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What’s Behind the EU’s Decline

Posted by hkarner - 21. Januar 2020

Date: 20‑01‑2020

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Losing Britain is only part of the reason Europe faces major challenges ahead

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is leading Britain out of the EU.

At the end of this month, the European Union will shrink for the first time in its history. It will lose its second‑largest economy and almost an eighth of its population.

One of its two most capable military powers will depart the bloc and with it a voice that has traditionally supported a strong role for markets in the European economy, resisted protectionism and looked to expand the bloc to new countries.

Britain’s last day in the EU on Jan. 31 “will be a tough and emotional day,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a speech in London this month. She added, “Brexit will not resolve any of the existing challenges either for the European Union or the U.K.”

While Brexit will allow Britain to plow a different furrow from the EU in ways that many in the U.K. view as advantageous, for others, splitting the bloc can only accelerate Europe’s declining geopolitical relevance.

Some of that decline is inevitable: In the 21st century, size does matter. Mrs. von der Leyen pointed out that in 1950, three of the 10 most populous countries in the world were in Europe: Germany, Italy and the U.K. Now, only one—Germany—is in the top 20.

Britain’s departure is also happening as an earthquake is shaking the international order. A period of global U.S. dominance in which a large majority of governments by and large followed rules laid down by U.S.‑led international institutions such as the World Trade Organization is giving way to a period of open superpower competition.

“The global environment from a European perspective has become very challenging. We have superpower rivalry between the U.S. and China, and there is a real question of where Europe will be left within that,” says Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, a think tank based in Brussels.

Under President Trump, the U.S. has disdained the rules‑based global order that his predecessors fashioned and on which Europe has depended. The Trump administration also has called into question longstanding defense and commercial ties with U.S. allies.

Some of President Trump’s complaints about Europe aren’t new and won’t melt away if he fails to win a second term later this year. American leaders have long complained about European unwillingness to pay a fair share of the EU’s own defense costs.

But the current president has increased the stakes, raising questions about the U.S. security guarantee over Europe and about the longevity of the international trading system. His ire has been particularly focused on Germany, Europe’s largest economy and biggest trading power, which Mr. Trump has suggested has taken advantage of the U.S.

President Trump’s main priority has been China, says Princeton University history professor Harold James. “Europe is peripheral to that, and the U.K. is a tiny bit of it,” he says.

Even if Mr. Trump is voted out of office this year, the American focus on Asia and the Pacific is unlikely to change. Back in 2011, President Obama described the U.S. as a “Pacific power” and described the Asia‑Pacific region as a “top priority” of U.S. security policy.

The challenge for Europe—and its helplessness—in the new global order is nowhere more obvious than in Washington’s current confrontation with Iran following the U.S. killing of Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani.

The risks to Europe are significant. The three main European powers—France, Germany and Britain—were joint architects of a 2015 agreement aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a pact that has been abandoned by the Trump administration. Tehran has also said it would no longer respect the nuclear enrichment limits it agreed to under the pact, and the three have triggered the deal’s dispute‑settlement mechanism, a step that could lead to the reimposition of international sanctions on Tehran.

Meanwhile, despite the rapid approach of Brexit, France, Germany and Britain all have held to a broadly similar line since Gen. Soleimani’s assassination, not criticizing the U.S. but urging de‑escalation of the crisis. Of the three, the U.K. has been marginally more willing to echo U.S. talking points about the risks that Gen. Soleimani posed. Britain also has been more open than France or Germany to replacing the nuclear deal with a more comprehensive pact favored by President Trump.

But all three also were left in the position of hoping President Trump doesn’t further escalate the crisis in a way that forces them to condemn his actions and widen a trans‑Atlantic rift.

Perhaps the clearest articulation of Europe’s predicament has come from President Emmanuel Macron of France. In an interview with the Economist magazine late last year, he described Europe as wearing itself out over Brexit while “an American ally [is] turning its back on us so quickly on strategic issues” even as authoritarian powers—Turkey and Russia—were re‑emerging on Europe’s doorstep and turmoil continued in the Arab world.

If Europe can’t think of itself as a global power, he said, it will disappear.

Yet, while Mr. Macron’s vision for more European defense autonomy includes the U.K., it isn’t clear that the Continent can make itself into a global player.

 In one sense, Britain’s departure from the bloc could increase the cohesion of the EU. Since joining the EU 47 years ago, Britain has always been an awkward partner, blocking or delaying many European initiatives, such as its efforts to build an EU defense strategy.

Mr. Zuleeg points out that other EU governments often hid behind the U.K.’s objections to greater European integration. “I think that on certain questions the U.K. has acted as a brake, but I’m not sure it’s the main reason we haven’t seen progress,” he says.

As the EU expanded to 28 countries—soon to be 27—the membership became more disparate and unified action more difficult. Bitter divisions between Eastern and Western members emerged over resistance in the east to absorbing refugees, and western concerns about a perceived drift to authoritarianism in countries such as Hungary and Poland. Member‑nation governments resisted ceding authority to Brussels.

Mrs. von der Leyen came to office in November promising a “geopolitical commission,” but that is only going to happen if the member states agree that it can.

A further challenge comes in the new frictions between France under Mr. Macron and Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political career is in its twilight. The difference in their personalities—Mr. Macron’s impatience and strategic anxiety contrasting with Ms. Merkel’s natural caution—is only one reason why “the Franco‑German relationship isn’t working as well as it has in the past,” says Mr. Zuleeg.

It isn’t clear what will happen when Ms. Merkel goes. Europe needs to become a global actor, says Mr. Zuleeg, to fulfill its priorities at home, such as its effort to make the EU carbon‑neutral by 2050.

For this to happen, Germany will have to find a global voice, he says. But that would require a “major change” in a country that has resisted adopting a leadership role since World War II.


Mr. Fidler, based in London, is the U.K. and Brexit editor of The Wall Street Journal. Email him at stephen.fidler@wsj.com.

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