Geopolitical reality tends to change far more slowly than perceptions of it. To take a geophysical analogy: Underlying trends are like plate tectonics, slow to develop but irresistible over time; perceptions are like the weather, sometimes dramatic, often unpredictable and hardly irrelevant, but of lesser impact all the same. Perceptions of Europe have shifted markedly in just the past few years. Where once stood an attractive post-nationalist model of peace, prosperity, social justice and ecological virtue now stumbles a larger but seemingly aimless and far more ungainly project. Europe today seems apathetic about its achievements, confused about its future and largely ignored by those not directly affected by it. Thanks to the financial crisis and its meandering aftermath, Europe’s problems and limits seem lately to have accumulated into a genuine crisis. To understand how read Walter Russell Mead brilliant April 27 post on the economic origins of the “Greek” dimension of the crisis.
But is it really a major crisis we hear thundering toward us, or just the cacophony of nervous nellies? Is the promise of the once-vaunted European model now revealed as just a passing breeze, or is it our current dour attitudes that will dissipate once the economy stabilizes? The American Interest put the question to eight observers, four European and four American, for our July/August issue.
The European Union has seen more constructive institutional action over the past year than it saw over the several years preceding it combined. The Europeans elected a new Parliament in the summer, appointed a new Commission in autumn and concluded the Lisbon Treaty after five years of hard labor, much confusion and two failed national referenda (in France and the Netherlands). In abstract terms, these events would have to be interpreted as signs of success, proof that the European project could be a global blueprint for social progress, environmental protection and supranational governance. Yet nobody talks about Europe in such glowing terms today. On the contrary, recent events have driven a perception that the European project is hitting the wall and becoming a potential stumbling block for global economic recovery. Why has the shine come off the apple?
The short answer is that a certain infatuation with Europe developed at a time when many of the problems and limitations of an oversold European model were not evident, and when the unpopularity of the Bush Administration made Europe the only attractive version of “the West” available. Now, with the advent of the Obama presidency, a perceived shift in the global balance of power and Europe’s shortcomings in full view—dramatically highlighted by the Greece-generated crisis—this confusing and confused Europe no longer attracts many people outside its frontiers.
A fuller answer to the question of Europe’s lost luster needs detail and nuance. Clearly, the global financial meltdown and its Greece-triggered replay, above all, revealed and exacerbated the European Union’s institutional dysfunctions. But another major signal of European decline came at the Copenhagen climate change conference, where President Obama and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei orchestrated Europe’s embarrassment. The continent’s stunning exclusion from an issue it had formerly all but owned since before the Kyoto Protocol was immortalized in the photo-op for the deal: Not a single European face was in sight.
In fact, the more one thinks about it, the more the United States figures in Europe’s shifting global image and self-perception. Even before Copenhagen, Europe found itself falling out of love with its latest sweetheart, Barack Obama, a man over whom it had swooned like a lovesick teen just a year earlier. Europeans had welcomed Obama with passion to Berlin in 2008; the general feeling on the other side of the Atlantic was that in some way he would be their President, too. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize, many Europeans somehow found a way to use the occasion to congratulate themselves.
But even as the glitz and glitter of celebrity culture politics seemed to define the Transatlantic mood, a deeper reality was dawning on Europeans who were paying attention to substance instead of spectacle. Obama remained an American President, protecting American interests, as he faced one of the most challenging agendas both at home and abroad since World War II. He declined one European invitation after another to “meet again”, as he did for the U.S.-EU summit in Madrid in May, and he also spun a globalist rhetoric that consistently devalued European power assets. European governments began to feel disillusioned and abandoned. Here was a man who would call European leaders to chastise them about Greece when that crisis started to affect the U.S. economy, and who would fly to Europe to stump for Chicago’s Olympic bid but not to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The gist is that America is once again the focus of the world’s hopeful interest, but it is an interest that has come largely at Europe’s expense.
The ebbing popularity of the European model is above all the consequence of a collision between symbols and realities. The European future was oversold, while the opposite applies to the Transatlantic relationship, whose actual strength exceeds its image. This is why Europeans cheering at the Brandenburg Gate over an American delivering a speech, mere gestures and words, is not the name of the game. Standing up for the Transatlantic partnership and working to upgrade it is, and both sides have much work to do. The United States, above all, needs to recognize Europe’s continuing strategic significance, something that can no longer be taken for granted in a world where rule of law and commonly shared principles are under assault. But Europe needs to do much, much more. Europeans are embroiled in bureaucratic squabbling while the real deal in the global village calls for decisions and actions. Hesitant about imposing sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council, incapable of speaking with one voice on any important international issue, unable to take seriously its own commitments to defense modernization and coordination, Europe is anything but an equal partner in the Transatlantic relationship.
Ultimately, this failure begins at home. Europe has confined its potential to talk-shop strategy, replacing decisions with debates, reports and declarations. It hoped that the American defense umbrella and the “invisible hand” of the (internal) market would shield it from serious security and economic problems. But when the clock struck midnight, Europe faced a daunting reality: Before it can claim world leadership on any issue, the European Union has to decide what it wants to become, and how to become it. Does Europe want to continue growing together, or do its member states prefer to head off in different directions on issues of economic, foreign and defense policies? Does it really seek agreement on fiscal policies, a logical next step following monetary union, or will it go on playing Russian roulette by letting fiscal policy remain the prerogative of the member states? Will Europe negotiate accession in good faith with Turkey, or will its initiative stop short at the beaches of Croatia? Europe must also come to terms with an historically normal Germany, a reunited state so robust that it smells like a hegemon even though it tries to dress like an accountant.
Progress in economic coordination and the formulation of a common foreign and defense policy requires strong EU institutions. This is now possible with the Lisbon Treaty framework, but no treaty can by itself replace genuine political leadership, initiative and collaboration. Europe’s ultra-federalist project has disappeared from the scene; the majority of European elites now realizes—and the European Union remains overwhelmingly an elite project—that it was a utopian delusion. But it is neither utopian nor delusional to think that Europe can achieve further fiscal or labor market coordination. It is unsustainable to have one currency and one central bank but more than a dozen separate tax, fiscal and social welfare systems within the eurozone. If the recent bailout deal has shown us that all of Europe will participate in the financial rescue of weaker members, then it doesn’t make sense that a German worker should retire at 67 while the same worker in Greece retires at sixty.
That is not all. Aging populations and the demographic crisis call for a more coordinated immigration policy. And everyone knows that Europe needs a common energy policy, both for purposes of internal efficiency and with respect to its foreign and security policy implications. Strong institutions and political determination are also necessary to create a European foreign policy on many issues beyond energy, where individual states can no longer act effectively. Relations with Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union, not to mention the southern shores of the Mediterranean, amply prove this.
Monetary policy needs to be addressed in a similar fashion. But while the United States discusses currency exchange rates with China, Europe stays at home. Such conspicuous inaction is not only unhelpful to the United States; it also damages the future of the euro vis-à-vis the dollar and the yuan. The European Union should act boldly and decisively on the many common policy issues like this one, but it needs leadership to do so. It is in both European and American interests not to forfeit substance to myriad vague promises.
Take Ukraine, for example. After the Orange Revolution, Europe dithered in response to an outpouring of Ukranian political will and high expectations for solid economic proposals. Europe fiddled with the notion of an Eastern Partnership and an array of confusing frameworks that didn’t come close to addressing the Association Agreement’s key elements, such as visa-free travel. Meanwhile, Russia exported campaign contributions and deployed long-term gas deals to install a Moscow-friendly government in Kiev and secure basing rights for its Black Sea fleet.
Europe also needs to collaborate more closely on defense issues. The days of American military protection of Europe are over. The European Union must finally come to terms with the present schizophrenia over membership in NATO and the European Security and Defense Policy, which was born in the aftermath of the Bosnian war and the Kosovo disaster. However, the European Union will not have an efficient military force until the majority of European citizens and elites give up the idea that they can fight wars wearing white gloves. Many European leaders have yet to understand that the army is not the Red Cross. We don’t send soldiers to conflict zones to build schools and distribute humanitarian aid but to fight when necessary for the defense of European interests. In terms of Transatlantic relations, this contradiction is manifest in Afghanistan, where Europe is not the strong ally the United States needs despite its understanding of the war’s importance for Obama.
Finally, Europe needs to redefine its vision of enlargement, especially with respect to Turkey. As the European project evolves into a variable-speed, multi-configuration consolidation—where borderless travel through the Schengen area and the monetary union are only the first steps—Turkey should certainly have a defined and agreed place in it.
Unfortunately, none of this is in prospect. On the contrary, the evidence of lethargy and the inclination to talk the talk but not to walk the walk is everywhere. Even the committee of wise men, called the “Reflection Group”, denounced empty rhetoric in their May 2010 “Project Europe 2030” report to the European Council. This report marks a healthy break with the usual politically correct, diplomatically refined Brussels language. Whether Europe’s leaders give it a due response remains to be seen.
“Europe will not be made all at once or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” These words from the 1950 Schuman Declaration, as well as Jean Monnet’s conviction that Europe would evolve from one crisis to the next, are confirmed by the bumpy history of the European Union. This history gives us hope that the European project will go forward even in today’s turbulent circumstances. Although the European Union is not the new City on the Hill that many envisioned, it will not disintegrate in the face of its current challenges, as some scaremongers have predicted. It will remain both a work in progress and an ideal, and Americans should for self-interested reasons take a keen interest in its future.
The Obama Administration’s apparent snubbing of Europe notwithstanding, Transatlantic relations still matter enormously to both sides. Here I refer not to the infatuation of parts of the American intelligentsia with the social democratic features of the European Union, nor to Europe’s infatuation with Obama. Infatuation can be exhilarating, but it is not a solid base for a relationship. Nor do we need a marriage of convenience defined by the trillions of dollars and euros exchanged daily in trade. We need a mature bond of kindred civilizations devoted to advancing the principles we share, rooted in reality and in the independent capacities of both partners, that will last.