The European Union today faces a crisis unmatched in its history. At once, surging nationalism threatens to divide the continent from within, while anti-EU and anti-Western powers try to pull it apart from without. Against this backdrop, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Donald Trump meet Friday in Washington. There will be no shortage of transatlantic issues for them to discuss – but three challenges in particular should command their greatest attention.
The most immediate comes from the re-nationalization of European politics. The biggest manifestation of this trend was last year’s Brexit vote – and the decision by the British government to opt for a hard Brexit by opting out of the single market and the custom’s union. In response, Scotland wants a new independence referendum and politics. Elections in the Netherlands earlier this week provided a welcome reprieve, with the center holding off the challenge from the populist Geert Wilders, whose party secured just 13 percent of the vote. Perhaps this augurs well for the French elections, though it now looks like none of the established party candidates will make it into the second round, posing the distinct possibility that Marine Le Pen, the far-right National Front candidate, ends up in the Elysée as France’s next president.
A second challenge is Washington’s apathy – bordering on disdain – for Europe and the transatlantic alliance. At a time when it is more important than ever for the United States to re-engage with Europe, the White House is starving the State Department of the necessary resources to conduct European diplomacy. Further, President Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on America’s commitment to the NATO alliance, calling it at various times obsolete, and at other times conditions the US security commitment on allies spending more on defense. The more troubling concern, as Michael Crowley writes in POLITICO, is not that America ignores Europe, but that under the influence of strong EU critics such as Steve Bannon, the White House actively works to dismantle the European project.
Add to these challenges a more explicit threat from Russia. President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to break down the Western-led order and weaken the European Union have been apparent for years – from his invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014 to his more recent attempts to influence elections and destabilize Western governments. Could these attempts ultimately succeed? Read James Kirchick’s Foreign Policy piece, in which he describes the playbook Putin could use to see his ends through. Unfortunately, the “nightmare scenario” of a transatlantic alliance uncommitted to liberal values and unable to ward off Russian military advances has become all too plausible.
The risks here are profound. A divided Europe would have far-reaching consequences for both peace and prosperity around the world. This week’s reads look at the pressures building against the European Union and how it could ultimately break down.
Workers won't win from protectionism, says The Economist’s Buttonwood columnist. Coercing businesses to come “back home” will drive up consumer prices even as unskilled workers are increasingly replaced by robots. Free trade does not necessarily promote even economic growth, and policies such as the Trump administration’s recent proposal to impose tariffs on select countries ignore the realities of today’s international trade. Corporations transcend borders, and technological advancements threaten all unskilled labor, both domestic and foreign.
James Kirchick/Foreign Policy
James Kirchick’s describes a “nightmarish concoction” of a world in 2022 in which the European Union is crumbling and NATO is replaced with a Russia-European alliance that excludes the United States. Unrest in Germany, rooted in the costs of welcoming refugees and egged on by President Trump, cost Angela Merkel the 2018 election, and Russia has occupied Narva, a primarily ethnic Russian city in Estonia. While Kirchik’s predictions may seem farfetched, he warns that rising nationalism makes them increasingly probable.
Gideon Rachman/Financial Times
“There is trouble on every horizon” for Angela Merkel, writes Gideon Rachman – Russia to the east, Brexit to the north, and Donald Trump across the Atlantic. Germany’s “unwavering commitment” to its values have isolated it as the landscape around the country has shifted. Merkel will be watching the French election and Russia especially closely, and “if Ms. Le Pen wins, the German nightmare will be complete.”
Alison Smale and Andrew Higgins/The New York Times
The relationship between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin “is a microcosm of the sharply divergent visions clashing in Europe and beyond, a divide made more consequential by the uncertainty over President Trump’s policy toward Russia and whether he will redefine the traditional alliances of American foreign policy,” write Alison Smale and Andrew Higgins. With Putin outlasting a series of American presidents and with Merkel the undeclared leader of the liberal Western world, the authors chronicle these “unexpected” leaders who seem neither friend nor open foe.
Michael Crowley/POLITICO Magazine
Then an executive at Breitbart news, presidential advisor Stephen Bannon was among the first to congratulate “Leavers” for the Brexit vote in June 2016. Now that he has the ear of President Trump, “the question of just what Bannon plans to do with his influence has become a huge preoccupation of diplomats, European government officials and experts on the venerable trans-Atlantic relationship,” writes Michael Crowley. Though Bannon has repeatedly said that “strong nations make great neighbors,” the idea of a return to nationalist policies in Europe is chilling.
Natalie Nougayrède/The Guardian
“The taboo of a far-right presidency no longer holds in France,” warns Natalie Nougayrède as she traces the possible routes to a Le Pen victory in May. And even if Le Pen is defeated, the mainstreaming of populism has damaged norms in France, she argues, where it has become commonplace to denigrate refugees or Muslims. Old structures are crumbling, and extremes are rushing in. “It is no exaggeration to say the fate of democracy in France and in Europe is at stake.”
Jacob Heilbrunn/The National Interest
Jacob Heilbrunn tours through American history to remind readers of the longstanding debate about whether America’s true national interest lies in an “America First” isolationism or international interventionism. Heilbrunn reviews and makes use of four recent books – of The Tragedy of US Foreign Policy, The True Flag, Why Wilson Matters, and Age of Anger – to illuminate the heated conversation Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric has prompted about globalization and America’s purpose. “The impassioned debate that Trump is triggering is not about to go away any time soon. Quite the contrary.”
Ruth Marcus/The Washington Post
History is replete with examples of early crises testing presidents – from Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs to the Chinese forcing down of a Navy crew under George W. Bush. Given the volatility in the administration so far, Ruth Marcus lays out her concerns about how “Trump’s unforced errors have implications and ripple effects for when the real problems inevitably arrive.” The most significant red flag for Marcus is the president’s dwindling credibility, as his “predilection to assert and cling to untruths in the face of contrary evidence raises questions about his capacity to absorb and act on unwelcome information” – something crucial to handling any crisis.
Shawn Donnan/Financial Times
Despite President Trump’s team casting their trade views as new and bold, Shawn Donnan traces their roots to Reagan-era policies with a focus on reviving Rust Belt industry rather than tech innovators, concerns about the WTO, and a focus on China like Japan before it. “To some this approach smacks of the creeping protectionism and tit-for-tat unilateral trade battles of the 1980s,” Donnan writes.