Why you should care
The Europe we’ve come to rely upon is struggling.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
The Continent is something most Americans — those born after World War II — have more or less taken for granted. But now we need to seriously worry about Europe. There have been serious friction points like the 2003 Iraq invasion, for example, but for the most part America could count on Europe to be stable and loyal in times of trouble. But cracks are definitely widening — both within Europe and between Europe and the United States.
My perspective is heavily influenced by having been a student in Italy barely 20 years after the end of World War II. Many buildings still bore the scars of that conflict, the largest single event in human history, and wise European leaders, many of whom had lived and fought in both world wars, were struggling to ensure nothing like it ever happened again. Their answer was the European unification movement, supported by the U.S., which initially took off as the European Coal and Steel Community, integrating in the 1950s the industries that had been among the engines of war in the 20th century. From that core grew the six-country European Economic Community (EEC), essentially a free-trade zone, and eventually today’s 28-member European Union, adding monetary union and closer political coordination into the mix.
Perhaps because I saw Europe peacefully transformed in these years, I’ve always considered the EU, even with its flaws, one of history’s most impressive experiments in democratic governance. But the strains on it today are partly of its own making and partly stimulated from outside.
External forces affecting the EU’s character and pulling at its fabric come principally from Russia and, less directly, from the United States.
The internal strains are an amalgam of three trends. First, as the EU nearly quadrupled in size, coordination among members became more difficult, and resentment grew over rulings of the large centralized bureaucracy headquartered in Brussels. Second, financial strains have risen and fallen for the euro currency created in 1999; this is a complex problem, but at its heart are the different priorities of more prosperous states such as Germany compared with less developed or less disciplined states such as Greece or Italy, which chafe under German insistence on austerity measures to cope with soaring debt. Finally, backlash against migration from Africa has contributed to a growing populist trend in countries such as Hungary, Austria, Poland and Italy that in some cases has an authoritarian edge — one that is increasingly at odds with the EU’s requirements for fair elections, an independent judiciary and media freedom.
The most extreme reaction to these strains? Britain’s decision to quit the EU (Brexit), which promises to alter the union’s internal balance. The U.K. has offset Germany’s potentially dominant influence and has tempered German and French enthusiasm for faster movement toward political union and coordination of foreign and security policy.
External forces affecting the EU’s character and pulling at its fabric come principally from Russia and, less directly, from the United States. The influx of migrants certainly doesn’t help. But Russia bombards Europe with false stories about migrant-committed atrocities and other exaggerations designed to exasperate societal strains, drawing warnings from officials in many countries, such as Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Czech Republic. One EU task force documented more than 2,500 examples of Russia planting false stories in 18 languages. Meanwhile, Russia’s overt diplomacy focuses on weakening ties between the EU and countries with a Slavic heritage (Serbia) and encouraging EU leaders showing authoritarian tendencies, such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary.
The U.S. impact comes largely in the form of President Trump’s comments questioning America’s commitment to NATO and labeling the EU a “foe.” Trump’s tariff war with Europe (most recently with NATO member Turkey), his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, his abandoning of the Iran nuclear agreement and his skepticism about Russian election meddling leave Europe doubting that it and the U.S. are committed to common goals. Moreover, Trump’s anti-immigration stance and his attacks on America’s law enforcement and judicial system lend legitimacy to European politicians who see advantage in questioning these foundational elements of the EU. Finally, I’ve heard from contacts there that they just don’t know what to believe, given the ease with which Trump bends the facts.
In sum, Europe is shaken by cyber pummeling from Russia and a missing American constancy that it has always taken for granted. At the same time, the union’s 28 countries are more divided than in the past over some of its founding principles and long-standing objectives. All of this makes for an unpredictable future.
Most experts will say the union will endure, stumbling forward as it always has, and that democracy is too deeply rooted to be in danger.
But in our volatile times, no one predicted much of what we’ve seen recently on both sides of the Atlantic. With Germany struggling under a weakened Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the British on their way out, with a core founding member, Italy, challenging EU leadership and with new members engaged in democratic backsliding, it is increasingly hard to say what Europe will look like in another decade. It seems a fair bet that it will not have advanced much beyond where it is today on political unity. In the worst-case scenario, authoritarian tendencies may grow and, especially if Trump is re-elected, there will be a strong impulse for Europe to go it alone in the world. That, of course, would be a fundamental break from all that we have considered certain since the end of World War II.