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Is Europe Becoming Gaullist?

Seventy-four years after the end of World War II, Europeans are still divided over competing notions of national sovereignty and regional integration. But with the rise of China and the fraying of transatlantic relations, the geostrategic vision of France’s Charles de Gaulle has inevitably returned to the fore.

PARIS – Nearly a half-century after his death, Charles de Gaulle’s star is on the rise again in Europe. In opposing the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC), de Gaulle, the leader of the French Resistance against Nazi Germany and founder of France’s Fifth Republic, now looks prescient. The Brexit fiasco seems to have confirmed his view that the British do not share Europe’s destiny. Add to this the chorus of voices calling on the European Union to develop its own defense capacity, refuse US President Donald Trump’s injunctions on trade, rehabilitate the state’s role in the economy, and get tough on China, and one might conclude that Europe is becoming Gaullist in an age of American nationalism, Russian revisionism, and Chinese ambition. Ideas about European autonomy that were long dismissed as dangerous – including by the Germans who today feel the impact of power politics – are gradually becoming mainstream.

Much of the current debate about Europe’s future is based on a widespread misconception: that the EU is powerless to shape global affairs because its member states are irreconcilably divided on countless issues and thus incapable of acting collectively. By this logic, reasserting the traditional prerogatives of the nation-state seems preferable to the Sisyphean task of building an “ever-closer” union.

But this explanation is inaccurate. Europe’s current position on the world stage reflects the fact that the European project, launched after World War II to end the continent’s chronic bloodletting, was initially based on the rejection of power politics. “Europe,” as its post-war founders conceived it, would embody an explicit repudiation of the conception of politics associated most closely with the German political philosopher and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who reduced the political to the distinction between friend and enemy. Europe’s challenge today, then, is to replace that conception with one that can cope with power politics.