PARIS – US President Donald Trump has shaken a transatlantic alliance that had long seemed unshakable. In a January interview, he labeled NATO “obsolete” and the European Union a “vehicle for Germany.” The EU will soon collapse, he predicted, with a succession of countries following the United Kingdom out. The United States, his position suggests, would be more than fine with that.
With Trump, the world is becoming accustomed to shocking declarations and shameless reversals. But his stance on Europe is worrisome. From his enthusiastic support of Brexit to his expressions of mistrust regarding German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the leader of Europe’s main ally seems intent on weakening the EU at a critical moment in its history.
Trump is not alone in his administration in cheering for the EU’s demise: his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, embraces ethnic nationalist parties – like Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front in France – that seek to bring it about. Trump’s reported pick to be EU ambassador, Ted Malloch, told Greek television that he believes Greece should have left the eurozone four years ago.
But even more worrisome than the US administration’s doubts is the wavering confidence of many EU leaders. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, for example, openly frets about the deep divisions among EU member states over Brexit and questions whether “the Hungarians and the Poles want exactly the same things as the Germans and the French.”
At the national level, lack of political will has resulted in the craven use of referenda, such as the French and Dutch plebiscites on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005, the Netherlands’ vote on the EU-Ukraine association agreement last April, and the Brexit referendum nearly three months later. In every case, voters said, “no” – outcomes that can be blamed, particularly in the UK, on national leaders’ habit of blaming the EU for domestic problems.
Indeed, European leaders’ parochialism is a major reason why the EU is failing to retain broad-based public support. The lack of historical vision among the current generation of political leadership undermines the shared sense of purpose needed to make EU citizens feel that they are part of the same community, regardless of their different national identities. When national identity is all there is, right-wing populists can win support by defending it against “foreign” Europe.
To be sure, many claim that popular disaffection with the EU and, in turn, the rise of right-wing populism is a reaction to the lack of structural reforms in the eurozone. But there has been progress on addressing the eurozone’s weaknesses. The creation of a banking union and the establishment of the “European Semester,” aimed at strengthening budgetary coordination across the union, are both steps in the right direction. But, because the EU is not a nation-state, such solutions must be negotiated – no easy feat, when citizens are being turned against the union.
In any case, it seems unlikely that the rise of right-wing populism in Europe truly stemmed from the eurozone’s weaknesses, given that it aligns so closely with the rise of Trump in the US. What the US and EU countries have in common, politically, is the use of false claims and scare tactics to compel citizens to retreat inward.
In France in 2005, anti-EU forces claimed that the ratification of the constitutional treaty would lead to the abolition of abortion rights and French military intervention in Iraq. In 2014, Juncker had to tell then-British Prime Minister David Cameron, who later initiated the Brexit referendum, to stop portraying Eastern Europeans as criminals. During the Brexit campaign, Boris Johnson argued that Brexit would bring an additional £350 million ($430 million) per week to the National Health Service.
In short, the main factor undermining the EU is not economic, but political. After all, though the single market is one of Europe’s crowning achievements, the EU has always been an essentially political project. This is why Europe’s future lies in a restructuring of the eurozone as a political entity, underpinned by more comprehensive cooperation. As French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman declared in 1950, it is “de facto solidarity” that must underpin the making of Europe.
To some extent, Trump’s hostility toward Europe, not to mention the rising bellicosity of Russian President Vladimir Putin, could actually help the EU, by showing its members just how badly they need one another, particularly to ensure their defense and security. Even before Trump began denigrating NATO, the European Commission released a global strategy emphasizing that NATO can no longer be solely responsible for ensuring European security. A “more credible European defense” is needed.
To this end, the European Commission has proposed the European Defense Fund, which would foster common defense research and allow participating member states to reduce costs through collective purchases of military assets. The effort by France and Germany to establish a “joint and permanent EU military headquarters” tasked with the overseas deployment of EU troops is also a step in the right direction.
A common security policy will be vital to help the EU address another major challenge: the migration crisis. European countries must work together to dismantle human-smuggling operations and impose severe criminal sanctions on their organizers. Efforts to control migration must be undertaken alongside the fight against Islamist terrorism, because the public – rightly or wrongly – has come to believe that the two issues are linked. The anti-EU and anti-immigrant Le Pen must not be the only French presidential candidate addressing these concerns.
Whatever Trump says, it is not inevitable that Brexit will break up Europe. On the contrary, for many European citizens – from Ireland to Greece, and even in Hungary and Poland – the vote was a wake-up call, showing that the EU really could fall apart without adequate support. European voters’ resolve to preserve the EU will be tested this year in the Netherlands, France, and Germany. Their choice is between the insecure, war-prone Europe of yesterday and the confident, united Europe of tomorrow.