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The Sick Man of Europe Is Europe

Posted by hkarner - 29. Mai 2019

Date: 28-05-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal By Josef Joffe

The EU’s election results show the Continent is far from realizing its dreams of becoming a superpower.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage

Two takeaways from Sunday’s European Union elections: First, the centrists—the moderate right and left—were decimated. For the first time since 1979, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, the reliably pro-European bloc, no longer hold the majority in the 751-member European Parliament. Second, the far right—the Europe bashers and nationalists—scored big, increasing their take to about 170 seats. In Britain, the Brexit Party trounced both Labour and the Tories. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally outpolled President Emmanuel Macron’s party and its allies.

The numbers mirror the shifting tectonics of European politics, which are pushing against the “ever-closer union” enshrined in the European Community’s founding treaties. It was a noble and not wild-eyed dream. Relentlessly expanding from the original six member states to 28, the EU boasted everything that could go into the making of a superpower. Its gross domestic product is only $2 trillion behind America’s and $5 trillion ahead of China’s. The EU fields as many soldiers as the U.S. does, and its population outstrips America’s by nearly 200 million. Yet in global clout, the EU is a waif in a world dominated by Washington, Beijing and Moscow.

Nor will the fates favor the EU anytime soon. For all its splendor, Europe has not been able to transmute its magnificent riches into strategic muscle, and this for three reasons.

First, as the rise of the nationalist right shows, the EU suffers from deepening ideological divisions. In the east, Poland, Hungary and the rest are jealously defending the sovereignty they had lost first to Hitler, then to Stalin. They cherish subsidies from Brussels but will not yield to what they see as diktats of liberal goodness.Shifting our gaze west and south, Italy has turned into a bizarre political animal ruled by a coalition of right- and left-wing populists—the League and the Five Star Movement. They, too, are happily ensconced in the EU, counting on a bailout when they’re no longer capable of servicing their astronomical debt. But they will gladly deploy anti-European rhetoric to score points with Italy’s electorate.

The second ailment is the loss of leadership. It’s an article of faith that Europe will achieve ever-closer union only if France and Germany—the “couple” or “engine”—show the way. Alas, the two are rivals, not spouses. Berlin insists on fiscal discipline and labor-market reforms. It worries obsessively that the eurozone will degenerate into a “transfer union” in which Germany foots the bill for “Club Med,” as Southern Europe is disparagingly called, with its culture of debt and spending.

Mr. Macron would like nothing better than to get his hand into the German till. Unable to re-energize the French economy and beset by the “yellow vest” protests, he pushes for a European finance minister and budget to spread billions of euros from Germany to the south. He resents Germany’s eternal trade surpluses, urging Berlin to raise wages and boost spending. Naturally, Mr. Macron sees Brexit as a blessing. With Britain out, Berlin may not have enough support to block French ambitions.

Add the irreducible clash of political creeds: French statism and centralism vs. German federalism, fiscal rigor and market-oriented economics. Reflecting their different histories, the twain shall not meet. They will fight out modest deals, as they have done for 60 years, but that doesn’t make for joint leadership. Nor would the smaller members of the union submit to the two if they ever did agree on the big-ticket items.

The third problem is Europe’s pallid role on the global stage. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, the EU keeps punching below its weight. Power politics and geoeconomics are back. Vladimir Putin’s Russia keeps muscling in, and Donald Trump’s America treats European allies with contempt, and none more so than Germany’s Angela Merkel. Mr. Trump’s punitive tariffs and routine threats to rob Europe of its American security blanket alternately rile and frighten the European NATO members.

Given its fabulous wealth, Europe should be able to do without Big Brother from across the sea. But that requires e pluribus unum, which Europe cannot achieve with its 2,000-year national history. America’s protection since World War II has acted as a sweet poison. Over the past 70 years, the Europeans have enjoyed security at a large discount and unlearned the arts of war. And why not? The EU did fine as a “civilian power” and “empire by invitation” that would deploy trade instead of tanks and eschew power politics in favor of rules-based multilateralism.

This benign past is being deconstructed by trade wars, “America first,” Russia’s neoimperialism, and China’s global ambitions. Rudderless and rent by internal divisions, the EU is a bystander. The better news is that Europe is at last rearming after cashing in its peace dividends since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago. It may take another 30 years to turn a committee of 28—or 27—into a strategic player that gets some respect.

Mr. Joffe is an editorial council member at Die Zeit in Hamburg and a fellow of Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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