The European Union First

MUNICH – The world needs the European Union now more than ever. Despite recent crises and the hard blow dealt by the Brexit vote, the EU may well be the world’s best line of defense against today’s most serious threats: isolationism, protectionism, nationalism, and extremism in all forms, all of which are once again growing in Europe and beyond. The key to enabling the EU to meet this potential – to save itself and the world from catastrophe – is for member states urgently to adopt a “European Union first” mantra.

Unlike the “America first” credo embraced by US President Donald Trump, such a mantra would not be an exercise in damaging unilateralism. On the contrary, it would compel member states’ governments to look beyond narrow national interest, defend openness and multilateralism, and confront head-on the exclusionary political forces that have lately been gaining ground. It would drive member states to consolidate the EU, thereby enabling it to overcome the challenges it faces and help preserve the international order.

That order is neither an inessential accessory nor a post-war relic. It has supported global prosperity and stability for 70 years. We need it – together with the multilateralism on which it is built – to confront many of the economic, environmental, and strategic challenges we now face, challenges that cannot be addressed at the national level.

A cornerstone of the existing international order is the recognition that maintaining peace and human welfare requires an understanding of and respect for the needs and interests of others – needs and interests that are no less legitimate than our own. Multilateralism is not a product of unsustainable solidarity, as some like to claim; it is the result of an enlightened interpretation of one’s own interests. With a constructive attitude, even a large number of disparate actors can reach agreements in which everyone wins by yielding a little; without it, prospects for sustained peace and widely shared prosperity become far bleaker.