BERLIN – After the shock of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016, this will be a decisive year for Europe. Upcoming parliamentary elections in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and possibly Italy will decide whether the European Union will hold together, or whether it will disintegrate under the neo-nationalist wave sweeping the West.
Meanwhile, the Brexit negotiations will begin in earnest, providing a glimpse of the future of the EU-UK relationship. And Trump’s inauguration on January 20 may someday be remembered as a watershed moment for Europe.
Judging by Trump’s past statements about Europe and its relationship with the US, the EU should be preparing for some profound shocks. The incoming US president, an exponent of the new nationalism, does not believe in European integration.
Here he has an ally in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long tried to destabilize the EU by supporting nationalist forces and movements in its member states. If the Trump administration supports or turns a blind eye to those efforts, the EU – sandwiched between Russian trolls and Breitbart News – will have to brace itself for challenging times indeed.
The consequences for the EU will be even more serious if, in addition to setting the US relationship with Russia on a new foundation, Trump continues to call into question America’s security guarantee for Europe. Such a move would be at the expense of NATO, which has institutionalized the US security umbrella for more than six decades. Europeans would suddenly find themselves standing alone against a Russia that has increasingly employed military means to challenge borders, such as in Ukraine, and to reassert its influence – or even hegemony – over Eastern Europe.
We will soon know what comes next for NATO, but much harm has already been done. Security guarantees are not just a matter of military hardware. The guarantor also must project a credible message that it is willing to defend its allies whenever necessary. Thus, such arrangements depend largely on psychology, and on a country’s trustworthiness vis-à-vis friends and foes alike. When that credibility is damaged, there is a growing risk of provocation – and, with it, the threat of escalation into larger crises, or even armed conflict.
Given this risk, the EU should now shore up what it has left with respect to NATO and focus on salvaging its own institutional, economic, and legal integration. But it should also look to its member states to provide a second security option.
The EU itself is based on soft power: it was not designed to guarantee European security, and it is not positioned in its current form to confront a hard-power challenge. This means that it will fall to its two largest and economically strongest countries, France and Germany, to bolster Europe’s defense. Other countries such as Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, and Poland will also have a role to play, but France and Germany are indispensable.
Of course, living in continental Europe means having Russia as a neighbor, and neighborly relations, generally speaking, should be based on peace, cooperation, and mutual respect (especially when one’s neighbor is a nuclear power). But Europeans cannot harbor any illusions about Russia’s intent. The Kremlin approaches foreign policy as a zero-sum game, which means that it will always prioritize military strength and geopolitical power over cooperative security arrangements.
Russia does not view weakness or the lack of a threat from its neighbors as a basis for peace, but rather as an invitation to extend its own sphere of influence. So, power asymmetry in Eastern Europe will lead only to instability. If Europe wants a stable, enduring peace, it first must ensure that it is taken seriously, which is clearly not the case today. Europe can credibly strengthen its security only if France and Germany work together toward the same goal, which they will have an opportunity to do after their elections this year.
EU diplomats used to murmur off the record that Germany and France would never see eye to eye on military and financial issues, owing to their different histories and cultures. But if security conditions take a turn for the worse, that may no longer be the case. Indeed, reaching a compromise on both sides of the Rhine should not be so difficult: France undoubtedly has the experience to lead on defense; and the same goes for Germany on financial matters.
If pursuing this European security option prompts the US to renew its own security guarantee, so much the better. Meanwhile, the EU should also forge a post-Brexit cooperative strategic arrangement with the UK, whose geopolitical position and security interests will remain unchanged.
The old EU developed into an economic power because it was protected beneath the US security umbrella. But without this guarantee, it can address its current geopolitical realities only by developing its own capacity to project political and military power. Six decades after the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community, history and current developments are pushing France and Germany to shape Europe’s future once again.