Nathan Gardels is editor in chief of the WorldPost. Nicolas Berggruen is chairman of the Berggruen Institute.
PARIS — After 10 years of being written off as a lost cause mired in internal turmoil, prospects are mounting that Europe could come back as the leader of the West. As China takes the helm of globalization, including linking up new markets across Eurasia through a revived Silk Road, and the United States pulls back from global engagement with President Trump’s “America First” policy, a Europe that remains open and engaged will by default become the custodian of Western civilization’s presence in the world. In this global context, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the coming elections in France and Germany this year will be a consequential factor in shaping the shifting world order.
If the independent, post-party, post-ideological and outward-looking candidacy of Emmanuel Macron succeeds in France against the right-wing populist National Front of Marine Le Pen, the momentum of intolerant, nativist populism in the heart of Europe will be deflated. Macron’s reformist policies would likely make the French economy more flexible and revive the dynamism of this great cultural treasure.
In Germany, if the Social Democratic, passionately pro-European candidate Martin Schulz bests Chancellor Angela Merkel, that country’s role will also change. The blanket open-arms policy toward refugees, combined with austerity policies insisted upon by Merkel’s government, have been among the main spurs of populism across the European Union. Schulz has promised to reconfigure a pan-European approach that both keeps borders open and tightens asylum criteria.
He has also pledged to end the division of Europe into debtors and creditors by loosening austerity and focusing on growth instead.
Together, these two new leaders of the countries that form the core of Europe could hasten their own deeper integration as willing partners, including over budgets, banking backstops and fiscal policies, while agreeing to a looser federation for those less willing to move forward — a multispeed Europe. Such a looser regime of integration could even accommodate a Brexited Britain in some realms of cooperation. A more voluntary multispeed Europe would also diminish populist resentment against Brussels if democratically elected national governments are freer to set the boundaries of their sovereignty.
A more deeply integrated core would give Europe an address and face again. It could be a leading voice in the world on key issues, from climate change and trade to Internet privacy, that America has abandoned. A closer relationship at the core, which includes France as a nuclear power, would enable a credible, common European defense to finally emerge. A more unified French-German approach to these and other policies — from investment in infrastructure and cultural institutions to vocational apprenticeship programs that bring young people into the job market — would clearly demonstrate the benefits of integration to those who now believe the illusion that going their own way alone is a better course. Above all, it would remind everyone of the founding impetus of the European Union that former French president François Mitterrand put so starkly in remembering the history of the continent: “Nationalism means war.”
In short, Europe would be leaner, but stronger and more stable.
Europe was the birthplace of the Western values of individual freedom, tolerance and the universal reason of the Enlightenment. Its philosophers fathered the idea of America — the greatest experiment of democratic self-government in history, which in turn fostered the liberal world order now facing retrenchment. Unless the prodigal son returns to the fold at some point in the not-too-distant future, it will be up to the original family of Western civilization to carry the flame forward. For all our sakes, let’s hope the Old Continent can renew itself.