Europe seems immune to internal and external shocks. Since this blog was launched five years ago, the EU has lurched from crisis to crisis. The eurozone is still under immense pressure. It is not certain that Greece will be able to remain part of the union’s single currency area. In several European cities, scores of civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks. The refugee and migrant flows that began in 2015 have slowed. But these issues have not been tackled in any strategic way by individual member states or by the EU institutions.
There’s also a great amount of unfinished business—in Ukraine, with Russia, in the Western Balkans, and in the EU itself.
All the above have not only tested the EU’s ability to act strategically. They have also shown how the EU as a bloc was and continues to be incapable and unwilling to grasp what has changed over the past five years. For want of a better term, this self-denial could lead the EU to terminal decline unless there is a fundamentally different way of using the EU.
Several factors are at play across Europe. The first is the bloc’s fragmentation. The decision by the British in June 2016 to leave the EU is having a deep and complex psychological effect on all member states. If there is one issue that has shattered Europe’s self-confidence, it is Brexit. When the British voted to quit Europe’s post–World War II architecture, they were rejecting a continent that put an end to centuries of war and conflict, epitomized by the Franco-German rivalry. The EU’s institutions and member states are now squabbling about the terms of Britain’s departure, instead of limiting the fallout by making the EU accessible and coherent.
Another phenomenon is the shocking weakness of the Franco-German relationship. Chancellor Angela Merkel should be proud of Germany’s economic and political strength. But it’s a double-edged sword. Germany’s qualities are shackled by France’s weaknesses. France’s political and economic systems are locked in the past; the country’s self-confidence has been replaced by pessimism. France has been unable to play any major role in Europe over the past several years.
This disparity has prevented Berlin and Paris from working together to push the EU forward. And this vacuum has been exploited by populist, anti-immigration, and Euroskeptic movements. Even if Merkel is Europe’s undisputed leader, she knows Berlin cannot go it alone. But her allies, mostly in the Nordic and Baltic countries but also in Madrid and Lisbon, have never used that support to create a strong pro-EU caucus.
This has led to the increasing renationalization of European foreign policy. There’s little need to mention defense or security, because they have yet to gain any serious traction in the EU institutions and most member states. As for the conduct of foreign policy, the big member states in particular have their own envoys for Russia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the United States, to name just a few parts of the world. The member states seem not to take the ridiculously called European External Action Service (EEAS), headed by Federica Mogherini, seriously.
If big and small EU member states really wanted to give the EEAS teeth, then the service should have been involved from the start in the Minsk II agreement, which the French, German, Russian, and Ukrainian leaders negotiated in February 2015 to reach a ceasefire and some kind of political solution in eastern Ukraine. The EEAS has been all but absent from that negotiating table. Instead, the burden has fallen to Merkel to keep what is left of the Minsk accord on track.
Ukraine’s future matters to the stability of Europe and, particularly, to the country’s immediate EU neighbors. Yet over the past five years, the Visegrád countries—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—have been singularly disappointing in forging regional foreign, security, and defense policies but highly critical of Brussels. This is a great shame. The growing Euroskepticism of the leaders of a quartet that longed to return to Europe after 1989 has deprived the EU of ideas, energy, and optimism, in contrast to the hundreds of thousands of their compatriots who work in other EU countries.
Finally, there is the United States. A couple of myths need to be debunked about the administration of former U.S. president Barack Obama. He was interested in neither the EU nor NATO. His main interlocutor in Europe was Merkel. His defense secretaries were just as critical of Europeans’ free-riding—taking the U.S. security guarantee for granted—as is the current administration of President Donald Trump. But at least Obama, unlike Trump, didn’t wish the EU’s demise.
For all that, there is a warning for EU leaders. The transatlantic relationship is no longer a given. Trump has served Europe notice. In practice, this means that Europe cannot go it alone, even though this is precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin would relish. The transatlantic relationship has to be rebuilt. EU leaders—and there is a dearth of them—have to grasp the need for Europe to define its interests, and not in a half-baked way. Without defining those interests, there can be no strategic outlook or ambition.