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As Europe’s power shrinks, its fear is growing – and the result is huge mistakes | Nathalie Tocci

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Europe no longer wields the power it once did in world affairs, when there was a liberal international order that hinged on US power and in which international cooperation flourished. In that world, Europe was not a superpower, but the hallmarks of the post-cold war era – multilateralism, regional cooperation, interdependence, the flourishing of democracy, soft power and free trade – were also insignia of the European Union.

Today we are in a post-post-cold war era and the world has changed direction. Some features of the old system live on. But contrasting forces such as nationalism, protectionism and unilateralism are all on the rise.

Europe is trying to adapt to this new world, but wielding power now requires radical change in the way it views itself and operates. This has led to much soul-searching. As the French president, Emmanuel Macron, admitted in his latest speech at Sorbonne University, unless it adapts, the European Union may not survive. The EU is, in his words, “mortal”.

This realisation is triggering deep anxiety in Europe, if not outright fear. And it is this fear that is shaping the poor choices that European countries and the EU are currently making.

Take Europe’s inconsistent approach towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Whereas in the US, politics is galvanised by heroism and victory, with the willingness to support Ukraine increasing when Ukrainians do well on the battlefield, almost the opposite seems true in Europe. When Ukraine is on the back foot or appears on the cusp of losing, European governments are more inclined to step up. Fretting about Kyiv’s defeat and its repercussions for the continent’s security pushes Europe to move, to deliver a bit more military aid, agree to use profits generated by frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine, and even contemplate the deployment of troops to Ukraine, as Macron has repeatedly suggested.

But when Ukraine does well, as with its successful counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson in 2022, fear mounts in Europe about Russia’s defeat and the risk of that leading to a nuclear Armageddon or Russia’s implosion. Without belittling the political, economic and military support that European governments have given Ukraine – and the millions of refugees EU countries have hosted – this fear has meant that military assistance has often been too little and too late. Fear plays a big part in explaining Ukraine’s “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” predicament, which is prolonging the war and costing countless lives.

Fear goes a long way in explaining Europe’s approach to north Africa and the Middle East. Whereas in Ukraine, fear has translated as excessive caution and restraint, when it comes to countries in the southern Mediterranean and Africa, fear equals abdicating on foreign policy altogether. Europe is not just scared of these countries, it is literally terrified. Europe’s ageing population should lead to a rational and self-interested debate on fostering legal migration, but instead fear explains the current scramble for unethical deals that pay cash to countries in the region in return for their pledges to stop migration to Europe. The EU’s recent deals with regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Mauritania and Lebanon are testament to this. To be clear: the past was not perfect. As Democratic Republic of the Congo president Félix Tshisekedi bluntly put it in a recent interview, African leaders have long tired of western democracies’ lecturing and arrogance and are happier to work with Russia and China.

Moreover, behind Europe’s talk of justice and honesty always lay crude material interests. The obsession with stopping migration while negotiating unfair trade and natural resource extraction deals is not new. And with every crisis, Europe’s selfishness and double standards have been confirmed: just think about the west’s vaccine-hoarding during the pandemic or the vastly insufficient climate finance channelled to Africa.

But at least in the past, even though it was insufficient and incoherent, there was an ambition to exert influence and to help the continent through foreign and development policies. Now policy boils down to a crude transactionalism, where European countries and EU institutions engage with African counterparts as if they were CEOs signing business deals. The “money for (no) migrants” approach is not foreign policy. It’s the abdication of foreign policy.

Fear is even more striking in the Middle East, and especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. No single reason explains why European governments choose not to exert influence, while potentially having plenty. The EU has long been a major trade partner for Israel, and after the US, Germany is Israel’s largest military supplier. The EU is also the Palestinians’ biggest aid donor. Yet never has there been the slightest hint at using these levers. Once again, fear steps in. Fear, in this case, of Israel’s accusations of antisemitism plays a huge role. These accusations have now been distorted and expanded in many cases to include any criticism of Israel or expression of anti-Zionism.

Fear underlies Europe’s ongoing divisions over the war in Gaza, with some countries, such as Germany, for obvious historical reasons, being more sensitive than others to such accusations. Generally, it explains the failure to question unconditional support for Israel, no matter what the current Israeli government does. It is widely known and acknowledged that Israel’s war in Gaza has caused a human catastrophe. Many fear that were Israel to proceed with its threatened ground invasion of Rafah, the catastrophe could reach genocidal proportions. But nowhere is there a hint of Europe doing anything about it, beyond inconsequential words.

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So when we look to the east, fear has led Europe to repeated delays and undue restraint, while to the south, fear has pushed Europe as a political community towards giving up on foreign policy altogether. Westward, there is also palpable anxiety and fear as Europeans await the US election and fret about the return of Donald Trump. This fear is leading to paralysis. Trump’s return is plausible, but rather than preparing for it, Europe is simply wishing it away.

Openly acknowledging that the EU may not last for ever, as Macron has done, is correct, and should trigger a healthy and urgent rethink about how Europe engages with the rest of the world. To paraphrase Franklin D Roosevelt, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. It is by giving in to FDR’s “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” that Europe risks making its mortality a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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