Stephen M. Walt

The coming erosion of the European Union

I gave a talk in Washington the other day about the future of the EU and transatlantic relations more generally, and I thought FP readers might be interested in what I had to say.  Here’s a short summary of what I said.  I began with the rather obvious point that the highwater mark of Europe’s ...

Mark Renders/Getty Images
Mark Renders/Getty Images

I gave a talk in Washington the other day about the future of the EU and transatlantic relations more generally, and I thought FP readers might be interested in what I had to say.  Here’s a short summary of what I said. 

I began with the rather obvious point that the highwater mark of Europe’s global influence was past, and argued that it would be of declining strategic importance in the future. The logic is simple: After dominating global politics from roughly 1500 to 1900, Europe’s relative weight in world affairs has declined sharply ever since. Europe’s population is shrinking and aging, and its share of the world economy is shrinking too. For example, in 1900, Europe plus America produced over 50 percent of the world economy and Asia produced less than 20 percent. Today, however, the ten largest economies in Asia have a combined GDP greater than Europe or the United States, and the Asian G10 will have about 50 percent of gross world product by 2050.

Europe’s current fiscal woes are adding to this problem, and forcing European governments to reduce their already modest military capabilities even more. This isn’t necessarily a big problem for Europeans, however, because they don’t face any significant conventional military threats. But it does mean that Europe’s ability to shape events in other parts of the world will continue to decline.

Please note: I am not saying the Europe is becoming completely irrelevant, only that its strategic importance has declined significantly and that this trend will continue.

Second, I also argued that the highwater mark of European unity is also behind us. This is a more controversial claim, and it’s entirely possible that I’ll be proven wrong here. Nonetheless, there are several obvious reasons why the EU is going to have real trouble going forward.

The EU emerged in the aftermath of World War II. It was partly intended as a mechanism to bind European states together and prevent another European war, but it was also part of a broader Western European effort to create enough economic capacity to balance the Soviet Union.  Europeans were not confident that the United States would remain engaged and committed to their defense (and there were good reasons for these doubts), and they understood that economic integration would be necessary to create an adequate counterweight to Soviet power.

As it turned out, the United States did remain committed to Europe, which is why the Europeans never got serious about creating an integrated military capacity. They were willing to give up some sovereignty to Brussels, but not that much. European elites got more ambitious in the 1980s and 1990s, and sought to enhance Europe’s role by expanding the size of the EU and by making various institutional reforms, embodied in the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. This broad effort had some positive results — in particular, the desire for EU membership encouraged East European candidates to adopt democractic reforms and guarantees for minority rights — but the effort did not lead to a significant deepening in political integration and is now in serious trouble. 

Among other things, the Lisbon Treaty sought to give the positions of council president and High Representative for Foreign Affairs greater stature, so that Europe could finally speak with "one voice." Thus far, that effort has been something of a bust. The current incumbents — Herman von Rompuy of Belgium and Catherine Ashton of Britain — are not exactly politicians of great prominence or clout, and it is hardly surprising that it is national leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany that have played the leading roles in dealing with Europe’s current troubles. As has long been the case, national governments remain where the action is.

Today, European integration is threatened by 1) the lack of an external enemy, which removes a major incentive for deep cooperation, 2) the unwieldy nature of EU decision-making, where 27 countries of very different sizes and wealth have to try to reach agreement by consensus, 3) the misguided decision to create a common currency, but without creating the political and economic institutions needed to support it, and 4) nationalism, which remains a powerful force throughout Europe and has been gathering steam in recent years.

It is possible that these challenges will force the EU member-states to eventually adopt even deeper forms of political integration, as some experts have already advised. One could view the recent Franco-German agreement on coordinating economic policy in this light, except that the steps proposed by Merkel and Sarkozy were extremely modest. I don’t think the EU is going to fall apart, but prolonged stagnation and gradual erosion seems likely. Hence my belief that the heyday of European political integration is behind us.

Third, I argued that the glory days of transatlantic security cooperation also lie in the past, and we will see less cooperative and intimate security partnership between Europe and America in the future. Why do I think so?

One obvious reason is the lack of common external enemy. Historically, that is the only reason why the United States was willing to commit troops to Europe, and it is therefore no surprise that America’s military presence in Europe has declined steadily ever since the Soviet Union broke up. Simply put: there is no threat to Europe that the Europeans cannot cope with on their own, and thus little role for Americans to play.

In addition, the various imperial adventures that NATO has engaged in since 1992 haven’t worked out that well. It was said in the 1990s that NATO had to "go out of area or out of business," which is one reason it started planning for these operations, but most of the missions NATO has taken on since then have been something of a bust.  Intervention in the Balkans eventually ended the fighting there, but it took longer and cost more than anyone expected and it’s not even clear that it really worked (i.e., if NATO peacekeepers withdrew from Kosovo tomorrow, fighting might start up again quite soon).  NATO was divided over the war in Iraq, and ISAF’s disjointed effort in Afghanistan just reminds us why Napoleon always said he liked to fight against coalitions. The war in Libya could produce another disappointing result, depending on how it plays out. Transatlantic security cooperation might have received a new lease on life if all these adventures had gone swimmingly; unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. But this raises the obvious question: If the United States isn’t needed to protect Europe and there’s little positive that the alliance can accomplish anywhere else, then what’s it for?

Lastly, transatlantic security cooperation will decline because the United States will be shifting its strategic focus to Asia. The central goal of US grand strategy is to maintain hegemony in the Western hemisphere and to prevent other great powers from achieving hegemony in their regions. For the foreseeable future, the only potential regional hegemon is China. There will probably be an intense security competition there, and the United States will therefore be  deepening its security ties with a variety of Asian partners. Europe has little role to play in this competition, however, and little or no incentive to get involved. Over time, Asia will get more and more attention from the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and Europe will get less.  

This trend will be reinforced by demographic and generational changes on both sides of the Atlantic, as the percentage of Americans with strong ancestral connections to Europe declines and as the generation that waged the Cold War leaves the stage. So in addition to shifting strategic interests, some of the social glue that held Europe and America together is likely to weaken as well.

It is important not to overstate this trend — Europe and America won’t become enemies, and I don’t think intense security competition is going to break out within Europe anytime soon.  Europe and the United States will continue to trade and invest with each other, and we will continue to collaborate on a number of security issues (counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, counter-proliferation, etc.). But Europe won’t be America’s "go-to" partner in the decades ahead, at least not the way it once was.

This will be a rather different world than the one we’ve been accustomed to for the past 60 years, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Moreover, because it reflects powerful structural forces, there’s probably little we can do to prevent it. Instead, the smart response — for both Americans and Europeans — is to acknowledge these tendencies and adapt to them, instead of engaging in a futile effort to hold back the tides of history.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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