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Will German-led EU act as a Hegemon?

Who  in the international system is a hegemon? According to Realist theories, any actor in a system which is the dominant power and which can influence or coerce other actors surrounding it might be considered a contender for hegemony. Hegemony could be local or regional or global, although according to John Mearsheimer, global hegemony is a fool’s aspiration. That doesn’t mean actors don’t rush for global hegemony. They often miscalculate, as recklessness or ideological imperatives can lead to overstretch and inevitable disaster. Nonetheless, aspiration for hegemony and subsequent balancing by other powers is the natural order of international system. Hegemons also need not be a sovereign state. In earlier days, empires aspired for hegemony, and the British Empire, for a time being came very close to achieving it on a global scale. Soviet Union, a forced collective union of sovereign states, dominated by one giant actor, Russia, achieved regional hegemony, just as United States, which essentially ruled the unipolar world since 1991. While the world is arguably multipolar now, with US undergoing a relative decline, and several great powers making it seem like a new “Concert of Europe” is coming, US is still the most dominating power, and an undisputed hegemon of the Western hemisphere.

Why is this question suddenly important? Because it is important to understand if EU led by Germany is racing towards some sort of hegemony, as that would have implications for every powers and sovereign states in the planet. The recent spat between Germany and US comes after Germany and Austria warned United States imposing sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports into Europe. The sanctions are some of the most serious ones on Russia ever and would threaten European companies oil and gas participating in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Germany accused the US of interfering in European internal affairs. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austria’s Federal Chancellor Christian Kern stated in a joint statement that “Europe’s energy supply is a matter for Europe, and not for the United States of America”. This is not new, and is shocking to only those who have not been paying attention.

German and American interests are different, and that was supposed to be obvious. Chances are that Germany, and by German proxy, European Union is and will in future act as a potential hegemon, and that has implication for the grand strategy for every major great power across the world. It is therefore imperative to understand the character of EU and Germany hegemony.

To begin, this essay is not a judgement on Germany and German led EU hegemony, and the scope of this article doesn’t allow that either. The purpose of international relations theory is not to state what’s good or bad, but to explain what is happening across the world in great power behaviour and relations. One might support or oppose a German led liberal EU hegemony, that’s not the concern of this essay. The fact remains undeniable that a rapid change is happening in the European continent, which will affect the sovereign maritime powers around the continent.

Here’s the primary hypothesis. Germany is a hegemon in the making, and has co-opted European Union as a vehicle for hegemony. Germany individually is still militarily incapable and relatively unwilling to match the might of UK, US, or Russia, the three major maritime and land powers surrounding European landmass, but the German grand strategy has always arguably been expansion in central and eastern Europe and that continues and will continue in the future. Furthermore, European Union under this liberal institutionalist hegemony might act in furtherance of German grand strategy, and will show characteristic of regional hegemony, including and not limited to coercive trade, promotion of liberalism and human rights as the only true ideology, interventionism, which essentially follows liberalism as an ideology, directly in member states within EU, or tacitly in other nation states and powers and spheres of influences, including those of Russia and United States. In that relation, Germany and EU will continue to come in confrontation with other maritime powers.

Testing that hypothesis, we have already seen German led EU interfering and single handedly deciding on open borders and migration, even completely countering sovereign states within its own block. Berlin/Brussels also interfered and attempted to promote democracy and liberal institutions in Ukraine, build up joint command of army under German leadership and command to balance Russia and run parallel of NATO, attempt at coercive trade with US companies as well as China, attempt to widen the gap between UK and EU, as well as lecturing Australia on human rights. It is inevitable that Germany lacks the hard power, and therefore uses its enormous economic leverage of European Union as a block to coerce and influence other sovereign states and great powers. Again, it is not a question whether these are good or bad, these are simply facts.

According to the theories of International relations and balance of threat, therefore it is imperative to highlight that this will inevitably lead to EU hegemony and subsequent perception of threat by other sovereign powers surrounding EU. We are already seeing the first salvos of such a crisis. There is already confrontation with other powers. For a country and block which is almost singularly dependent on American hard power, Germany has always followed a singularly independent grand strategy, which includes opposition to Iraq war, opposition to sanctions against Russia after Georgian war in 2008, opposition to US intelligence gathering, and opposition to every other EU country, with the exception of Sweden, Finland and Belgium, when it comes to migration, and again the current opposition to US with regards to Russian sanctions.

Now, whether Brexit and the rise of Trump will lead to an “ever closing union” with an individual military and nuclear deterrent, and coercive trade powers, remains to be seen. It might, or it might not. EU might implode, if the constant crisis due to mass migration and austerity continues. Brussels is facing a rebellion from the central European states led by Poland and Hungary. The ultimate test of a hegemon is when the central power of a block or union crushes dissent through force or economic blockade. There are numerous examples of both United States and Soviet Union doing that throughout Cold war. No one frankly knows where EU will be in the next five years. One thing is for sure, if European Union turns out to be a hegemon, it will definitely have an outsized impact on the foreign policy of both UK and US. Policy makers in US and UK might want to start planning for that contingency.

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Sumantra Maitra
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