Should the European Union Become a Balancing Power to the United States?

by Dean Myerson
February 3, 2005

Americans and some Europeans believe that the EU should take on the
role of an international superpower, but it is not currently structured
to do so with its increased membership. The strength of the euro and
the economic clout of the EU would support such a role, but the
organization lacks a strong policymaking apparatus. Until the adoption
of a constitution or a general consensus in the EU on its global role,
it can realistically play such a role only in Europe and in some
neighboring countries, such as Ukraine. 

For example, the EU has
no clear role to play regarding the problems in Darfur, because its
foreign policy mission remains unclear and because, as I noted in an
earlier article, attitudes toward the proper role of the EU are not
matched by attitudes toward its internal processes. Many people who
criticize the indecisiveness of the EU oppose the institution of
decision-making processes that could make the organization more
decisive. Even for problems in Europe-such as in the Balkans a decade
ago-EU processes do not permit the kind of fast and decisive action
that detractors would like to see. Similar unwieldy processes led the
United States to reject NATO assistance in Afghanistan.

regardless of the current situation, the question remains whether a
stronger and more "federal" EU should or could challenge the United
States in any way as a superpower or policy leader. The key aspect of
this question is what, specifically, could be challenged.

idea of the EU as a balancing power usually comes up with regard to
security and military policy, especially since the strong negative
response in Europe to the war in Iraq. Neoconservatives in the United
States say that Europe does not have the military chops to play a role;
that it wants to take advantage of American security blankets without
paying to play. Some EU federalists respond by calling for more
military spending and rapid reaction forces, which leads to debates
over the role of NATO vis-à-vis an EU military force. Confederalist
European countries blanch at the suggestion of any EU role or
infrastructure that would undermine NATO.

Thus, any balancing
role for the EU that focuses on the military runs headlong into
European disunity. France and Germany may lead the EU in some ways, but
they cannot drag it down this road. Furthermore, a segment of EU
federalists does not want a militarized EU. This group, which includes
some Greens, sees military power as the very thing they want the EU to
balance. The primary way that a militarily powerful EU could influence
the use of American military power would be to offer its own power for
use-with conditions. For those who want to avoid the use of military
power in most cases, at least in cases like Iraq, this is not a
desirable scenario.

But eliminating military power as an option
does not mean that there is no balancing role for the EU. Although U.S.
neocons believe that only military power will turn the EU into a
superpower, the EU is already having a major effect in the social,
environmental and judicial areas. Only as a result of EU bargaining
with Russia are the Kyoto Protocols coming into force for signatories.
The EU's strong advocacy regarding the scope of the International
Criminal Court has challenged American efforts to be exempted in many
countries. And while Microsoft has beaten back most antitrust
challenges in the United States, it still faces the European

Most recently, in the fight over the chemical
regulatory policy known as REACH (Regulation, Evaluation and
Authorization of Chemicals), EU advances in environmental regulation
are pushing the envelope. REACH is in some ways the best example of the
EU's influence in nonmilitary areas. Opponents complain that if REACH
is adopted by the EU, it is only a matter of time until the
precautionary principle it sets forth becomes the global standard. This
kind of influence defines the challenge to the U.S. version of
neoliberal economics.
This is not to say that the EU opposes
neoliberalism; but its policies are to the current so-called Washington
Consensus what the Progressives were to unbridled 19th century
capitalism in the United States: reformist policies that attempt to
check expanding and unaccountable power without challenging the
underlying dynamics.

The clearest difference between military
and nonmilitary issues is that Europe is united on the latter-there is
no "environmental NATO" to spread disunity. Tony Blair is fully on
board in supporting Kyoto and the EU social agenda (even if not
everyone in the United Kingdom agrees), and while the newer EU members
may not be strongly in favor of these policies, they are not fighting
them. The economy represented by the EU is of similar size to that of
the United States so EU regulatory schema have a major global impact.
The EU's regulatory policies are a direct challenge to the United
States' in a world economy that prefers standardization. 

Europe has not dropped out of the security arena; rather, it offers an
alternative to U.S. security policy. This alternative policy approach
takes the form of a strong emphasis on the rule of law, the development
and deepening of international law, and diplomacy in general. The EU's
security policy does not undermine American foreign policy; rather, it
is more likely to complement it in the shorter term. And at this point,
the EU is focused on European problems, such as the Balkans. Also, the
institution-building aspect of EU foreign policy is not unknown to the
United States. The United States has put energy into building
democratic institutions where they are weak and continues to do so.
Europe simply emphasizes this activity more as the United States
de-emphasizes it, much as it has de-emphasized multilateralism without
completely abandoning it.

War and peace are always the great
issues of the day, and social issues rarely take the spotlight from
power politics for very long. But the gnashing of teeth by corporate
interests and their supporters in U.S. government increases as EU
policy continues to fill the gap in the regulation of transnational
neoliberal actors.

The EU is not known for hitting home runs;
its successes come slowly and painfully and incrementally. Whether the
body of EU law known as the acquis communitaire continues in the
current pattern of repetitive and overlapping treaties or evolves into
a constitution, it is nonetheless growing and creating a framework for
a culture that could match and balance the culture of the neoliberal
economy which the EU has itself helped to spread in Europe.

journals and conferences will continue to spend much of their ink and
air discussing rapid reaction forces, duplications and sharing of
resources between the EU and NATO, and whether France is overreaching
in Europe. Meanwhile, the lobbying community has grown in Brussels as
neoliberal players fight the European Commission. These encounters
occasionally get space in the journals, but much of this debate is
"below the fold" of the news. The debate over the next generation of
rights and the response of civil society to the global neoliberal
economy is the next great phase of social development in human society,
and the EU may offer a different option than the United States.