Europe is Emerging as a Geopolitical Union

The problems that Europe is facing are directly related to errors of national policy, particularly in Germany, yet the EU has been much bolder and more decisive than the average member state in this crisis, says Bruno Maçães in conversation with Tomas Klvana.

Welcome to Prague, Bruno, and congratulations on the Czech publication of your book Geopolitics for the End of Time. We seem to be at a decisive juncture in the history of Europe and its integration process, post pandemic, amidst war. How have we done so far?

I am interested in this idea that we have to distinguish between EU member states and the European Commission. There is a connection, but there is also the spirit of the EU and the spirit of the member states. In this crisis the EU has been much bolder and more decisive than the average member state. On the issue of giving Ukraine EU candidate status, the Commission was pushing ahead ambitiously, and Germany and France were creating difficulties all the time. There is a popular view that the Commission is useless or the EU institutions bureaucratic, but the war has shown the opposite. The problems that Europe is facing are directly related to errors of national policy, particularly in Germany. The EU has been quite good on Ukraine already for ten years. It has been pushing for energy diversification. So if you think about Europe as a whole, of course, the EU and member states are mixed together and it is difficult to distinguish between the two, but the EU has been better than the member states.

Why is it the case? Perhaps the idea that was at the start of European integration way back finally germinated – that the Commission would be looking after European interests as opposed to the interests of individual member states? Are we seeing the emergence of European political consciousness and European interests?

I think that’s it. The European Commission represents a broader view. It is not as captured by interests, business interests or national interests. Overall, it is much better to project European power. There is something proper that national interests get corrected by another perspective and you end up with something that is better. For example, the German perspective of Russia will be complemented by the Polish perspective. Germany and France resist this a lot and they also resist enlargement because they do not want to lose the influence and power that they have right now. Enlargement would be very good news because, first, you create a bigger geopolitical bloc.

And second, if we want real democracy in the EU, we need to reduce German and French power.

After the UK left, the way to do this is to bring one or two large countries in. I am thinking of Ukraine and Turkey. That would be my ideal scenario. With 120 million new European citizens, French and German power would be diluted. It would be good news for states like Portugal, Czechia and others. It has been my view for a long time. The Franco-German engine is a big problem for the EU.

Turkey sounds far-fetched right now…

Right, the Turks themselves are not interested anymore, but Ukraine hopefully joins within 10-12 years, not 30, which is what you hear in Paris.

Does Biden’s America read the European theater correctly?

On the whole Biden has been positive, supportive and has made a real difference. There has been some hesitation that could have been avoided. They doubted that Ukraine could resist. He was convinced that Ukraine would fall in three days. That has retarded support. But the United States has been able to do things that Europeans could not. Its logistic power is impressive. The ability to move equipment quickly and deploy it is a humbling experience for Europeans because without the US, Ukraine would not have survived. Certainly, if it was up to France, Germany and Italy, Ukraine would have been doomed. That is a disturbing thought.

Are we eventually going to see a coherent, unified and strong EU foreign policy?

I think so, it is happening. Everyone my age or little older than me remembers disagreements that were incredibly profound. During the wars in ex-Yugoslavia, France and Germany were on opposite sides. France was close to Serbia, Germany to Croatia and Slovenia. During the second Iraq War, there were radical disagreements among European countries. Today, there is an alignment of views if not policies on the current crisis, so it represents a leap forward. You have the High European Representative on Foreign Policy saying that the European Defense Fund will provide Ukraine with military equipment. It would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago. For the first time, we see real meaning in the label of Europe as a geopolitical union. Now we need institutional reforms. We must talk about the questions of qualified majority and unanimity. We need the enlargement process to move forward. We need a geopolitical energy policy. However, the process has started. It is no longer possible to ignore the idea of European foreign policy. This crisis – you see the French position, German position, but they can be interpreted within the European position. It is the first time the European position is dominant. What you saw in Kyiv was Germany’s Chancellor being dragged along having to accept what the European view is. This is major progress. Germany alone would probably not agree to grant Ukraine a candidate status, but there is a European dynamic that forces Germany to compromise.

If we want real democracy in the EU, we need to reduce German and French power.

Will this war improve Euro-American ties? Especially in view of how the Trump administration brought it to a completely different place.

I don’t think so. My impression is that the war is increasing the annoyance in Washington that even such a crisis on our borders has to be addressed by the US. It is making a backlash – when it comes in 2024 – even stronger than it would have been. There is a trend in the US to pivot to Asia and tackle China in a more strategic way and this war is not making things better. A couple of countries such as Estonia and Poland have done more than the US on a per-capita basis. But on average it is not true, and Germany and France have not lived up to expectations. The conclusion in Washington will be that Europe will only learn after the US either withdraws from Europe or makes a very credible threat of doing so. The annoyance is growing. I see indications that a crisis is coming. There is concern about war in Taiwan and the US will have to turn to that.

Are the US and EU playing it smart in China?

For a long time we have seen excessive self-confidence. Many people did not view China seriously. It is changing. I wrote a book in which I argued that the game on China turns on the question of who controls technology. The strategy used by the US has not worked. The US has to focus more on becoming a great player in technology development with a world-class infrastructure…There is in American strategy, an attempt to stop China rather than race faster. You are not going to be able to stop China, so the only way to beat them is to race faster than China. On my recent visits to the US, I saw this decaying infrastructure and with the exception of some islands of innovation, the US is a less vibrant economy, a less vibrant country. That should be the priority. Trying to isolate China will only make it more self-reliant, which is what happened in semiconductors. China’s been able to develop that capacity over the past five years, faster than expected. China has committed its own errors, but the US is not trying a more competitive approach. 

In terms of the EU and China, I am generally positive. In the last five years, the EU has developed more tools to be competitive with China. Before that, China was still seen as a developing country and was underestimated. Now the EU has more tools on trade, technology, investment, or public procurement. We are seeing a more balanced relationship between China and the EU. The EU is less naïve and regards China as a competitor. We have the same problems with lack of innovation and tech development as the US, but it is no longer the case that we open our markets unilaterally. We demand more reciprocity.

How do you see China evolving after this year’s crucial Congress of the Communist Party when Xi secures his own position?

I see more continuity than disruption, continuity over decades. I am not one of those people to see great breaks. After Deng took power, there has been more continuity than discontinuity. Deng was not more pro-Western. He simply took decisions in a different context and Xi makes decisions in his context, but there is more that holds them together than what separates them over the last three decades of Chinese history. And there will be continuity in the future. We will see China interested in several things in the next five years, such as self-sufficiency; placing itself in a position that it no longer depends on the West. Further, they will focus on critical components, such as semi-conductors and other critical technology.

Once China feels it is self-sufficient, we will see another quantum leap in its foreign policy. China will become more assertive.

There are still some people in China believing it is too weak and dependent and they are working to change that. China will want to address its internal problems, particularly its overreliance on credit and the real estate sector. It will want to shift the economy to more productive sectors. Much will hang on this. 

Then there is the question of Taiwan. More people are inclined to think that China will try to incorporate Taiwan by force. China will never give up on Taiwan and it will never be able to incorporate Taiwan peacefully. So, at some point there will be an attempt to use force. And that will probably be in this decade. Looking at the development of Chinese defense, it would be around 2027. After 2030, it will be more difficult. Some of the US’s capacities will be ready by then. They are not ready now. 2027: a crisis point.

I don’t expect a move towards a more liberal China, but I also don’t expect a move towards a more centralized and more authoritarian government than we have now. Generally, I expect continuity. The crisis point will come from the increase in China’s self-reliance, and on Taiwan, and those two lines will eventually cross, when China feels it no longer depends on Western technology and capital.

Finally, do you believe we will ever see a post-Putin, more Europeanized Russia? Or is Russia going to be a threat for the foreseeable future?

I don’t believe in a Europeanized Russia in my lifetime. After Putin, the regime will probably evolve. It will be more closed to the outside. I’ve suggested that it will perhaps resemble Iran. Perhaps there will be some form of a more collective leadership, returning to a Politburo occupied by people from the security services, much more disconnected from the West, economically, politically and culturally more linked to China, to India, to Iran. In 20-30 years, we will increasingly think of Russia as an Asian country partnered to China or India rather than to European democracies, more militarized – that’s already the case but I think it’s possible to imagine the next president coming from the military. I keep coming back to this image of Iran in terms of structural elements.

Russia will be another Iran and certainly not another Poland or even another Ukraine.

It might not necessarily be a threat because if we think of the analogy with Iran, we think of a very isolated Russia with diminished economic power. It may become a regional actor not able to impact European security anymore, with WMDs but not with conventional abilities to launch a major war. Again, coming to the Iranian scenario, Russia will be able to exert influence using proxies and militias but would be a lesser threat than today, a diminished power with a less powerful army.

Bruno Maçães

is a member of the European Centre for International Political Economy Advisory Board. He is also a Senior Advisor at Flint Global in London, where he advises companies on international politics, and a Senior Fellow at Renmin University, Beijing and the Hudson Institute in Washington. He was the Portuguese Europe Minister from 2013-2015, and was decorated by Spain and Romania for his services to the government. He received his doctorate in political science from Harvard University, and was a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington and the Carnegie Institute in Brussels. He has written for the Financial Times, Politico, the Guardian and Foreign Affairs, and appears regularly on CNN, the BBC, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera and CCTV.

Tomáš Klvaňa

is visiting professor at New York University Prague and Senior International Management Consultant. His most recent book is Perhaps Even a Dictator Will Show Up (Možná přijde i diktátor, Bourdon Prague 2017).

Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.