When, on 10 September 2019, the President of the European Commission, the German Ursula Von der Leyen, installed her Vice-President, the Spaniard Josep Borrell, as High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, she said to him: “We must be a geopolitical Commission! “
Historically, under the influence of the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, the term geopolitics refers to the study of power relations between states. Ratzel (1844-1904), the first theoretician of Lebensraum (living space), believed that Germany’s foreign policy should ensure that it always maintained favourable power relations with its neighbours. This was done by his compatriot Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor, who skilfully directed German affairs from 1870 to 1890.
Bismarckian Germany was a respected state in the world, while avoiding adventurism. Although it has had a “Geopolitical Commission” for the past year and a half, the European Union (EU) cannot be said to be a respected power in the world. Not only does it not scare anyone, but it is also very complacent about it. There is form (which counts for a lot in diplomacy) and there is substance.
On the form, we have seen, in the first third of 2021, the European Commission being humiliated by the two great expansionist autocracies neighbouring the Union. On 5 February 2021, while Mr Borrell was visiting Moscow, the Russian authorities expelled three European diplomats (a German, a Pole and a Swede) on the pretext that they had taken part in a rally in support of the opponent Navalny.
On 6 April in Ankara, during a summit between the EU and Turkey, there was an amazing scene: the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and President Recep Erdogan sat face to face in comfortable armchairs, without thinking of bringing one forward for Mrs Ursula Von der Leyen who, rather than standing, decided to sit on a sofa at the back of the room.
This incident – immediately described by the journalists as sofagate – did not only illustrate the lack of basic courtesy by these two Belgian and Turkish politicians. It also – more seriously – underlined the lack of unity at the head of the EU and the existence of a deleterious rivalry between its Council (the appointing and decision-making body representing the 27 member states) and its Commission (the body that manages European interests, holding a monopoly on initiative).
On the substance, there is unfortunately ample evidence that the EU no longer commands respect.
On 23 May, the Belarusian dictator Lukashenko forcibly landed a European Ryanair plane in Minsk, linking two European capitals, Athens and Vilnius. All this to seize a 26-year-old opponent, who was one of the main Belarusian journalists to have denounced the fraud of the August 2020 presidential elections.
A week earlier, at the other end of the Union’s territory diagonally, there was an incident that also showed a lack of respect for the EU. In retaliation for Spain agreeing to treat the leader of the Polisario (the Reguibat movement, a Saharan tribe campaigning for self-determination in the former Spanish Sahara, annexed by Morocco in 1975), the Moroccan authorities stormed the Spanish enclave of Ceuta with thousands of problematic young men and teenagers, whom they were delighted to get rid of.
The Moroccan government knows very well that in the EU, unaccompanied minors are never expelled. It is not only drug and human traffickers that the EU does not scare. Hackers, whether state or non-state, do not fear it either. EU territory has become the soft underbelly of the world for all cyber attacks. On 4 May, Belnet, Belgium’s computer network, was paralysed by an attack just as its parliament was about to hold a meeting on the persecuted Chinese minority of Uighurs.
Russia, for its part, tolerates a large number of cyber pirates on its soil. To obtain ransom money, they attack private companies or public institutions, such as hospitals. The Russian and Chinese services are not shy about placing “implants” (sleeping software that can be activated remotely) in major European infrastructures.
It is high time that the EU developed a security policy worthy of the name in the face of its adversaries. To finally go on the counter-offensive.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.