Beautiful, refined and confident women are often alone – not for a lack of suitors, but because their standards are exacting. Often being on their own is more appealing than descending to the less refined. Europe has curated the most beautiful, refined way of living humanity has ever known. At the heart of its collective psyche, Europe wants to be left alone. It wants the aggregation of its societies that history and culture over the past 500 years has banded together to remain within a walled garden.

But there is a storm gathering above the garden. The rules of admittance to the garden as well as the code of behaviour inside it over the past three decades since the fall of the former Soviet Union and the European Union’s rise and expansion have been based on a certain view of socio-politics anchored in political liberalism.

This is no longer the case today, when the problem is that the return of classic religiosity and traditional values, the rise of a blatant nativism that sees danger and degradation in what is alien, the anger against notions imposed from the centre of the EU in Brussels, and the increased willingness to challenge all of these have not only appeared in countries that were admitted to the EU over the past three decades. Instead, all of them have also emerged strongly and assertively within countries that designed, championed and managed the EU’s rise and expansion.

Outside the garden, troubles abound.

First, in the eastern neighbourhood of the EU there are aspirants wanting to enter the garden. Europe wants some of them to do so because within the deep recesses of the European psyche there are links that connect the centre and the west of Europe with that east. At the core of the European project almost from its beginning in the 1950s there has been an aspiration to bring within the garden the whole of continental Europe that had fallen under the Soviet Union.

But as discussed in a previous article in this series, Russia, resurgent and assertive, and yet anxious about the future, sees any expansion of the West (including of the EU) as an encroachment on its historic sphere of influence. The result is that Europe’s aspiration clashes with Russia’s national interest, and this is not a simple problem that can be dismissed lightly.

In the southern neighbourhood of the EU there are potential migrants who want to enter the garden. But as European nativism rises, many see these southerners as the other, people who throughout history have been viewed with caution, often with hatred, and over the past two centuries, with condescension.

Some true heroes of European liberalism, such as former German chancellor Angela Merkel, have been willing to open the gates of the garden narrowly because in their view genuine suffering ought to be relieved, and not just by financial donations and technical expertise so that the potential migrants remain on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.

But such true heroes are rare, and migration is indeed widely feared throughout the whole of Europe. Yet, the foundations of that fear stem from apprehensions that go way beyond migration. Europe’s true fear is of what the future might bring, because that future presents Europe with two serious challenges that are unprecedented in its history.

The first challenge is that Europe is compelled to side with the US in its confrontation with China, yet sustaining Europe’s wealth calls for healthy relationships with China and with countries in East Asia that soon will fall into China’s sphere of influence.

The US is not compelling Europe. The nature of the EU, a liberal political entity, makes Europe’s choice in the confrontation all but determined. In addition, as discussed in the second piece in this series, China is increasingly dealing with the world through its historic view of how its culture differs from that of others.

Almost certainly this will prove the late US political scientist Samuel Huntington correct. A notable feature of the US-China confrontation will, at least for a period, be the “clash of civilisations” that Huntington predicted. In this clash, Europe will naturally gravitate to its US partner.

However, doing so will entail serious economic costs – at a time when ageing and often decadent Europe is seeing its competitiveness dwindle vis-à-vis the industrial tigers in Asia. The fear here is that while the US and China are fighting over the world, Europe will pay a big price in terms of its wealth, comfort, and gradually also in its way of life.

The second challenge facing Europe is reduced relevance. Western Europe spent the Cold War as a secondary player to the US against the Soviet Union, but Europe was still the primary theatre of that strategic confrontation, and this gave its choices paramount importance to both the US and the Soviet Union. Today, Europe is neither the most important strategic theatre – East Asia is – nor is it the secondary player to the US – Britain, Australia, Japan and India are.

The result is that Europe is attached to the US camp, but relegated to a much lesser role than it had in the Cold War.

Some European thinkers believe that there is a single solution to both issues, the storms within and the challenges without. This solution is that Europe must achieve strategic independence, which, although no one has defined it concretely, can be discerned as some sort of desire to remain in the Western camp, while maintaining considerable distance from the US.

Promoters of European strategic independence believe that it is a grand enough aspiration to unite Europeans behind the EU and give momentum to the ideals upon which the European project was constructed over the past 60 years. It will weaken the forces that challenge the EU and reject its principles from within, such as the nativists, they say. In this way of thinking, strategic independence would allow Europe to back Western ideals against Russian assertiveness and Chinese expansionism without incurring major economic costs and without losing agency.

However, in reality such strategic independence is a myth. Europe lacks the most compelling form of power-projection, namely military. This has been clear for over two decades, but it became glaring after the UK’s decision to leave the EU. It imposes close coordination with the US on Europe, especially, but not only, when it comes to standing up to Russia in the east.

In addition, the US-China confrontation will soon impose binary decisions on different players. Being in one camp will dictate certain choices. And as Europe’s place in the Western (US) camp is a given, so will be many of its future choices.

Moreover, there is also a cultural challenge to Europe’s strategic independence. Unlike in the US, Europe’s appetite for wars and strategic confrontations is limited – natural for a collection of societies that have achieved an epitome of refinement and cultural advancement. Living in rich and beautiful gardens does not produce the fiercest fighters.

All of this leaves Europe in a unique position that is different from that of all the other actors examined so far in this series, namely the US, China, Japan, India and Russia. Unlike these, Europe has no strategic primacy to defend, no rise to cement, and no spheres of influence to create. It merely wants to be as it is: rich, refined and removed from the problems of others. It wants to attend to the weeds that have been spreading in the garden.

But the problems of Europe’s neighbourhoods, as well as the inevitable place it will, willingly or not, assume in the nascent US-China confrontation, will bring wars and challenges to its doorstep. The beautiful, refined lady has no choice but to gather her will, summon her resources and stand up to survey the horizon, for dangers are close.

Soon Europe’s south-eastern neighbourhood – the Middle East – will demand much more attention, for there are several actors there who are attempting to overhaul its strategic landscape almost beyond recognition. The next article in this series will look at Iran, one of the Middle East’s most active and so far most successful powers.