The State of the European Union, Part I

12 February 2024

Having been charged by The Tocqueville Review with the task of contributing a reflection on the state of the European Union as a prelude to the European parliamentary elections, I thought I’d avail myself of this blog to offer a preview of my thoughts. Although I normally limit myself in this venue to remarks on French politics, I think it’s important to see France in the context of Europe, and the EU is always in the background of what I write, even though I generally comment on France’s internal tussles. Attempting to peer into the future is inherently a risky business, but on looking back at my last communion with the crystal ball, the results of which appeared in The Tocqueville Review in 2017, I find that my prognostications were on the whole not too bad, except for an uncharacteristic bout of optimism concerning the possible election of one Emmanuel Macron, which I saw as a possible corrective to the gloomy implications of the recent ascent of Donald Trump to the US presidency and the prior decision of the UK to exit the EU.

A good deal has changed since then, however, so it’s time for a fresh look. My remarks will be organized around a number of themes: security, immigration, populism, the environment, and the conundrum of how to manage a global economy with the limited tools afforded by nation-bound political priorities. I’ll tackle these various topics in separate blog posts. This one will be devoted to European security issues, perhaps unsurprisingly in light of Donald Trump’s astonishing provocation this weekend that he would urge his friend Vladimir Putin, in his mind the quintessence of the “strong” world leader, to have his way with any European country “delinquent” in paying its share of what Trump apparently believes is a fee that the United States charges for its contribution to the common defense. Bearing Trump’s threat in mind, I turn to the security of Europe as the first installment of this series on the state of the European Union.

European Security in 2024

The most unsettling change in the European political climate is due to the war in Ukraine. Until February 2022 the European Union could boast that it had all but banished armed conflict from the continent (barring a few exceptional and relatively short-lived episodes such as the aftermath of the Yugoslavian breakup). Vladimir Putin’s decision to give his idiosyncratic reading of Central European history priority over the advantages that Russia derived from its economic integration into the broader European economy abruptly changed everything.

The war initiated both a massive flow of refugees out of Ukraine and a massive flow of cash and materiel in the opposite direction. Although the bulk of the weaponry has come from the United States, substantial quantities of arms also flowed into Ukraine from European countries, especially Germany and Poland. In addition, the EU has outdone the United States in supplying funds to support the beleaguered Ukrainian government and economy, as well as sustaining several million desperate refugees.

The outbreak of war also necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the premises of both domestic and foreign policy. Start with Germany, where the changes have been most far-reaching. For many years, the German economy thrived on an abundant supply of cheap natural gas from Russia. Cheap energy enabled Germany to produce automobiles, machine tools, chemicals, and many other products at very competitive prices, enabling a growth strategy premised on undercutting competitors in foreign markets. The relationship between Russia and Germany became so close that a former German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, was invited to join the board of the Russian energy exporting firm Gazprom. Putin no doubt calculated that Germany’s reliance on Russian gas would stand in the way of substantial German military aid to Ukraine.

Instead, shock at the brazenness of Russian aggression galvanized a rapid transformation of German attitudes. Reluctance to increase military spending, even in the face of pressure from several U.S. administrations, quickly gave way to what Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the “Zeitenwende”—the advent of a new era, in which Germany tacitly recognized the need to expand its armaments industry and enhance its military preparedness, allocating €100 billion for the purpose. In the short run, this effort aims to help Ukraine defend itself, but in the longer run it seeks to bolster Europe’s ability to shape its own independent foreign and defense policy now that the U.S. is increasingly distracted by conflict with China and events in the Middle East.

This profound transformation of Germany’s military and foreign-policy posture—even more noteworthy among Scholz’s Green Party partners in the so-called Ampel (traffic-light) coalition than among the chancellor’s Social Democratic colleagues—reflects changes in two of the fundamental premises underlying German elite understandings of the post-Cold War order: first, that Russia could be trusted to respond positively to economic incentives, and second, that the US would remain the world’s one unchallenged hyperpower, ready to defend Europe against any and all threats.

The first premise—that Russia could be trusted–obviously could not survive the fact of naked Russian aggression in Ukraine. More than that, the very decision to go to war revealed the abyss that separated Putin’s values from Europe’s. Clearly, the ideal of convergence through commerce—or Wandel durch Handel as German more euphoniously phrases the idea—had not supplanted older territorial ambitions and cultural animosities in the Russian mind.

Just as ominous was the realization American domestic politics no longer “stops at the water’s edge,” if it ever did. It is hardly lost on Europeans that the American political scene is more fractious and polarized than ever—so much so that, as of this writing, a bill to fund continued U.S. support of Ukraine’s military has failed to win congressional approval even though its purpose is ostensibly supported by majorities of both parties, whose mutual antipathy trumps any concern with seeking an optimal policy.

Europeans have understandably drawn the conclusion that they must stand on their own two feet, even though their marching muscles have atrophied from long disuse. Whatever the state of the European body, however, the European mind has been concentrated by the non-negligible prospect that Donald Trump might be re-elected in November 2024. Given Trump’s pro-Putin, anti-Ukraine proclivities, such an eventuality would likely doom Ukraine (or transform it into a pawn of Trump’s promised “retribution” against his domestic political enemies) and leave Europe with the quandary of how to prevent other erstwhile appendages of the Soviet empire from being threatened anew with Russian domination.

A Trump victory would also pose acute problems for NATO. That venerable alliance, memorably declared “brain-dead” by Emmanuel Macron shortly after his first election in 2017, experienced a miraculous resurrection on February 24, 2022. It has proved essential for coordinating the flow of materiel to Ukraine. The Atlantic alliance withered because the enemy it had been designed to combat—Soviet Communism and imperialism—had seemingly vanished. Now, however, that enemy has been replaced by Russian imperialism and Putin’s mythology of the mystical Rus.

As long as this new enemy survives, and assuming that Trump is not the next president of the United States, NATO will too. America’s attention will remain divided, however, with the European conflict taking a back seat to both the war in the Middle East and continuing tension with China. Europe, lacking the military capacity to sustain Ukrainian defenses on its own, must therefore do what it can to keep U.S. attention focused on the need to hold the line in Ukraine while it rebuilds the military capability to defend itself. The German initiative is a start, but it will take time—and a far greater commitment of resources not only by Germany but also by other European governments—to meet that challenge. That is one of many reasons why the prospect of a Trump victory in the U.S. is so ominous. At this week’s NATO meeting, Trump’s latest bluster will certainly dominate the conversation and perhaps accelerate reconsideration of the wisdom of undue reliance on the American nuclear shield. The ghost of General de Gaulle will certainly be hovering over this summer’s NATO summit in Washington.

Before moving on to other matters, I need to say a word about the state of the war in Ukraine and growing signs of battle fatigue among Ukraine’s backers. This past summer’s Ukrainian counter-offensive did not yield the desired breakthrough. The conflict has settled into a static war of position, very costly in men and materiel. Shortages of certain munitions have become acute, while both sides have adapted their tactics to minimize their adversary’s advantages. As another winter approaches, the thousand-kilometer front line appears to be all but frozen in place.

Despite this stalemate, Ukrainian morale remains high. To be sure, there have been scattered signs of fraying nerves, including a demonstration by soldiers’ wives calling for time limits to be placed on combat tours. One general admitted that the counter-offensive had been a disappointment, only to be rebuked by President Zelensky, and some key ministers and high-ranking officers have been sacked. But by and large Ukrainians seem to accept the need for continued sacrifice and to retain confidence in their government.

Elsewhere, however, battle fatigue has set in. Two Russian radio hosts placed a call to Italian premier Giorgia Meloni during which they pretended to be representatives of the “African Union Commission.” They elicited from Meloni the statement that “everybody” is tired of the war in Ukraine and “seeking a way out,” which, given the current state of battle, would likely mean the surrender of a substantial portion of Ukrainian territory. Italy, where Meloni’s Lega coalition partner has never supported the war, is perhaps the place where opposition is most widely debated, but it is hardly the only site of growing war-weariness and dissent. In Germany, the AfD, which has seen its support increase as the number of Ukrainian refugees rises, has called for a negotiated settlement. Meanwhile, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who openly supports Russia, sent representatives to Washington to persuade Republican lawmakers to oppose further military assistance to Ukraine, while President Zelensky simultaneously sought continued U.S. support. Orban also successfully used a threat to veto a new aid package for Ukraine to extract €10 billion in structural funds that had previously been blocked as a sanction for flouting EU rules. In the end, a united front by other EU leaders overcame Orban’s effort to block aid to Ukraine, but this encouraging development was overshadowed by the apparent unwillingness of Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives to authorize additional war funding.

From the beginning of the war, French president Emmanuel Macron has evinced a “realist”—or is it a Gaullist?—conviction that, Russia being a great power while Ukraine is not, Russian demands will have to be satisfied to some (unspecified) extent. He may be right, especially if U.S. assistance is curtailed. Ukraine’s battlefield performance to this point has been nothing short of remarkable, but pressure for an end is building. It is no doubt unwise, however, even for “realists” like Macron, to expect Putin to negotiate in earnest as long as the prospect of a Trump victory remains. The carnage will therefore continue. Putin recently enlisted far-right US news commentator Tucker Carlson as his messenger to deliver an offer of a negotiated end to the war–but an end that would leave all territory currently occupied by Russia permanently in Russian hands. So far there are no takers.

To be continued ….

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