The Cable

A Critical Month Ahead for Europe

Will the union show it can bend or will it begin to break?


For 60 years, the preservation of European unity and stability was a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

And then came U.S. President Donald Trump, who applauded the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union and now may appoint Ted Malloch, a man who considers the EU to be anti-American, as the U.S. envoy to Brussels.

European leaders have responded by saying that Trump is a threat to Europe, and that, while they must work with the U.S., so, too, must they be masters of their own destiny.

Strong rhetoric, certainly. But a month from Thursday, on March 9, European leaders will meet for a summit. Three key events in the next month may determine the future of Europe for many months after.

The first is Brexit. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government reportedly recently moved up the date to begin negotiating the U.K.’s exit from the EU to March 7, ahead of the summit.

On Thursday, the House of Commons voted 494 to 122 in favor of May’s government’s Brexit bill, which gives May’s government the authority to notify the EU of the intention to withdraw and begin negotiations. The bill now goes to the House of Lords. Parliament is expected to approve the bill by May’s March 7 deadline.

May has already said she will be pursuing a “hard Brexit,” one that privileges limited migration into the United Kingdom over remaining in the single European market. European leaders know this. So, too, they know the formal talks to leave the EU will start ahead of their summit. Whether they know how they will respond and conduct themselves during negotiations is still to be seen.

The second is a statement made by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday. She said Europe may be open to letting countries commit to being in the Union at “different speeds.” To some extent, as Stefan Lehne of Carnegie Europe told Foreign Policy, this already exists: there are, for example, more EU members in the Schengen area (between which individuals can travel without passports) than in the eurozone (which shares a common currency). Reforming European treaties to allow more of the same sort of flexibility could prevent another Brexit, he argues.

However, Lehne does not believe substantive action will be taken on this anytime soon because this is an election year for several European countries and leaders will be loath to fuel Euroskepticism. Nevertheless, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have already come out in support of a two-speed solution. Other countries, like Poland, will likely worry that two speeds will leave them behind. It is worth watching whether European leaders weigh in on Merkel’s proposal ahead of the summit and how their message resonates with their electorates.

Which brings us to the third event: The Dutch national election. The Netherlands’s elections, which will be held on March 15, are the first of three (possibly four, if Italy has elections this year) elections this year that will determine whether continental Europe will go the way of Brexit and Trump. So far, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch anti-Muslim Freedom Party, has managed to drag political rhetoric across parties to the right. Prime Minister Mark Rutte recently told immigrants to “act normal or leave.”

How various Dutch politicians incorporate Euroskepticism or Europhilia into the last month of campaigning — and how the Dutch electorate responds on March 15 — will be the first test of whether Europe will forge its destiny as a union that can hold for another 60 years — or whether it won’t hold together at all.

Photo credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a foreign affairs reporter at BuzzFeed. She was a staff writer at Foreign Policy from 2016-2018. @emilyctamkin

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