The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Europe faces a reckoning

The E.U.’s ambitions do not match the political trends

Armin Laschet, minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, speaks to reporters Monday in Aachen, Germany. (Sascha Steinbach/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is heading across the Atlantic to participate in this year’s Munich Security Conference. You might remember last year’s conference as the place where Vice President Pence got no love for bringing greetings from President Trump.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Westlessness,” a disturbing pun that makes me think way too much about Madeline Kahn. It nonetheless raises deep questions about schisms in the West and what that will mean for Europe going forward.

The Brookings Institution’s Tom Wright posed some key questions in a Wednesday tweet:

I am less interested in the American part of Wright’s query than the European part. This is partially because it does not really matter what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper say, because they have no independent authority whatsoever. Neither secretary has demonstrated any kind of autonomy from Trump’s whims. Their public statements have no credibility and therefore contain little in the way of meaning.

The European side of the equation is more interesting. According to Deutsche Welle’s preview of the conference, “Many Europeans would like to see the EU assert itself as a global player in its own right, more clearly decoupled from United States thinking. … This may be the moment for Europe to launch an approach more focused on its own interests in the region, both strategic and economic.” The Munich Security Conference’s own 2020 report, however, acknowledges “European inability to jointly shape Europe’s neighborhood.”

So what’s actually going on? The European Union’s ambitions do not match its ability to act on them.

The ambition cannot be denied. The new European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen, took office in December of last year and promised a “geopolitical commission.” Josep Borrell, the E.U. high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, recently penned a column in which he asserted: “We Europeans must adjust our mental maps to deal with the world as it is, not as we hoped it would be. … To avoid being the losers in today’s US-China competition, we must relearn the language of power and conceive of Europe as a top-tier geostrategic actor.”

It is also true that European policy preferences are starting to diverge from the United States:

In theory, the E.U., even after Brexit, possesses the market power to act in a strategic manner. We saw that in the discussion over green sanctions that forced U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to complain about protectionism, or in the Trump White House’s acknowledgment that a trade deal with the E.U. has priority over anything with the United Kingdom. The European Commission also seems determined to bolster its own resources going forward.

That said, Foreign Policy’s Stephen M. Walt was not wrong to point out that the past two decades have not been kind to Euro-ambitions. Heck, this month has been bad for the E.U. Germany is roiling from a regional compact in Thuringia between the Christian Democrats and the far-right AfD (see Constanze Stelzenmüller for a full explanation) that has destroyed Chancellor Angela Merkel’s succession plan. It will be difficult for Germany to lead the European Union when no one is sure who will be leading Germany.

Leadership obviously will not be coming from Great Britain. Prime Minister Boris Johnson could not muster anyone in his cabinet to go to Munich this week. That said, Brexit might hurt the United Kingdom a lot, but it still hurts the E.U. some, and it is not clear at all that Brussels has digested its lessons. The American Interest’s Damir Marusic got at this in a recent essay on the meaning of Britain’s exit:

The euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis, and finally the migrant crisis convinced enough people that Brussels was neither accountable nor responsive to them. The “crisis frame” became available because the alternative had taken a beating: An appeal to nationalism only became possible because the larger institution of the EU became less credible …
Of course, Brexit is about Britain and its exit—the ongoing negotiations with the EU, as well as with the United States and other important trading partners, will have outsize effects on the lives of British citizens for decades to come. But it is even more about Europe, and about how and why it failed to keep Britain in. The answers to those questions are much more difficult—and troubling—than simple morality plays about Brexiters and Remainers allow.

I talked to two veteran diplomats this week, one from the United States and one from Europe, about whether the European Union would really be able to project geopolitical power. It would be safe to characterize their responses as “skeptical.”

This is the other reason that what Pompeo and Esper say at Munich will be of little consequence. If European leaders cannot create an option other than “tolerating the status quo,” then the status quo will persist, no matter how uncomfortable it is for all concerned.