Transatlantic relations are not in a good shape. While Trump’s hostility toward the European Union is a contributing factor, it is not the only or even the most important one. For the partnership’s long-term survival, what happens in Europe matters at least as much as the outcome of the November election in the United States.
Of course, the partnership is not viable if Washington refuses to accept the obvious: Since Europeans are committed to the European project, any U.S. administration’s hints at ignoring or undermining it will be met with distrust on the other side of the Atlantic. Thinking that the transatlantic alliance can thrive without accepting that the EU is an important part of the picture is just as fantastical as proposing, as Senator Hawley did last week, to abolish the World Trade Organization and to seek new economic arrangements “in concert with other free nations,” as if other free nations cannot wait to work with the Americans once the United States destroys the bedrock of the global trading system.
But even if the populist fever breaks on the political right and the disdain for the EU goes away, American bemusement at what the EU is and what it does will likely linger. After all, the latter crosses partisan lines and predates the Trump era, as Victoria Nuland’s famous phone call illustrates. More importantly, it cannot be reduced solely to a lack of information or understanding about the value that the EU brings to the table.
Rather, the bemusement and the frustrations reflect the perennial question of whom one calls if one wants to speak to Europe. On hard security in particular, it would be a fool’s errand for any U.S. administration to try to engage with the EU first, as opposed to national governments. The notable (and rare!) European successes, such as the counterterrorism operations in the Sahel or naval policing of the Strait of Hormuz, have not been EU-driven but resulted from ad-hoc coalitions of national governments, including the UK.
On subjects that are of interest to the United States and on which the EU would be naturally positioned to play a large role—think trade relations with China, or neighborhood policy—divisions within the EU often stand in the way. On energy, U.S. initiatives are welcomed in Eastern Europe, where many are concerned about dependence on Russian gas—but less so in the West, which is preoccupied with decarbonization. It is always regrettable to see Trump deepen existing divisions and undercut key European leaders, especially when doing so advances no strategic interest of the United States and when his running commentary on Brexit or immigration echoes the propaganda of hostile powers. However, neither he nor the United States are the primary reason why divisions between EU countries exist and why it is often difficult to bridge them.
As a result, the bloc is facing a chicken-and-egg problem. On the one hand, it demands that the world, especially the United States, take it seriously. On the other, it does relatively little to warrant that recognition. The reason foreign powers deal with the U.S. federal government and not with state governors is practical, not ideological or intellectual. Washington can get things done that states cannot. Likewise, the moment Brussels demonstrates that it can do things that national governments cannot, both its friends and adversaries will listen.
Unfortunately, following a sequence of mediocrities occupying the post of the EU ’s High Representative for Affairs and Security Policy, the EU’s common foreign and defense policy is often reduced to consensus items reflecting the lowest common denominator and lofty appeals to values. The root of the problem lies in the character of the Union. It is far more than just an international organization, but far less than an effective federation. Furthermore, thanks to decades of U.S. military hegemony, it also likes to think of itself as a vegetarian—as a structure that by its very existence transcends the nation state and petty power competition. Supposedly, we are told by some European foreign policy thinkers, “in order to turn into a fully-fledged carnivore, the EU would have to change its very nature. The EU was built as a counter-model to the great power politics that plunged the European continent into two devastating world wars.”
One is perhaps supposed to take solace in the example of Shrek, the New Zealand merino sheep that became world-famous after avoiding being caught and shorn for six years. “You don’t have to turn hard to survive the wolves, just be really, really soft and fluffy,” some quipped on social media. Except, of course, there are no wolves in New Zealand.
Becoming more ruthless does not mean giving up on the EU’s values—quite the contrary. An important part of the needed ruthlessness has to do with the enforcement of shared values internally. Allowing Viktor Orban to turn Hungary into an authoritarian regime while being on the receiving end of billions of Euros of funds from the EU budget is a sure-fire way for the EU not to live up to its aspirations. It also ensures that Western lectures on the rule of law, democracy, and European values ring hollow to the ears of politicians and citizens in Serbia, Montenegro, or Ukraine.
Conversely, having principles and values does not mean sanctimony or paralysis. The world, including the EU’s immediate neighborhood, may never rise to European standards. Still, not engaging with it in a practical way and not standing up for the EU’s common interests is self-defeating. For all the self-flagellation over the somewhat cynical deal on refugees struck with Turkey’s Erdogan in 2016, the agreement fixed a problem that nobody else had been able to address. That the bloc was ready to do whatever it took to defend its interests was a good sign, not a betrayal of European values, even if it happened after running out of other options. The same logic applies to Brexit negotiations, sanctions against Russia, or the “trade deal” reached in 2018 between President Trump and the European Commission’s President Juncker—though largely vacuous, it allowed the U.S. President to claim victory and thus neutralize, at least for some time, his inkling to hit the EU hard with tariffs.
All those examples suggest that the bloc can grow sharp elbows. To be taken seriously, the EU needs to put them on display more often. One obvious area is trade and the setting of international standards, revitalized in the aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum under Cecilia Malmström’s leadership. But again, more ruthlessness is needed, particularly as trade is an area of policy that member states delegated to the EU level. As a result, the Wallonian parliament shouldn’t have any more say over EU trade deals with Canada than the regional council of Waterloo, Ontario.
The big prize for the current Commission, especially if there is a new administration in Washington, would be the return to a big transatlantic free trade agreement, which could be eventually open to other democracies. The imperative is not purely economic but also geopolitical—it matters whether the rules of the game in what remains of the 21st century are going to be set by Western democracies or whether the West will crumble and fall prey to Chinese economic mercantilism.
The alternative to this scenario is not only that the EU will remain largely irrelevant as a geopolitical actor, but also that the transatlantic partnership will eventually wither. While Eastern Europeans in particular benefit enormously from NATO’s security umbrella, there is just not enough in the traditional transatlantic cooperation on matters of defense, energy, and engaging with the Balkans and post-Soviet world to keep Americans interested over the long term. Already, in places such as Kosovo, the current administration sees no point in coordinating with the EU. To prevent the transatlantic partnership from becoming a shadow of its former self, the EU must make itself indispensable. Knowing what it wants and being ready to throw its weight around to get it would be a good first step.