Could Trump Save the European Union?

Credit: US Mission to the European Union

Adversity gives Europeans a reason to band together and provides a justification for the EU’s existence. Russia and Donald Trump’s attempts to bully Europeans and talk down the EU may thus serve to strengthen it.

Like many of today’s Western institutions, the European Union (EU) was born of the wreckage of World War II. The EU’s ancestor, the European Coal and Steel Union, was founded in 1951. The idea was to unify coal and steel production in a tariff-free zone, thereby making competition between European countries for resources unnecessary and making war between them “materially impossible” by extensively integrating across international borders the supply chains for two resources vital for warfare. Later treaties followed, integrating other industries and adding further European countries.

The foundation of the EU was meant not only to prevent war between any two European countries (particularly Germany and France). It was also meant to boost European influence. After WWII, none of the world’s great powers lay in Europe. Western European leaders recognized that, while NATO would protect them from Russia and potentially each other, they would forever be forced to go along with US policy decisions, whether they agreed or not, if the US provided all their security and their economies were mere minnows in comparison with that of the US. They would need a larger economic and political footprint if they were going to ensure they weren’t mere US vassals.
Provided steady impetus by the fact it was caught between two world powers locked in a global confrontation, the EU’s predecessors, most notably the European Economic Community (EEC) and European Community (EC) rapidly grew in size and scope. Many realist theorists argued the end of the Cold War would remove NATO and the EU’s raison d’etre, but both initially grew rapidly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Institutions have momentum of their own, however, and the minds of leaders and electorates do not adapt instantly to changed political conditions.

Winds of disintegration

A look at NATO and the EU now suggests those realists may not have been wrong—just early. Talks about further EU expansion have stalled and the UK has announced it is leaving the EU—the first time the Union has ever shrunk. Poland and Hungary are backsliding on key democratic commitments embedded in EU treaties. The Euro Crisis stoked skepticism of the common currency and single market. The entry of over 1 million migrants fleeing Syria and other crisis hotspots in the Middle East and Africa has fueled resentment of the EU’s laws on freedom of movement and called its common immigration policies into question. There is talk in Italy and even Germany about leaving the euro and even the EU altogether. Further European integration appears impossible in the current environment and the survival of the EU itself even seems questionable.

Political conditions have shifted again, however. The world is no longer living in the 1990s, when a “new world order” in which problems (like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait) would be solved together through international institutions freed to do their work because the US and USSR would no longer veto each other. Such a cooperative, multilateral world would be a world safe for small countries. The Libya operation aside, it is hard to see multilateral cooperation today (indeed that operation soured Russia and many in the Arab world on supporting such actions in the future). The US is unilaterally pulling out of a deal with Iran it took the lead in making and is threatening to force Europeans into compliance with its decision through its control of the world's main reserve currency and much of its financial system (cutting a bank off from New York’s markets would kill it). Russia is menacing the EU’s eastern marches, and China’s growing economic heft and influence are adding another global player to a landscape that small, European countries could never hope to influence in any significant way on their own.

United we stand, divided we fall

It just may be that US President Trump’s fiery anti-EU rhetoric and attempts to bully Europe into falling in line with his stance, combined with a world increasingly hostile to small countries, may focus Europeans’ minds not on the disadvantages of unity (like ceding powers to Brussels or enduring some loss in national distinctiveness), but on the dangers of disunity in a tumultuous world. There are some signs this is already happening: The most recent Eurobarometer survey shows Europeans’ approval of the EU is rising steadily. 67% now believe membership of the EU benefits them—the highest score since the EU became the EU in 1993.

In a hostile world, small countries can either hitch themselves to a big country’s coattails (and resign themselves to being second in command) or band together to try to balance against those big countries’ power and influence. Banding together with lots of other countries is extremely difficult, especially when the policies of one of the big countries mostly align with the little countries’ interests. With Trump’s America continuing to diverge from those European interests, however, banding together may have just gotten a little more attractive.


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