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An Uncertain Future: European Leadership Amid the US Retreat

Europe is in the throes of a leadership crisis. For signs of mounting concerns over a possible leadership vacuum, look no further than the recent Munich Security Conference, which wrapped up in mid-February. The official theme of this year’s conference – often thought of as a forum for the West to address its most pressing security concerns – was ironically titled “westlessness”. This title was intended to underscore the absence of European leadership in light of an increasingly precarious transatlantic alliance, the recent British withdrawal from the EU, and rising Chinese influence over the continent. At the conference, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid tribute to the strength of the Western alliance, yet to many his remarks seemed at odds with his administration’s frequent paeans to America-first foreign policy. And although Russia was not one of the foremost topics of discussion at the conference, the specter of Vladimir Putin, as always, looms over every dimension of European politics. The overarching concern, then, seems salient – the state European leadership is precarious. But the question remains: who will rescue the continent?

Europe is indeed awaiting its deliverer, but the prevailing tone of the Munich conference – fearmongering over China and bemoaning the US retreat – suggests that many believe what holds the continent together is something external to the continent itself. French President Emmanuel Macron disagrees. Recognizing the US withdrawal from European affairs, Macron at the conference placed emphasis on greater European leadership within the continent, noting that the, “era of the omnipresent American world policeman [is] visibly drawing to a close.” Since the dawn of the Cold War, Europe has often been perceived as an object in the perennial game of geopolitical tug-of-war between global superpowers, whether it be the United States, the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia, or a rising China. President Macron is correct to point out that Europe leaders ought to recognize the potential for independent European leadership, bolstered by a robust Franco-German alliance. But while the potential for such geopolitical agency surely exists, France and Germany have struggled to agree on a vision for European leadership and have been equally beset with a litany of domestic political difficulties. To realize a vision for autonomous European leadership, both countries would have to reconcile their differences and adequately address the dissent that blights their domestic political spheres.

Americans tend to perceive the transatlantic alliance as something inherent, built on sacrosanct ideological foundations capable of withstanding even the most erratic heads-of-state. This logic may have been more salient during the Cold War when the Soviet Union loomed as an existential threat. It would also consider the Trump administration’s isolationism an anomaly – a temporary setback in one of the most historically significant political alliances in the past few centuries. But the fault lines in the transatlantic alliance began to emerge long before the 2016 US Presidential Election. 

To trace the entire decline of the transatlantic alliance, one might first look to the 1990s, a decade which could very well be considered the apotheosis of the US-European axis – the Soviet Union had just crumbled, Western coalition forces definitively thwarted Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and China was not yet the economic force that it is now. In short, challenges to the transatlantic alliance were sparse in an era of Pax Americana. But at the turn of the millennium, the alliance’s vulnerabilities began to manifest. Consider the following 21st century developments: France and Germany spearheaded the staunch Western opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq, NATO interventions in Afghanistan and Libya proved to be disastrous, and the 2008 Financial Crisis undermined confidence in the institutions and consensus ideology that held the transatlantic alliance together. And while the long-term impacts of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic remain to be seen, it’s worth noting that thus far, the Trump administration has done little to coordinate a response with Europe and has moved aggressively to undermine the WHO. These instances of dissent, failure, and upheaval over the past two decades are clear evidence of the transatlantic alliance’s steady decline, vindicating President Macron’s call for a radical transformation in European leadership and discrediting the conviction that the Trump era approach to Europe is anomalous.

If a robust Franco-German alliance is to be the foundation on which modern European leadership is constructed, it is imperative that the two essential pillars of that foundation – France and Germany – reevaluate their more recent disputes. On the French side, President Macron’s plan for European reform has been criticized by both the German left and right. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has denounced Macron’s proposal to proliferate Europe’s military capacity while the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has long been averse to the French President’s calls for greater economic integration in the eurozone. Together, the German political establishment fears Macron’s expansive reform platform masks an underlying neo-Gaullist ambition to act unilaterally on European policy without German assent.

But it is not merely dissent that hinders cooperation between France and Germany. The seemingly perpetual domestic unrest in France, which has sprouted in opposition to Macron’s fiscal and economic reforms, has undermined the legitimacy with which President Macron approaches European reform. In late 2018, what would later be named the “yellow vest” protests swept across France in response to a proposed hike in fuel taxes that would have a disproportionate burden on the working class. While the beleaguered president would eventually acquiesce to the protestors’ demands, a new wave of protests flared up in December 2019 over Macron’s pension reform plan, which was similarly condemned for its perceived assault on union workers. Ignoring widespread outrage, the French government bypassed parliament to enact the proposal on February 29, fueling Macron’s right-wing populist opposition. 

Under Macron, France’s domestic political landscape has been fraught, to say the least. Yet, the French president has often responded to stalling domestic reform by reorienting his focus toward ambitious foreign policy goals and aggressive eurozone reform, both of which are only hindered by his domestic woes. Tied to Macron’s fiscal reforms was an attempt to curry favor with the German leadership, who had hoped Macron might curtail France’s rising deficit. But as public debt continues to rise and a beleaguered Macron continues to grapple with domestic unrest, the French president has undoubtedly lost some of his political clout in the EU, particularly in relation to Germany. Perhaps, then, it is time for Macron to alter his domestic fiscal calculus. At the Munich Security Conference, Macron spoke of the Franco-German alliance’s role in providing a “future perspective for [Europe’s] middle classes.” Surely this is a laudable goal, but perhaps the French president would first consider heeding the concerns of the middle class in his own country, rather than implementing new and very unpopular regressive taxes.

Yet Germany, too, has played a role in this fracturing alliance. Macron’s unilateral attempts to pursue European reform have, to some, been a consequence of perceived German inertia and resignation to the status quo. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is acutely sensitive to her carefully constructed moderate governing coalition, is hesitant to take any kind of disruptive action that could advantage the ascendant right-wing party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), before she resigns in 2021. With mounting pressure from the right as she approaches the end of her term, it’s no surprise Merkel has found herself in a kind political limbo, which comes at the expense of broader reform. But in the immediate wake of Brexit, which precipitated widespread concern of a faltering Europe, inertia on the part of the continent’s largest economy seems far from the appropriate response to reassuring the international community of European leadership. As fears of  “westlessness” abound, perhaps President Macron is right to question German complacency.  

The result of this tension is a self-fulfilling cycle: Macron points to German intransigence as a reason to pursue EU reform independently and Germany cites the dangers of unrestrained French ambition as justification for holding their ground. To reinforce the Franco-German axis, Macron ought to recognize the limits of unilateral reform rather than stoke German concerns of neo-Gaullism while Merkel takes a step outside of political complacency, even as her term nears its end. 

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic having caused the most extreme social and economic disruptions in recent memory, an absence of European leadership could very well hamper the continent’s emergence from this public health disaster. While the EU response to the COVID-19 outbreak has been largely atomized, an effective economic response will surely demand a greater degree of coordination. When the dust settles from the pandemic and the scale of the economic fallout is realized, France and Germany will be in position to lead the recovery, one that will hopefully correct the mistakes of the past. German-led austerity after 2008 unquestionably helped fuel Europe’s nationalist movements of the present, as those countries who suffered most blamed the EU for unfair treatment. Especially in the wake of Brexit and right-wing populist victories in Hungary and Poland, any post-COVID economic response that engenders widespread resentment among individual European nations could portend a total breakdown of the EU. The Trump Administration’s strategy du jour on Europe entails eliminating substantive contributions to the transatlantic alliance whilst holding the specter of China and Russia over European leaders’ heads to pressure them into remaining in the US camp. But perhaps these leaders don’t need to pick a side. The door to more autonomous leadership, underpinned by the Franco-German alliance, is open, and it has been for decades. To secure this leadership, both countries need to overcome their recent disputes and engage the other on Europe-wide reform, while setting a larger example of leadership by thoroughly addressing the popular dissent in their own countries. Otherwise, they may permanently risk the health of intra-European cooperation, particularly in this time of crisis.

Photo: Image via Wikimedia Commons (Lukas Barth-Tuttas)