international analysis and commentary

Can a mouse roar? Europe, China and strategic autonomy


April 17th, 2023. There was something deliciously absurd hearing a former Belgian Prime Minister talking about Europe’s strategic autonomy during an interview on French television last week. Charles Michel, who currently is European Council President, proudly declared: “There has been a leap forward on strategic autonomy compared to several years ago.”

It reminds me of that wonderful 1959 Peter Sellers film, “The Mouse That Roared”. Sellers told the story of the mythical Duchy of Grand Fenwick, an overlooked Central European state-let that had been founded by a group of drunken thirteenth century English knights who whilst on Crusade got lost. Sellers, as Chief Minister, declares war on the United States because he concludes that everyone who had declared war on the Americans had in the end made money. The European Union?

“The mouse that roared”, with Peter Sellers (middle)


What was interesting about Michel’s interview was not only that it echoed President “His Master’s Voice” Emmanuel Macron’s call for European strategic autonomy but that said autonomy so sought seemed to be from fellow democracy and long-time liberator and defender of Europe the United States. Macron made his strategic autonomy comment in China which in 2019 the EU had described as an “economic competitor in the pursuit of technological leadership” and also a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”. Location, location, location. Macron was kow-towing to his Chinese host by hinting that Europeans would not get dragged into some future American war, i.e. Taiwan.

The current buzz-word in EU-Chinese relations is ‘de-risking’ which translated into Mandarin means “nothing to do with us, Guv”. And yet, not only is the inference that Europe is seeking more strategic autonomy from the Americans, it implies a Europe that is seeking less strategic autonomy from that great defender of freedom, China.Worse, it implies an equivalency in the European elite mind between the Americans and Chinese. Remind me how many Chinese soldiers are buried above Omaha Beach? No wonder Xi smiled inscrutably when Macron asked China to join ‘Europe’ to persuade Russia to end its war on Ukraine.


Read also: L’ambiguità strategica di Macron alla prova della Cina


Another inference in both the M&M interventions was that Europe can still roar on the world stage even if it is only a soft roar. Selling Volkswagens to the Chinese would seem to trump the values espoused in now countless EU treaties and declarations. This could also help to explain the mixture of irritation and boredom on Xi Jinping’s face when Macron was banging on (as he does) about European power. Less Peter Sellers more Jacques Tati.


The Ion Curtain

What is most galling about this nonsense is the fantasy of some European leaders that Europe can have real influence without real power that the likes of Xi define. Global Britain is also prone to this fantasy. It is particularly dangerous because an “Ion Curtain” is descending across Europe. Behind its digital and not-so-digital lines lies Beijing and Moscow with all those under the yoke of a China-propped Russian sphere subject, in one form or another to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from both Beijing and Moscow.

It is all part of Vladimir Putin’s new drive to increase fear in certain western European NATO members in which the threat of mass destruction and mass disruption combined is reinforced by cyber-attacks and desinformatsiya.  Putin is being re-galvanised by increasing talk in the West about Ukraine possibly losing the Russo-Ukraine War, or rather if the West allows Ukraine to lose the war?

For the record, the answer is clear. If the West allows Ukraine to lose Russia’s war on Ukraine the West will lose the world. It would be the latest calamity in Western foreign and security policy since 2003 in which a mix of poor American leadership (!!!), European weakness and transatlantic divisions have ‘enabled’ the West to lose Iraq, to lose Libya, to lose Syria and to lose Afghanistan. Another failure in Ukraine would simply confirm to the increasingly influential non-aligned states that only China has both the paying power and the staying power.


The Duchy of Grand Brussels-wick

What was perhaps most galling was the public division evident in China between Macron and ‘President’ of the European Commission, Grand Duchess Ursula von der Leyen. What she attempted in her visit to China alongside Macron, on April 5-8, was little more than a foreign policy coup as she endeavoured to put the European Commission in the driving seat of ‘European’ policy. Macron firmly slapped her down by reminding that it was the European Council, i.e. EU member-states that decide European foreign policy, not the European Commission. That begs two big questions? What policy? What power?


Read also: European perspective(s) on defense and security


European strategic autonomy as currently envisaged is an alibi for wilful European strategic weakness. An instrument to enable incompetent European leaders to again blame the Americans for their own strategic pretence and indolence and thus enable them retreat for another few years into the fantasy of a super Grand Brussels-wick in which soft power is real power and ever more acronyms count for ever less military power. Until, that is, the day hard power comes out of the blue to once again bash down Europe’s rotten door. Until Europeans finally wake up and realise that soft power is only every credible if backed up by credible hard power then Europe will continue to destabilise the world with its weakness, President-for-Life Xi will continue to yawn when Europeans speak, Americans will continue to bear the burden of defending the ungrateful and smaller countries no-so-far away about which we care to know little will see their people murdered.


Autonomy and responsibility

Strategic autonomy is a function of relative power not relative words. Take Michel’s country, Belgium. In spite of a 10% hike to the defence budget in 2021 Belgian defence expenditure is still some 5% below the NATO minimum threshold of 2% GDP on defence by 2024 of which 20% per annum should be spent on new equipment. The Brussels Times even suggests it will be 2035 before Belgium spends 2% GDP on defence, let alone spends it well. Contrast that with China. The Financial Times states that, “Although China’s military spending is only a third of the US level, it has grown fivefold over the past two decades, according to the US think-tank CSIS, and now exceeds that of the 13 next-largest military spenders in the Indo-Pacific combined”. Moreover, Chinese defence expenditure now outstrips all other forms of Chinese public investment. Where is the Great Leap Forward in that?

Real European strategic autonomy will require strategic judgement built on strategic unity of purpose and effort. Judgement and unity are as important as strategic capability and there was little of either apparent in the Macron and von der Leyen visit to China or Michel’s nonsense on French television.

In other words, European strategic autonomy must mean European strategic responsibility and what happened at the beginning of April in Beijing was European strategic irresponsibility. Empty words from empty leaders who count on their emptiness to absolve them of responsibility. Yes, President Macron really does speak for Europe, albeit only the French bit of it.