see it becoming anything more. Instead, it is most likely to act as a ‘playmaker’ for whichever major power emerges in the new order. The EU really has no other alternative.