The narrative is becoming a trope: the United States and China are locked in a battle for global supremacy in myriad fields such as technology, commerce, defense, cyberspace, and even outer space. Few pundits question the general consensus that Sino-American relations will shape the history of the twenty-first century. But analyzing today’s geopolitical scene as a byproduct of a two-horse race is utterly simplistic and antiquated.
Our world is better described not in black and white, but as a kaleidoscope of shifting patterns. One key source of color is the European Union. In the current international environment, the EU is less noticed than it should be, but more noticed than it thinks.
True, Europe lags behind the US and China in developing strategic technologies such as semiconductors and quantum computing. When the EU addresses the rest of the world, it often sounds more like a cacophony than a symphony. The rare harmonious choruses are frequently muffled. And many of the bloc’s citizens, perhaps recalling a time when Europe was home to the world’s undisputed great powers, now tend to disdain the EU’s contributions and belittle its room for maneuver.
But we Europeans should give ourselves more credit. Even skeptics must recognize that, at the very least, we have established a single market whose regulation depends exclusively on EU institutions. But while the EU’s commercial impact should therefore be measured in aggregate form, traditional analytical frameworks give primacy to states. This approach, together with the Sino-American “trade war,” has led us to exaggerate the economic weight of the US and China, to Europe’s detriment.
So, let’s look at the facts. The EU is the world’s largest merchandise exporter, and the second-largest importer (slightly behind the US). In services, Europe leads in terms of both exports and imports. Furthermore, the EU rubs shoulders with the US, and is far ahead of China, as both a provider and recipient of foreign direct investment (excluding investments among member states). And when it comes to official development assistance, the EU has a clear lead, boasting a collective total more than double that of the US.
One common criticism of the EU is that it lacks “hard power.” There is some truth to this. After all, the EU was never intended to be a military alliance; it is not NATO. The Afghan debacle underlines the need to build up Europe’s military capabilities, which remain far too fragmented and dependent on the US. But they are by no means irrelevant, as evidenced by our numerous deployments abroad.
Moreover, we should not overlook the economic dimension of hard power. Collectively, it is the EU, not China, that has the world’s second-largest economy, in nominal terms. Add to that its trade and investment ties, and the EU has little to envy in its competitors.
As for the “soft power” of attraction and persuasion, it may appear too ethereal to matter in a global context marked by stark geopolitical tensions. But soft power reflects the political, social, and economic trends that determine the short- and long-term performance of any country or bloc. Here, too, the EU looks to be in good shape.
The Soft Power 30 index assesses countries according to six categories: cultural reach and appeal, digital infrastructure and capabilities in digital diplomacy, human capital and educational attractiveness, business friendliness and capacity for innovation, diplomatic network, and the quality of political institutions. By this measure, five of the world’s top ten countries – and 16 of the top 30 – are EU members. The US ranks fifth, and China 27th.
That was in 2019, when the list was last compiled. Today, the same index would surely assign greater weight to public health. And while the EU, with its first-rate health systems, has suffered more than expected from the COVID-19 pandemic, its vaccination campaign is proceeding apace.
Despite a slow start, the vaccination rate in the bloc’s four most populous countries – Germany, France, Italy, and Spain – has now surpassed that of the US. And Europe’s commitments to supply vaccines to the rest of the world are becoming more ambitious. Add to that the massive COVID-19 joint recovery fund, and the EU’s pandemic performance begins to look more respectable.
The EU is also demonstrating global leadership in other crucial areas, particularly the green transition. Long at the forefront of environmental regulation, the European Commission has now announced the so-called Fit for 55, a strategy for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 55% by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels). If adopted, this will most likely shape rules and standards in the rest of the world, via what Columbia University’s Anu Bradford has dubbed the “Brussels effect.”
This effect exemplifies the EU’s modus operandi: operating behind the scenes to make change that is felt, if not necessarily seen. Though Europe continues to occupy a vulnerable position in certain global supply chains, and though we have neglected some conflicts that affect us directly (such as in Syria and Libya), its impact is far from negligible.
The world tends to appreciate – albeit quietly – the EU’s influence, because it is generally based on incentives, rather than sanctions. Moreover, its influence stems from a multilateral and cooperative approach. And its influence breaks the Sino-American contest’s stifling grip on the global system.
Europeans must not reject complacency by embracing declinism, but rather by conducting a level-headed assessment of our strengths and weaknesses. As our athletes’ brilliant performance at this summer’s Tokyo Olympics should remind us, Europe remains a force to be reckoned with. And if we are to further secure our global standing, we must learn to live by the following maxim: the EU is greater than the sum of its parts.
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