Bogged down by a feckless political elite and deep structural flaws, the European Union will continue to hollow out
These are not happy times in Europe. The ongoing spectacle of a British political class hell-bent on performing political seppuku over Brexit continues to dominate the headlines. Regardless of Brexit’s final outcome, the damage done to Labour and Conservatives alike will change British politics for decades to come. It will alter party loyalties and shift the baseline expectations of the electorate. Most important, it will permanently color the perception of the elite’s competence to govern. Still, the political farce unfolding in London should not overshadow a more fundamental ongoing transformation: the hollowing out of the European Union.
The United Kingdom is not only Europe’s second-largest economy, but also the most powerful EU nation not part of the common currency zone. There was already an imbalance between the eurozone and the non-euro countries, and as Britain exits the Union, that imbalance will accelerate the process of Europe’s bifurcation.
As the essential political linkages that anchor the European project continue to fray, the quasi-federalist design articulated in the Lisbon Treaty is increasingly out of sync with Europe’s political realities. More important, it’s increasingly irrelevant to the rapidly changing security environment in and around the Continent. Europe has yet to fully recover from two shocks that have shaken it over the last ten-plus years. The first was the 2008 economic crisis, which exposed the eurozone’s fundamentally flawed construct: that of a centralized monetary policy paired with fiscal decisions left to individual governments. The second was the mishandling of the surge of immigration from the Middle East and North Africa in 2015-2016, which fractured the neoliberal political consensus across Europe and showed that the European Union was unable to secure its borders. In the aftermath, elite conversation in Europe has not addressed the fundamental structural weaknesses that these crises exposed, especially on immigration. Instead, the conversation has veered into a debate about liberal vs. illiberal values, as though populism were the cause of the two crises rather than a manifestation of the Union’s underlying problems.
To aggravate matters, Europe is heading for turbulent economic times that will fuel political instability and public discontent. The yellow vests protesting in France are not an isolated phenomenon. Their actions express a deepening and widespread dissatisfaction over stagnating economies. That discontent has already transformed the electoral map of Italy, and it is reshaping political landscapes across Europe. The jury is still out on whether Europe’s policy elites will be able to shake off their established assumptions about the ideal future of the European “megapolis” and instead confront the challenges of immigration, slow growth, and deepening structural deficits. Time is running short to face those challenges, for even Germany is looking at a potentially rocky economic path ahead.
But it is external security which presents a truly intractable problem for Europe. This is because the European Union is not structured to become a serious military actor, and it probably never will be. Thus far Europe has proved unable to come to grips with the depth of the challenge that a revisionist Russia and surging China pose to its future. Sure, leaders debate a “European Army” or an “Army of Europeans.” They have launched initiatives such as PESCO, CARD, and EDF that are meant to allow EU member-states to jointly plan, develop, and invest in shared military capability projects, so as to enhance the readiness of their forces. There has even been talk of building a “European aircraft carrier.” But no amount of institutional tinkering can address the fundamental reality that the European Union rests on pooled sovereignty. This structure by design makes it all but impossible to generate consensus about the Continent’s defense, beyond regional security considerations. Historically, this institutional deficiency in the common European project has been offset by the United States’ strategic guarantee to Europe. This guarantee by necessity presupposed that in NATO, the United States is primus inter pares, able in a time of crisis to lead the willing, but also to push the reluctant, into action. That dynamic played out during the Balkan wars.
The current state of flux in transatlantic relations undermines Europe’s ability to think and act cohesively. Some EU governments, including Germany and France, increasingly see the United States’ pressure on defense spending, Nord Stream 2, and tariffs as contributing to discord. Meanwhile others such as Poland, the Baltic States, and the Scandinavians seek a deeper strategic alliance with Washington against Russia. This leaves Europe even less capable of addressing the deteriorating security along its eastern and southern borders. In addition, the de facto demilitarization of Europe over the past two decades and the imminent EU departure of the United Kingdom, one of Europe’s few viable militaries, have left the Continent more dependent on the American military for its security than at any time since the end of the Cold War. At the same time, the Union’s inability to check Russia’s neo-imperial drive into Eastern Europe makes the United States even more the adjudicator of what the geostrategic landscape along the Continent’s eastern flank will look like in the next five years.
China arguably presents an even greater national security threat to Europe than does Russia. Beijing’s continental strategy has successfully leveraged Europe’s post-2008 stresses and the capital needs of poorer Europeans. It has done so through infrastructure investments and asset acquisition in Southeastern Europe and the Balkans, while also moving into the more developed economies of Central Europe. Now, Beijing is pushing into Europe’s West with strategic investments targeting technologies China finds difficult to acquire in the United States. The European Union is simply not structured nor sufficiently resourced to offset the growing financial pressure from China. Capital needs among smaller countries will continue to favor China, while even the largest economies, such as Germany, already find it difficult to resist Beijing’s targeted-acquisition strategy.
The EU legacy institutions no longer match the shifts in regional and global power distribution, nor are they suited to respond to the fracturing political consensus within individual states. It will not be easy for the United States to remain the military guarantor of Europe’s security in this rapidly changing geostrategic and political environment. If, instead of addressing the urgent need to become fully invested in rebuilding NATO, Europe continues to float ideas for security and defense structures of its own, it will become harder to keep the United States involved. Washington’s security needs in Asia and our own hemisphere require more attention all the time. The challenge for the United States in Europe is to ensure not just that extended deterrence against Russia holds along the eastern flank of NATO, but that China does not economically influence and control ever-greater portions of the Continent.
Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed here are his own.