How Europe can re-unite after Donald

12.06.17 Publication:

Following President Trump’s first visit to Europe, the Western alliance looks frayed and fragile. Not only has the leading country of the West elected a dysfunctional narcissist as its president, but he has threatened his closest allies with trade war, has failed to endorse the mutual defence clause of NATO, has given vocal support to an anti-NATO and anti-EU candidate, Marine Le Pen, in the French elections, and this past week has withdrawn America from global climate accords signed less than two years ago in Paris. What should Europe do? The answer: learn from Marshal Ferdinand Foch.

Marshal Foch was a great French general who famously declared during the Battle of the Marne in 1914: “My centre is giving way, my right is retreating – situation excellent, I am attacking”.

It is time, in other words, for Europe to take the initiative. That is what Chancellor Angela Merkel meant on May 25th when she deliberately shocked Germans by declaring that it was time for Europe to “take our fate into our own hands”. This was also the underlying meaning of Emmanuel Macron’s very deliberate white knuckle handshake with President Trump during his European visit, as well as his frank castigation of President Vladimir Putin a few days later when the Russian and French presidents met at Versailles.

During the nearly ten years since the global financial crisis began, and in the year since Britain voted to leave the EU, European governments have shown great political will. Their divisions and economic weakness made it impossible to make forward progress, but they have proven tenacious in preserving and protecting the euro and the institutions of the EU. Now, however, they need to become politically bold, not just tenacious.

Their own future, as well as that of the West and all that it stands for, depends on their willingness to act boldly during the next several years. EU countries’ economic weakness in the wake of the financial crisis is what has made European countries too divided to face up properly to the wars and refugee flows from across the Mediterranean, and vulnerable to the bullying efforts of Russia to break international law by redrawing borders in Ukraine and the Caucasus.

Yet Europe, above all, has achieved prosperity and security since 1945 thanks to the core values of western liberalism: openness, to trade, ideas, people and technology, both within Europe and the world as a whole; equality, of political rights, of welfare, of citizenship, protected by the rule of law, that has maintained social stability; and last but not least the global alliance of likeminded, open, democratic nations that have stood together to build and defend international law and fair rules of the game in trade and much else.

Our own failures in allowing the 2008 financial crisis, the worst in 80 years, to happen are chiefly responsible for our current malaise. They too are the reason for the election of Donald Trump and for Brexit. But that is no reason to turn our backs on openness, equality and international alliances: just the reverse. To rebuild our prosperity and security, we need to restore those values.

The meaning of Trump’s visit and of his withdrawal from the climate accords is that America cannot be depended upon to lead this process. It is going through its own battle of ideas over the choice of liberalism or protectionism, of being open or closed, internationalist or isolationist. Europe must keep the door open to the United States in the hope that it will eventually return to full participation in liberal, western collaboration. But meanwhile, it must defend those liberal values and make itself stronger.

Can it do so? Chancellor Merkel’s remarks are a positive sign that it can, even if they can be dismissed by cynics as just electoral rhetoric. If Europeans are really to “take our fate into our own hands” it will require a shift of German policy away from just setting rules and towards a more active, generous approach: a proper EU public investment programme, for example, outside the normal fiscal constraints, to build infrastructure as well as a smart electricity “supergrid”; an EU defence programme that substantially increases spending on defence as well as building real collaboration, along the lines proposed by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs; a sovereign debt management deal that allows Greece out of its current trap.

There are two reasons for thinking that this can happen. The first is the fact that, assuming she is re-elected Chancellor in September, Mrs Merkel will surely then be beginning her final term of office. She will have only history’s verdict standing before her. The second reason is Emmanuel Macron. For the first time in decades, France has a president that the Germans can believe in, even if they do not agree with everything he says.

Italy must play its role too. No one will expect Italy to be a leader of European progress or collaboration after its general elections, but its EU neighbours do hope that it will neither be an obstacle to such progress nor a potential time-bomb. It needs a government able to make the case for European collaboration, while also doing what everyone hopes President Macron will be doing: reforming the domestic economy, removing obstacles to business and investment, making the justice system work.

A generous, bolder Germany; a positive, credible France; a stable, progressive, reforming Italy: that would be a fine formula for rebuilding European strength and saving the West. If, in four years time such a Europe can greet a new, more internationalist American president on his or her first visit, then the future of the West will again look rosy.