By Ana Palacio, former Spanish foreign minister and visiting lecturer at Georgetown University
After years of intensifying fragmentation and tension, the European Union may be on the verge of losing its most precious assets: peace, prosperity, freedom of movement, and values such as tolerance, openness, and unity. Will Europeans unite in time to save them?
The danger facing the EU became starkly apparent last June, when the United Kingdom voted to leave. And Donald Trump’s election as US president has made matters far worse. The United States, Europe’s closest and most powerful ally – a crucial security partner and bearer of shared values – is now headed in a very different direction, and threatening to leave a shaken and divided Europe alone in a harsh world eager to tear it apart.
This might sound hyperbolic. Many in the US political class remain convinced – at least in public – that US foreign policy under Trump will be reined in by the more level-headed heavyweights in his cabinet, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “Don’t worry,” they say, “the worst will not happen.”
But, in my experience, the person who really counts is the one who has the president’s ear. And, so far, all signs indicate that Trump’s inner circle is driving policymaking. In fact, the pronouncements and executive orders of Trump’s first weeks in office convey a singular ideological perspective – the one long espoused by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, an ultra-nationalist, acolyte of the Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola, and long-time enabler of America’s white-supremacist “alt-right.”
As if to underscore his Rasputin-like influence, Bannon has now secured a seat on the National Security Council Principals Committee, which includes the secretaries of state and defense, but not the director of national intelligence or the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. No surprise, then, that #PresidentBannon has been trending on Twitter.
Ordinarily, I would not pontificate on the structure of another country’s foreign-policy apparatus. But Trump’s is no ordinary US presidency, so we all have a responsibility to consider the implications of the White House’s ideological about face from traditional democratic and Western thinking for our own countries. For Europeans, this responsibility is particularly urgent, because America’s new driving ideology emphasizes the traditional Westphalian nation-state, with its insistence on sovereignty, strong borders, and nationalism. The EU – built on the idea of strength, peace, and prosperity through cooperation – is anathema to it.
The problem for the EU is no longer the indifference that marked the worst elements of President Barack Obama’s approach to Europe. It is outright US hostility. Trump’s praise of Brexit, which emphasized the British people’s “right to self-determination,” and his belittling reference to the EU as “the Consortium” in his appearance with British Prime Minister Theresa May, underscores his hostility.
Europe is now stuck between a US and a Russia that are determined to divide it. What are we Europeans to do?
One option is to pander to Trump. That is the approach May took on her visit to Washington, DC, when she stood by silently as Trump openly declared his support for the use of torture at their joint press conference.
But, for the EU, such appeasement would be counter-productive. It is our values, not our borders, that define us. It makes little sense to abandon them, especially to ingratiate ourselves with a leader who has shown himself to be capricious and utterly untrustworthy.
Another option is to find a new savior – perhaps a country like China, which not only is America’s closest analogue, in terms of economic impact, but also has attracted substantial attention lately, owing to its president’s robust defense of globalization.
But we should beware of false messiahs. The global vision promoted by China focuses almost entirely on economic relations – precisely the soullessness that got the liberal world order into trouble in the first place. A sense of common purpose, not just the operation of the market, binds humanity together. Were it otherwise, the EU’s single market would have been enough to protect it from the existential threat it now faces.
The third option – and the only viable one for the EU – is self-reliance and self-determination. Only by strengthening its own international positions – increasing its leverage, in today’s jargon – can the EU cope effectively with America’s wavering fidelity to its allies and the values they share.
Pursuing this option implies that the EU should push for progress in trade talks with Japan, negotiate an investment agreement with China, modernize the EU-Mexico Global Agreement, and position itself as a world leader on tax reform. Moreover, Europe should take greater responsibility for its defense, both by increasing spending and by pursuing continental cooperation aimed at using resources and capabilities more efficiently.
To address the migration challenge it faces, Europe should craft a policy guided by its values, as well as its security and economic interests. That means distinguishing between economic migrants and refugees, strengthening border controls, and boosting cooperation with third countries.
In all that it does, from this moment on, the EU must affirm and advance the values – openness, human rights, knowledge, and the rule of law – that have enabled Europe to recover, grow, and thrive for more than seven decades. French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent call for a “clear, common commitment” to the EU is a good start.
But such calls must now be backed by action. That may be difficult for the next nine months, as the Netherlands, France, and Germany hold national elections. It will be even more difficult if an extremist candidate in one or more of these countries achieves a surprise victory. But if Europe’s political center holds, as expected, the EU will be in a strong position to confront increasingly hostile external forces and move forward with purpose.
Ana Palacio, a former Spanish foreign minister and former Senior Vice President of the World Bank, is a member of the Spanish Council of State and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown University. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.
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