The Future of Europe

The European flag above a building in Berlin, Germany. Photo credit Waldemar Brandt (Unsplash)

The European flag above a building in Berlin, Germany. Photo credit Waldemar Brandt (Unsplash)

On a cold November morning, Europeans and Americans alike crowded into a basement lecture hall in Harvard’s Center for European Studies to hear prominent European and American scholars paint a grim picture of the EU-US relationship in the age of Donald Trump. Panel moderator Mary Sarotte expressed the change in the expert opinion on this topic with an interesting metaphor. Before Trump, policymakers “thought the [transatlantic] machinery would last and all [they] needed to do is oil it,” but in the aftermath, the world realized “the machinery is creaking and cranking and grinding down.”

The transatlantic relationship isn’t the only thing policymakers misjudged five years ago. From Brexit to growing Eurosceptic sentiment against the growing trend of European integration (the increased vesting of powers within a common European government) to rising populism and authoritarianism within the continent, the old Europe, a bastion of liberal values, seems to be gone, especially damaging when the United States also refuses to defend the former international order based around free trade and liberal democracy.

With the Brexit deadline and European parliamentary elections looming, policymakers across the continent, and across the world, are asking an increasingly urgent question: what is the future of Europe? Unfortunately, predictions for the next few months offer little hope for those optimistic of a Europe supportive of its current, supranational political institutions. The EU-US relationship will continue to worsen in the medium run thanks to a Trump-led backlash to the current status quo, while the European Union will lose much of its relevance as a unified actor on the world stage in the long run.

The Short-Term Rubik’s Cube

April 12 (the date, postponed from March 29, when Britain will leave the European Union if the two do not reach a deal) and May 23 (the date of European parliamentary elections) will come sooner than European policymakers think, and the results will likely disappoint them. When Britain voted to leave the EU in 2016, 2019 seemed far in the future, but British policymakers have yet to reach a concrete deal despite the deceptively long preparation period, and the UK will officially exit the EU in a little less than a two weeks given current trends. Meanwhile, voters across Europe will head to the polls in May to elect their representatives to the European Parliament, the only directly elected EU legislative body.

At this point, a no-deal Brexit looks like the most likely option. As Amanda Sloat, a Brookings Institute fellow, noted at the IOP’s February 2019 event on the subject, Theresa May has a “trilemma.” She must reconcile three diverging policy goals: avoiding a hard border with Ireland, leaving the European customs union, and making sure Northern Ireland remains on the same footing as the rest of the UK. In trying to do so, May is struggling to perform an impossible juggling act. Indeed, IOP panel moderator Cathryn Cluver Ashbrook compared May’s policy calculations to a Rubik’s Cube: Every time she does something, everything else changes color. She can’t achieve all three goals at the same time, yet if she doesn’t achieve all of them, her coalition partners will torpedo a deal – and, perhaps, her own government. Even though May got an extension until April 12, the likelihood of a deal in the extra two weeks is still slim. The British Parliament keeps rejecting every iteration of a deal, and there do not appear to be any potential deals that can garner a majority vote in the British parliament.

Meanwhile, all signs of the upcoming European Parliamentary elections point to a more Eurosceptic body, one that will decrease EU powers and unification. Ashbrook estimated that at least a third of MEPs would be opposed to the existence of the European Union as an entity. Furthermore, given the rise of populist dissatisfaction within many European countries such as Hungary, Italy, and now France, it seems that populist and other nontraditional parties will at least gain enough seats to block legislative business (such as legislation on the continuing migrant crisis and the all-important budget), gaining concessions to decrease European involvement in domestic affairs in the process.

In particular, France is susceptible to an anti-establishment takeover in the midst of the yellow vest protests. Voters in France will likely vote against Emmanuel Macron and his party to signal their disapproval with his administration, and that message of disapproval may be enough to topple his government. While France might not turn to the hard-right politics of Marine Le Pen, it will turn farther away from the current European order.

Italy’s populist governing coalition wants to push France in this direction, expressing its support for the yellow vest protesters. The French government wasn’t too happy about this turn of events, and in a historic low point for Franco-Italian relations, France withdrew its ambassador from Rome in response. If two of the European Union’s founding members are trading harsh words (and one is willing to openly interfere in another country’s politics), then the prospects for further integration look quite dismal. Indeed, disintegration seems the more likely outcome at this point.

Rule of the Jungle?

Across the Atlantic, American president Donald Trump seemingly wants to hasten that process of disintegration, further weakening the decrepit transatlantic machinery. His ambassadors to Europe have declared their support for the populist government of Viktor Orban in Hungary and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. Trump has cozied up with Russia and criticized NATO. Indeed, Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, noted that the Trump administration viewed “multilateralism as a constraint or an obstacle to remove” in a December 2018 talk at the Kennedy School. “Today we see a great tendency to focus on national interests versus multilateralism,” she declared, indicating the slim prospects for further integration in the EU within the next decade.

Indeed, the EU-US relationship will continue to decline as long as President Trump remains in office. Trump’s anti-establishment tendencies certainly won’t disappear overnight, and the European Union represents the European establishment. The omnipresent Nick Burns, moderator of Mogherini’s speech and a participant in Mary Sarotte’s panel, noted that Trump has “stood American foreign policy on its head” in four former pillars of the transatlantic relationship: alliances, trade, immigration, and common values such as democracy and rule of law.

Trump is unwilling to defend the liberal international order and is unwilling to work with a European Union still mostly committed to that order. As democracy wanes in places like Poland and Hungary, Europe’s commitment to that order seems more and more doubtful, but the future of the liberal international order is another question for another time, and for the time being, Europe’s resolve to defend it remains stronger than America’s.

How will this affect the world? “There is a real risk today that the rule of the jungle replaces the rule of law,” Mogherini told her audience, precisely because Europe and the United States have ceased cooperating as often to preserve that order. In Mogherini’s view, the jungle will entirely replace the previous transatlantic machinery.

Europe and the Dragon

China is poised to take advantage of the decrepit transatlantic machinery and an international order without its traditional protector. Although observers disagree on whether China seeks to preserve or usurp the current international order with the United States and Europe at the helm, the European community cannot ignore China’s growing international prominence. China has launched the Belt and Road project to consolidate China’s power over its traditional sphere of influence in the Asia-Pacific region, while China has become Africa’s most important economic partner. China is even expanding its economic and political influence within Europe itself, wooing partners in Central and Eastern Europe.

Overall, China’s expanding influence has several implications. First, Europe will lose influence to China in its former colonies, as these countries prefer Chinese aid with no strings attached over Western aid conditioned on indicators of democracy and human rights. Second, China’s investment in Europe is further dividing the European Union, with some countries rushing to accept China’s aid and others cautious about China’s lack of transparency and economic practices that benefit state-owned businesses.

A fractured Europe and disunited European Union will mute the potential response to China’s growing international power, both within and outside its own borders. An inward-looking foreign policy, with countries focused on maintaining their own interests as opposed to a common European interest, will reduce the continent’s power worldwide, especially vis-a-vis China.

The future of European integration, influence, and interaction with the United States all look grim. In the worst case scenario, that transatlantic machinery – and the rest of the machinery of European integration – will grind to a halt. While many hope to reverse the trend toward European fragmentation and build a stronger, more unified Europe, only time will tell the true future of Europe.