Whether about Russia on Nord Stream 2 or China on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), critics accuse the European Union (EU) of being weak on authoritarian “enemies”. Ceding to pressure by the United States and refusing to interact with Russia or China because of differing values and socio-political systems would be a proof of the European Union’s strength and credibility. This article argues that while submitting to Russia’s energetic leverage or China’s economic influence would indeed jeopardize the EU’s autonomy, merely aligning with the United States will not enable Europe to develop its strategic autonomy either. Preserving a strong alliance with the United States should not be contradictory to having a dialogue with Russia and China.

Nord Stream 2 and the EU-China CAI: two illustrations of the EU’s weakness

On December 18, 2020, a group of EU-China experts published an open letter to express their strong doubts about the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI) that was to be signed a few days later. They called it a symbolic victory for China and a condonement of its political trajectory by the European Union. On December 22, Jake Sullivan, the then soon-to-be American National Security Advisor, tweeted that “the Biden-Harris administration would welcome early consultations” on this topic. This call was brushed off by European countries as they signed the agreement on December 30.

On December 20, 2020, the U.S. Congress approved the National Defense Authorization Act to broaden the scope of extraterritorial sanctions on companies participating in the construction of Nord Stream 2 pipes, which are to bring gas from Russia to Germany across the Baltic Sea. Previous sanctions through the 2019 Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act resulted in the suspension of construction for one year. In February 2021, 81 members of the European Parliament (MEPs) signed an open letter calling on High Representative/Vice-President (HR/VP) Josep Borrell to resign after visiting Moscow on his own initiative without the approval of member states.

These two recent examples illustrate the widespread idea, both in the United States and the EU itself that the EU should refrain from establishing its own channels of dialogue and cooperation with Russia and China. To appear strong and credible, it should rather align with the United States to confront them and condemn their actions. This opinion is built on the increasingly contested assumption that the United States is the leader of the free and democratic world.

United States’ “leadership by example”: a disregard of Europeans’ interests and sovereignty

Indeed, Americans do not see Europeans as equal partners. The mere name ‘Protecting Europe’s Energy Security Act’ implies the United States’ intention to take responsibility for a Europe unable to take good care of itself, thereby ignoring European sovereignty. Joe Biden promised a return of American “leadership by example” in his inaugural speech, but this does not mean that leadership by constraint will not continue. Additional sanctions were decided against a Russian vessel after a report on Nord Stream 2 was transmitted to Congress on February 19, 2021. The U.S. State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price gave a paternalistic justification for these sanctions: “Our goal in all of this is to reinforce European energy security and safeguard against predatory behavior.”

A similar lack of consideration for partners’ independent policies and priorities is foreseeable regarding China. A Foreign Affairs article published in January, written by two members of the U.S. National Security Council, laid the groundwork for the new American strategy towards China. In the article, U.S. alliances are seen as vehicles to carry out the American vision. European countries are considered weak: the authors’ phrasing suggests that they were pulled into a bilateral investment agreement by China against their will “despite concerns that the deal would complicate a unified transatlantic approach under the Biden administration.” A revealing formulation about the hierarchical structure of the transatlantic ‘partnership’.

Conversely, Europeans are not recognized the right to examine American energy or China policies. The decision to enter a trade war with China or to sign the Phase One trade deal was taken unilaterally on pure considerations of national interest. The Trumpian ‘America first’ period is not an exception: Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’ also left the Europeans on the sidelines of the “most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century”, as Obama called it. On the energy front, the shale revolution in the United States in the early 2010s, which enabled the United States to become the world’s first oil and natural gas producer, had major implications for Europe. One of them was to change the United States’ balance of considerations regarding unilateral sanctions on Russia. European allies’ interest lost importance compared to maximizing oil- and gas-producing companies’ profits.

How to reconcile a true transatlantic partnership with European strategic autonomy?

There are good arguments on both sides in the debates about Nord Stream 2 and the CAI. However, this debate should be conducted among Europeans. The European Parliament’s opinion, for instance, must be listened to, as an institution guaranteeing the  democratic legitimacy of the European Union’s actions. The approval by 581 MEP in January of a resolution calling to stop immediately the completion of Nord Stream 2 must not be overlooked. However, as HR/VP Josep Borrell repeated in February, “Nord Stream 2 is not a general European project.” The Commission cannot intervene, even less so foreign powers. In this regard, Borrell affirmed in June 2020 that U.S. extraterritorial sanctions “against European companies that carry out legitimate and lawful activities under European law [are] unacceptable and contrary to international law.” In August, 24 EU countries formally protested against these sanctions to the U.S. State Department.

As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas put it: “We do not need to talk about European sovereignty if that is understood as us doing everything in the future the way Washington wants us to.” This sentence echoes other recent declarations (here and there) that he recently co-signed with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. They wrote: “European sovereignty has grown over the years. We Europeans are no longer asking ourselves what America can do for us, but what we should do to enhance our own security and build a more balanced transatlantic partnership. These are two sides of the same coin.” The whole question is thus about building a more balanced transatlantic partnership, where the United States and the European Union can benefit from the same level of sovereignty and strategic autonomy.

In December 2020, the European Commission and the HR made a proposal for a new transatlantic agenda for global cooperation. They mention the new EU-US Dialogue on China as a tool towards better coordination, management of differences and alignment of objectives. Broadly understood, they propose the establishment of a EU-US Security and Defense Dialogue to promote exchange of information and a shared strategic vision.

Communication and coordination are also the key words in the recommendations formulated by American and European experts of the German Marshall Fund (GMF) in October 2020 for a renewed transatlantic partnership. Acknowledging the “frequent” divergence of interests on China, they advocate for the establishment of a vice-presidential level transatlantic working group on China (un upgraded version of the EU-US Dialogue on China created in 2020) to share intelligence, planning, and preparedness in all sectors. On Russia as well, they recommend developing a joint approach, through the definition of common pre-conditions, parameters, goals, and timing of any mutual re-engagement with the country. In another policy brief titled “Seizing Biden’s pivot to Europe: time for responsibility-sharing” published in February 2021, GMF experts stress that “there is little desire [in Europe] to revive the pattern of the United States leading and Europe following.” They propose a realistic and constructive assessment of the current challenges and the path to be followed. The new administration in Washington “needs to move toward a partnership of full joint ownership” for a “more equal strategic partnership.” Meanwhile, the EU should “deliver a common vision, credible diplomacy, and capacities” and “better align their economic interests with geopolitical concerns.”

Defining this new transatlantic partnership on a more equal basis will be no small challenge, especially given the massive change in Europeans’ attitude towards the United States that occurred in the last few years. Indeed, a survey of the European Council on Foreign Relations conducted in late 2020 illustrates this trend. An average of 67% of respondents think that Europeans cannot always rely on the United States for defense and need to invest in their own defense. In the case of a conflict between the United States and China or the United States and Russia, only 23% and 22% of respondents respectively would like the EU to side with the United States. This European determination must be respected by the United States and leverage a more coherent, united and credible EU policy toward Russia and China, to achieve more equality and better coordination across the Atlantic.