Shadow Government

Europe Is Back

Long deemed strategically irrelevant by the United States, the EU is poised to become a major geopolitical power. Washington should take note.

A trompe l’oeil shows two workers painting the European Union flag on the side of a building in Paris on May 23.
A trompe l’oeil shows two workers painting the European Union flag on the side of a building in Paris on May 23. Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

For the past two decades, the United States has essentially ignored the European Union. Through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, Washington treated the union as an afterthought at best and, as under the current administration, sometimes even a foe. This is a profound strategic mistake. With the selection of Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, to be the next head of the European Commission, the United States should seize the opportunity to build a new lasting partnership with the EU.

The recent European parliamentary elections have shown that Europe’s political center of gravity is shifting from national capitals to Brussels and the European Union. They saw turnout rise for the first time ever, surpassing 50 percent. The boost was driven by a highly charged debate about the EU’s future, pitting far-right nationalists looking to devolve power from the EU against unionists looking to strengthen it. In the end, a robust showing from pro-EU parties, particularly the Greens, staved off a feared far-right surge. As the Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum observed following the elections, “the continent is becoming a single political space.”

The data bears that out. Whereas in 2016, there were at least 15 political parties across Europe campaigning for a referendum to leave the EU, today, as Susi Dennison of the European Council on Foreign Relations points out, “that message is practically nonexistent.” Instead, she says, “in an ironic twist, nationalist parties are joining hands across the EU … demanding a ‘Common-Sense Europe’: not the end of the European Union but a changed European Union.”

In other words, the EU isn’t going anywhere. It has survived the global economic crash, the rise of far-right populists, and Brexit, which far from signaling the beginning of the end, as many observers on both sides of the Atlantic feared, has served as a deterrent to any other country thinking about leaving. The EU is driving Europe’s future, yet Washington has barely noticed.

Washington’s conception of Europe has evolved little since the 1990s, when wars in the Balkans and NATO expansion consumed U.S. foreign policy. Following the 9/11 attacks, Washington’s attention shifted away from Europe to the Middle East, counterterrorism, and eventually the rise of China. Europe, meanwhile, increasingly came to be viewed as strategically irrelevant. Washington was annoyed by its anemic defense contributions to NATO and ambivalent about its integration project, the European Union, which U.S. policymakers saw as no more than another regional organization. Other than the State Department’s foreign service officers paid to do so, few in the U.S. government gave the EU much thought.

Yet the United States is finding Europe geopolitically relevant once more. Not only does the United States need strong allies as it enters an era of great-power competition, but Europe is also once again itself contested, with Russia and China seeking influence in certain European states to undermine the continent’s unity and therefore the trans-Atlantic alliance. But as Washington looks back to Europe, it finds itself watching a continent it hardly recognizes. The United States has missed Europe’s profound transformation through EU-led integration.

Europe has radically transformed since the 1990s, when Washington was last consumed with its future. The EU now has all the trappings of a state: an executive, a government, a central bank, a parliament, and a capital. And it is increasingly acting like one. This gradual shift has also seen the EU slowly but surely carve out a presence in world affairs. It acts as a powerful, united trade block and has negotiated new trade agreements with Mexico and Japan during U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. Europe, with some 500 million people and the second-largest economy in the world, also has the ability to set global standards, just as it did in establishing data privacy standards for U.S. technology companies in 2018. It has also led efforts to address climate change and played a major role during the negotiation of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

The EU has shown that when it can act as one on the world stage, it can have an impact. This has not been lost on Russia or China, which are both engaging in fairly aggressive efforts to influence certain European states, leaders, and business sectors. For instance, China has set up the 16+1 dialogue with smaller Central and Eastern European nations including 11 EU members, such as Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as non-EU Balkan states, like Serbia. Despite the multilateral-sounding framework, the format is really a Chinese-driven effort to reach bilateral economic deals that enable China to expand its influence in Europe. China’s efforts already started paying off in 2016 when Hungary and Greece, both eager recipients of Chinese investment, watered down EU efforts to condemn Chinese actions in the South China Sea. Russia is similarly seeking to sow discord and amplify the rising far-right within Europe. Both Chinese and Russian efforts are driven by a concern that a united and more assertive EU could become a powerful force for democratic and liberal values on the global stage.

This should give Washington pause. If its rivals are seeking to divide and undermine the EU, shouldn’t the United States be seeking to do the opposite? Instead, the Trump administration is mirroring Russia and China’s approach by encouraging Brexit, lending support to anti-EU leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and engaging in petty diplomatic slights against the EU. These behaviors have been met with widespread disapproval in Washington policy circles and on Capitol Hill, but there is little introspection within Washington about what an alternative approach to Europe would entail. As Gérard Araud, the recently departed French ambassador to the United States, explained, there is a misconception that “when Trump leaves power, everything will go back to business as usual. That’s the dream of Washington, D.C.”

But there is no ready-made reset button for Washington to press. The Trump presidency has caused Europe to question the United States’ dependability and spawned a vibrant debate about its future. But Washington’s problem is that it is not involved in this debate—because it is unfolding in the EU, not in NATO. And when Washington thinks of engaging Europe and the trans-Atlantic alliance, it thinks almost exclusively in terms of NATO. Primarily a military alliance, NATO does not encapsulate the full spectrum of issues up for debate across Europe. This does not mean Washington should ignore NATO or national capitals, but it needs to go where Europe’s center of gravity increasingly is, and that’s the EU.

The United States should start seeing the union as a united, cohesive, free, democratic, and potentially powerful ally on the world stage. It should want to build a more robust relationship that entails embracing the EU and supporting its rise onto the global stage. Fostering EU and trans-Atlantic unity on the tough issues should be the core thrust of U.S. diplomatic efforts. It should try to reach common U.S.-EU approaches to major challenges, including Russia, China, democratic decline, migration, corruption and money laundering, social media regulation, and economic prosperity. Any effective U.S. approach toward these issues either requires or is significantly aided by Europe’s support.

Inevitably, attempting to forge common EU positions and to encourage the EU to assert itself on the world stage will prove frustrating. But Washington should see the EU as a possible rising power. Its efforts won’t be dissimilar to those to cultivate relationships with other rising powers, such as with India, where incremental progress has been par for the course. Supporting the EU’s rise is a long-term effort that will be gradual and take time.

The American right will inevitably balk at such an effort, seeing the European Union as a potential counterbalancing force to the United States. They aren’t wrong to fret. A stronger EU will push back against many policies the American right supports, such as withdrawing from the Iran deal, pulling out of the Paris climate accord, or, previously, invading Iraq. And the world, and the liberal global order, will be a better place for it. This will be a feature of Europe’s rise, not a bug.

The peaceful unification and integration of Europe, as facilitated by the United States, is one of the United States’ greatest foreign-policy accomplishments. With external challenges on the horizon, the United States should stop fretting about Europe’s weakness and develop an approach that seeks to bolster the union’s cohesion. It’s time for the United States to embrace the European Union.

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served in the State Department from 2011 to 2017, including as a member of the policy planning staff and as a senior advisor to the undersecretary of arms control and international security.

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