Turbulent Atlantic Waters
by Robert Cox
“Can America run the world without allies?” Gideon Rachman, Financial Times, May 12/13, 2018
“For Europe in the mid-term, it will be increasingly difficult to continue meaningfully to rely on the US as the core partner to tackle global challenges.” European Political Strategy Centre brief June 8, 2018
The Europe-US relationship is based on two pillars: a belief in and a promotion of a rules-based international order; a shared set of common values. Both of these pieces of mortar are crumbling. But the partners are not yet in the divorce court. Meanwhile Europeans increasingly sense that their familiar and otherwise comfortable world has gone.
European Union (EU) Commission President Claude Juncker came away from Washington on July 25 pocketing an outline deal with President Trump to “work together” towards “zero” tariffs, other barriers, subsidies—a whole shopping list ranging from automobiles to soya beans and natural gas, trade standards and “unfair global trade practices.” Faced with this menu embracing the sublime and paltry, sceptics on both sides of the Pond will be forgiven misbelief. Why didn’t they think of this earlier? Is it TTIP reborn? Will the US Congress, the European Parliament and EU Member States play ball? How did Mr Trump, yesterday’s vicious enemy of the EU, suddenly seek its partnership? Mr Trump may be impulsive but not as inconsequent as many Europeans (and Americans) fondly believe. Or did somebody in Washington sit up and notice that the EU had other cards in its hands, to wit: the signing in Tokyo on July 6 of an Economic Partnership with Japan; ten days later in Peking at the EU-China Summit a statement laced with hyperbole about “partnership for peace, growth, reform and civilisation, based on the principles of mutual respect, trust, equality and mutual benefit.” Eyewash? Evidence suggests that China and the EU, both targets of Mr Trump’s ire, have decided it is time to stop dithering and go for common cause in a wide-ranging economic deal. In Brussels they have noticed something else. China hitherto suspected that a “rules-based” concept of international economic government was basically a US trap. Now, with Mr Trump bent on ripping up the rule-book, does Mr Xi think that rules are not such a bad idea after all? Whether he, Tokyo and Europe can persuade Mr Trump of such virtues remains to be seen. One unconfirmed Brussels story says the EU and Japan are talking to the US about a plan to save the WTO, a key post-WWII inheritance badly in need of overhaul.
Europeans may fret about the unpredictability—and indeed competence—of America’s leader, but they are stymied by their own domestic agenda of instability and tensions. Britain’s self-destructive bid for an illusory recovered sovereignty by quitting the EU (Brexit) is clearly a major European headache. Brexit may obsess public discourse in Britain but it occupies far less political and media space elsewhere in the EU. Doubts persist about the anaemic economic recovery of the Eurozone (single € currency area), not helped by Mr Trump’s animosity, particularly towards its German engine-room. Unemployment and poorly paid marginal employment persist. Hostility towards immigration looms ever larger in European public discourse, fuelling populism. Similarities with the US are patent. But behind it all in Europe looms a more divisive patchwork of political instability. Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer so dominates affairs in Berlin. In Paris, President Emmanuel Macron has got himself into trouble largely of his own making. Italy’s convulsive coalition rattles nerves beyond the country’s own frontiers too. Vulnerability stalks London and Madrid. Right-wing populism in Scandinavia challenges social democracy.
Insistent voices question the survival of the European Union as we now know it. The north-south cleavage persists while east-west tension grumbles ever louder as Hungary’s Orban, the Czech Republic’s Babiš and Poland’s Kaczynski blow the embers of populist resentment in the east that western EU society treats them as second-class citizens. EU enlargement arguably progressed too fast, too far. The Euro single currency was introduced too quickly, without common economic policy-making discipline to cement it, and embracing many unfit member countries.
Is Euro-upheaval in sight? No, because a country’s departure from the Eurozone will create more problems than it solves. For some years politicians have toyed with the notion of a so-called multi-speed or “overlapping circles” model of EU membership. The idea defies attempts at credible definition. For some it would imply relegation to 2nd class EU membership. The Eurozone itself, with 19 participants out of 28 EU Member States, is of course the precursor of such a configuration. Yet options are emerging in the form of putative closer regional groupings. Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia seek a common identity in the so-called Višegrad Group with Slovenia and Croatia looking on sympathetically. In the north of the EU the idea is being touted of a modern-day Hanseatic League of Scandinavian and Baltic countries. Others would prefer a “hard core” revamp of the founding European Community—Benelux plus Germany, France and Italy (an argument somewhat weakened by the latter’s tribulations). And Britain, of course, is on the way out into the splendid isolation of a post-imperial dreamland. All these schemes are pie in the sky cynics will say, but such an EU of “concentric circles” could, among other things, be a way of incorporating western Balkan candidates for membership—and even, for that matter, Turkey as its authoritarian president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan drags it ever further away from NATO and the EU. French President Macron late July proclaimed his support for such a multi-facet EU. Germany’s Chancellor Merkel is known to harbour similar thoughts.
Growing senses of uncertainty and vulnerability overshadow Europeans’ comfortable world. Nowhere more so than in Europe’s reluctant powerhouse, instinctively conservative Germany. “In Germany and the world” to quote Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Chairman of the influential Bavarian Bishops’ Conference, “we sense that perhaps an era is drawing to a close. We must adapt ourselves to new times.” For Germany’s authoritative Die Zeit weekly (07/03/2018): “in yesterday’s world Europe moved along known paths of trade of which America had laid down the rules. This world no longer exists. Europeans have now got to do something uncomfortable and unfamiliar: they’ve got to think for themselves.”
The EU no longer presents an example of authoritative credibility either to the world at large or to its own citizens. It does not need President Trump’s pathological hostility towards it to be its own worst advocate. And yet public opinion (Eurobarometer poll spring 2018) has an overall 42% of Europeans “trusting” the EU as opposed to 34% trusting their national governments. Hardly an impressive figure per se—but back nonetheless to pre-crisis levels of 2007. In the same poll immigration tops the table of citizen concern (38%) followed by terrorism (32%). A poll a year earlier (Eurobarometer 06/17/2017) showed 75% of EU citizens (even 67% in the UK) in favour of a common European defence and security policy. Which is partly why leading European politicians, starting with Chancellor Merkel of Germany, confronted with growing doubts about sustained US support for NATO, have felt able to call for Europe to step up responsibility for its own defence and be ready to go it alone without the US. In November 2017, the European Council (the EU’s top policy forum of its heads of state and/or government)—debated defence and security and adopted its so-called Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). This, and subsequent statements, contain lots of good intentions, particularly to combat the incoherence of so much in European defence—including waste of money rather than lack of it. The determination of Britain, a relative defence heavyweight in Europe, to quit the EU, further undermines European defence ambitions. And, of course, just below the surface lurks the crucial issue of military procurement central to both US and European appetites.
The EU no longer presents an example of authoritative credibility either to the world at large or towards its own
So, who is Europe’s enemy? Ultimately, says conventional wisdom, Russia. With its serious economic problems and the Kremlin’s narrative, largely for home consumption, of victimisation by the west, the still great empire is increasingly tempted to lunge against soft European targets. Maybe. Most Europeans in authority believe that Mr Putin has a firm grip on affairs in Moscow. He will continue to make life difficult for the Ukraine, test nerves in the Baltic states, play footsie with Budapest, Prague and Belgrade and sustain Russia’s long-held desire to be a major player in the Middle East with access to warm-water ports and combat further NATO expansion. The problem—who might succeed, sooner or later, by procedure or by accident, an otherwise cautious Mr Putin in the Kremlin? Some Europeans’ paranoia in Europe about Trump and Putin ganging up on their incoherent Europe does not suffice as an incentive. But what will Mr Trump’s next matinal tweet presage?
Postcriptum – Brexit.
In late July, political London headed with relief for fields and beaches under a cloud of fraught illusion. Barely recovering from the contempt meted upon her by Mr Trump during his visit to London, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government produced a frequently verbose White Paper entitled “The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union”. In brief, London pursues the have your cake and eat it principle—maintain all the privileges of membership of the EU by so-called “facilitated customs arrangements” etc. while freeing itself of the constraints and duties that full EU membership implies—what Mrs May calls the “soft Brexit.” It took barely 48 hours before EU Commission chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, poured cold water on the plan while Brexit minister Davis resigned saying it was too “soft”. Nor, said Mr Barnier, is the Commission (let alone Dublin) reassured by the White Paper’s vague language on avoiding new barriers imposed across the island of Ireland—a dangerous situation.
When will they dump their Brexit nonsense? ask my friends in mainland Europe. Calls in Britain for a new referendum on conclusion of negotiations, if those negotiations crash or in the event of a government collapse, get louder. Opinion polls show a shift against Brexit, but it’s slender. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn encapsulates the problem. He, says one observer, is terrified of any headline saying: Corbyn reverses the will of the people! He echoes much of the English political establishment. As an EU-UK dispute over the EU’s Galileo SATNAV project adds to Brexit woes, we may recall the celebrated words of the programme’s spiritual father relevant to all human endeavour—eppur si muove.
Robert Cox, born in London in 1938, read economics, politics, German and Slavonic languages at Cambridge University and the College of Europe. He launched into journalism with the The Economist in London, and later in central Africa. Cox then entered a second career with the European Commission, first in the Spokesman’s service, then in the private office of Commission Member, George Thomson. After a spell with the Development DG dealing with policy & economics and North-South dialogue development negotiations he was appointed Head of the EC Mission in Turkey where he experienced the 1980 military takeover. On return to Brussels he held senior policy and management posts with the EC information services. On the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia Cox was detached to the EC Monitoring Mission in Zagreb. In 1992 he joined the new EC Humanitarian Office (ECHO) as its deputy head. Since retirement he has based himself in Brussels spending time painting, traveling and working on contemporary challenges facing the EU, notably with the think-tank Friends of Europe. He is married with two daughters and three grandchildren.