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[Hwang’s China and the World] Europe's security dilemma: Can it pave its own 3rd path?

Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science and European integration at Luiss University, Rome
Thomas Christiansen, professor of political science and European integration at Luiss University, Rome

The EU has a strong image of an exemplary student in many ways. As the EU expanded to Eastern and Central Europe after the end of the Cold War system, its political and economic influence further stretched to the international community. The EU is strengthening cooperative relations with other regions through common foreign and security policies and has pursued peace and prosperity in Europe by simultaneously providing mutual cooperation and development support to the regions outside of Europe. Europe's status could be maintained by sharing the political values underlying democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, and the EU was considered as the answer in terms of its goal and methodology in building communities, as it has proved mutual consideration and cooperation are feasible within the EU.

Europe seems to have learned from history that only coexistence in the international community deserves to enjoy its own peace and prosperity. However, along with these advantages and competitiveness, there are also many weaknesses and problems. The geopolitical dilemma seen in the Ukraine War is that Europe could not overcome the realism, and the policy distance between it and China and Russia basically shows a gap in understanding between civilizations.

Whether Brexit is a step forward or a step backward in European history will be judged by history in the future. In the various features of the non-polar, unipolar, bipolar, and multipolar international order, we are watching Europe's choice of whether Europe will remain a protective shield for the US due to its decision-making disorders, whether it can operate as a single pole by paving a third path in a multipolar system, no matter France and Germany come up front and lead.

This week’s interview invited Professor Thomas Christiansen, a leading expert in this field, to answer these various questions. He is a professor of political science and European integration at Luiss University, Rome, as well as executive editor of the Journal of European Integration. He previously held positions in several universities including Maastricht University, and Aberystwyth University.

Hwang: What political, economic, and security impact is the Russian-Ukraine war bringing on Europe?

Christiansen: The war obviously creates huge challenges for Europe, as it does for the wider world: rising living costs, increases in military spending, the energy crisis, a looming economic recession, another refugee and humanitarian crisis and new divisions in domestic politics. The confrontation with Russia has also reminded Europeans of their dependence on the United States for military security. But in the longer term, one can also see positive developments, namely a renewed purpose in the EU to cooperate on security, diversify global supply chains and strengthen cooperation with countries in the neighborhood. The new EU membership applications of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova demonstrate the continuing attraction of the European Union for countries that have been under attack by Russia, and confirm that the EU continues to be a political model with a future perspective, despite a decade of continuous crises. And the new “European Political Community”, which held its first summit meeting in Prague in October 2022, brings together all European states except Russia and Belarus. It provides an inclusive framework for cooperation among EU members, candidate countries and non-members.

Hwang: Do you think the EU's hard-line policies against Russia can be continued? It seems members' positions are different from one another.

Christiansen: I am not sure I would call EU policy on Russia “hard-line.” In the face of Russia’s attack on a sovereign state in the EU’s immediate neighborhood, the interruption of gas deliveries for the purpose of blackmail, a sustained campaign of political disinformation, repeated threats of a nuclear attack, and general disregard for international law, one might consider the EU’s response rather measured. Russia likely blew up the Nordstream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, conducted cyber-attacks against political institutions in EU countries, and has been proven to be behind the shooting down of Flight MH17, the Malaysian airliner, in July 2014 which killed almost 300 people, among them many EU citizens and the murderous attacks on Russian dissidents in European countries -- most famously the assassination attempt in Salisbury in March 2018. While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now received -- quite rightfully -- all the attention, Europe has been under attack by Russia

There continues to be hesitation to provide Ukraine with the heavy armor that it has been requesting, and more broadly a sense that diplomatic channels with Russia need to remain open. Of course, there are differences between the member states, with frontline states such as Poland, Finland and the Baltic States being more fully committed to the support of Ukraine, whereas the French and German governments have been more ambivalent in this regard, and kept open the possibility of an eventual negotiated settlement. But only Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban is openly supportive of Vladimir Putin, has departed from the EU’s common position on the war.

Hwang: EU-China relations seem to be deteriorating rapidly. Do you think Europe considers China a larger threat than Russia? If so, is this because of the third factor, the United States?

Christiansen: EU relations with China are deeply affected by the war in Ukraine, and it is becoming more common now to see both Russia and China -- authoritarian regimes with aggressive foreign policies -- in the same light. While China is not actively supporting Russia in the conduct of the war, it is nevertheless seen to be on the side of Russia in this conflict. However, despite some rhetoric, there is no alliance between Russia and China. Indeed, there are fundamental differences between the two powers: China is not seen as a direct threat to Europe in the sense of a territorial attack that we have seen from Russia, and both business and political elites are aware of the significance that China has for Europe in terms of trade and investment. I would say European policymakers are becoming more cautious about a deeper engagement with China, and are working to avoid a greater dependency on China in critical sectors, but at the same time, there is a recognition that the economic costs of a genuine de-coupling would be very high, and should be avoided. As far as pressure from the United States is concerned, Europe is rather resisting that and searching for a "third way" of dealing with China, beyond the antagonism of the US and the specter of greater dependency in the future.

Hwang: What is the international order that the EU is thinking of? Does the unipolarity, bipolarity, multipolarity, or non-polarity fit in here?

Christiansen: I believe Europeans are generally aware that the global order is changing, and that their influence on its future shape is limited. To the extent to which the EU has a strategy, it is to support multilateral solutions to global issues, to maintain the role of international institutions and to prevent a complete descent into global power politics. The EU is not about protecting national sovereignty, but indeed about overcoming its limitations, and that means that it seeks to strengthen the rule of law internationally and address common challenges such as the climate crisis, the global pandemic and the threats to world trade -- all issues that threaten global security and prosperity more than anything. And these challenges can only be addressed jointly, by countries and organizations working together rather than against one another.

Hwang: Do you think we are entering the New Cold War?

Christiansen: History does not repeat itself, but the danger that the deterioration in relations between the US and China could resemble the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West is clearly there. The "old" Cold War divided the world along multiple lines -- militarily, economically, ideologically, and culturally. Today’s situation is more complex: There is an increasing strategic rivalry between the US and China (albeit still very uneven considering the size of the US military), while the two powers’ economies are deeply integrated with one another. The question for the coming decade is: Will these economic ties (and the high cost of severing these) ensure that the US (and their allies) continue to cooperate with China, or will the strategic rivalry ultimately lead to economic de-coupling and a Cold War-style division of the world into separate economic zones?

Hwang: Since Brexit, do you see the UK's withdrawal has weakened the EU's role and capacity? Or did it make the EU's direction and integration seem more obvious?

Christiansen: There have been no winners from Brexit: the EU has lost an important member state, with a global reach, and the UK lost easy access to its largest export market. Politically the hard choices imposed by Brexit have deeply divided the UK, created political chaos and weakened its international standing. As a result, more and more people in Britain now regret the manner in which the UK left the EU -- according to the latest surveys, 60 percent of the population consider Brexit a mistake. But we will have to see if and when that translates into a different approach by the government.

For the EU, the Brexit experience has been sobering, but indeed also unifying: governments and institutions were remarkably united in the negotiation of the UK’s withdrawal, and the "domino effect" that some have expected -- one country after the other seeking to leave the EU -- did clearly not happen. As a matter of fact, the opposite has occurred: Under the impression of the damage that leaving the EU can do to a country’s economy and political culture, people across the remaining member states now see greater value in EU membership than before. It is as if what was invisible and taken for granted before -- the many benefits of EU membership -- have now become more transparent to the wider public.

Hwang: The EU's advantage must be its diversity, but I assume it can also be a disadvantage.

Christiansen: ‘Unity in Diversity’ is indeed the EU’s motto, and it does practice that on a daily basis. But there are of course many areas in which common rules and uniform practices are needed, and that does create tensions on occasion. Member States often suffer from a kind of political schizophrenia: They do want the EU because the benefits of working together -- efficiency gains, greater security, access to a large market -- are clear, yet at the same time they frequently try to avoid the kind of commitments and limitations to the freedom of maneuver that comes with it. “Having your cake and eating it” -- as the British call it. Having said that, cooperation is the rule in an integrated Europe, even if occasional disagreements catch the headlines more than the daily routine of joint decision-making through the EU institutions.

Hwang: What are the challenging factors that both the EU and Korea are facing today?

Christiansen: Despite all the differences between a European regional organization and a state in East Asia, and the great distance between them, the EU and Korea have surprisingly many things in common with one another: Both are middle powers in a world that is moving toward great power rivalry, both rely heavily on exports in their economic models, and as a result, both have also been among the staunchest supporters of trade liberalization globally and regionally. As strategic partners, they cooperate frequently on a variety of policy issues, and the Free Trade Agreement signed in 2011 was the first in a new era of comprehensive trade deals.

Given these similar backgrounds, the EU and Korea also face similar challenges, namely the threat of a global recession and the decline of global trade in an era of rising protectionism and economic statecraft. Both depend on the United States for the provision of military security in the face of aggressive neighbors, but both also have concerns about Washington’s role in their security: Can we (in Korea and/or Europe) continue to rely on the US for our protection? Can we avoid being dragged into the looming conflict between the US and China, given how costly that can become for Europe in particular?

Hwang: What should be the direction for the further development of EU-Korea relations?

Christiansen: The EU and Korea need to further strengthen their bilateral cooperation, in particular to expand that to questions of security and military defense. The EU has recently approved the setting up of a military training mission for Ukrainian soldiers, and that might be something for Korea to consider joining as well, given its superior experience in military preparedness. More important still is economic cooperation and the search for diversification of supply chains -- areas where both sides can gain a lot from sharing information and working together.

Hwang: The German Chancellor has recently visited China, and this trip seems quite divergent from other European positions including that of the EU or NATO. How can we interpret this visit?

Christiansen: The visit itself attracted a lot of attention, and meeting with Xi Jinping is certainly a noteworthy event, especially against the background of China’s Zero COVID policy. But it is also not that unusual, as the meetings of Xi with President Biden and President Marcon during the 2022 G20 Summit have shown. What was more disconcerting was the presence of a large delegation of representatives of German industry, and the continuing attempts to deepen economic ties with China, even though the official line is now diversified. Permitting the Chinese to part-purchase facilities in Hamburg harbor also added to this negative image.

In line with many other European states -- but against the wishes of the United States -- there has been close cooperation across the range of issues identified in the context of the strategic partnership (even though that has now been suspended), and indeed in that regard, there is a fundamental difference to the attitude of the United States, namely that Europe seeks to continue a policy of active engagement with China, whereas the US agenda has a much more antagonistic stance toward China. The future will tell which of these assessments will be more accurate but in the meanwhile occasional tension is definitely to be expected. Ultimately, past experience is hopefully still a good idea



By Hwang Jae-ho (koreadherald@heradcorp.com)
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