Europe’s Post-Brexit Future Is Looking Scary

The continent is suddenly facing serious questions about its future role in world politics—and even in the trans-Atlantic relationship.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
The European Union flag is seen through a windshield covered with raindrops in Sofia, Bulgaria on May 15, 2006.
The European Union flag is seen through a windshield covered with raindrops in Sofia, Bulgaria on May 15, 2006. VALENTINA PETROVA/AFP via Getty Images

Elvis has left the building, and Britain has left the European Union. Although a few pundits claimed it would never actually occur, Brexit did in fact happen. The full ramifications won’t be known for some time, but the EU slogan of “ever-deeper union” clearly took a hit on Jan. 31.

This setback is the latest in a series of body blows that the EU has endured over the past two decades. The first was the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, where the EU proved unable to handle the conflict without calling in the United States. The next blow was the protracted eurozone crisis, which led to severe economic hardships in several countries, fueled considerable resentment between creditor and debtor nations, and ate up vast amounts of time and political capital. The third was the 2015 refugee crisis, which exposed deep divisions within the EU and gave far-right nationalist movements and illiberal leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orban a major boost.

Brexit came next, followed by U.S. President Donald Trump, whose hostility to the EU and repeated threats to leave NATO have sent shock waves through European capitals. Past U.S. presidents have complained that NATO members weren’t pulling their weight, but none of them ever made a credible threat to actually withdraw from the alliance. Trump is different: nobody in Europe is completely sure he won’t get up some morning and decide to take the United States out of NATO.

For those of us who admire the values the European Union stands for and its many achievements over the years, these developments are deeply disheartening. For an eloquent but gloomy reflection along these lines, see the columnist Roger Cohen’s eulogy here. But I fear the problems Europe is facing go far beyond Britain’s decision to leave and raise serious questions about Europe’s future role in world politics. They also cast further doubts about the future of trans-Atlantic relations.

The problem is inherently structural: Apart from trade negotiations, where the EU generally speaks with one voice, the bloc is neither designed for nor capable of producing a united policy on major strategic questions and backing that policy up with the requisite capabilities. Vast oceans of ink have been spilled describing the desirability of a “common foreign and security policy,” and the EU has tried to manufacture the appearance of unity by creating a quasi-foreign ministry (the European External Action Service) and appointing a high representative for foreign affairs as its supposedly official voice. But at the end of the day, the member states have jealously guarded their own foreign-policy prerogatives and declined to equip the External Action Service or the high representative with the capacity to do much more than hold meetings and make speeches. When it comes to foreign policy—and especially national security policy—Europe today remains a collection of sovereign states whose interests often diverge, and that lack the hard power that is often needed to get things done.

Take the question of Iran. The Trump administration foolishly walked away from the multilateral deal that had successfully capped Iran’s nuclear program, a decision that the European signatories failed to dissuade Trump from taking. They knew it was a blunder, and they made a few feeble attempts to keep the deal alive. But when the United States threatened to impose secondary sanctions on European firms or banks doing business with Iran, the proud nations of Europe promptly caved. This sort of bullying may eventually persuade any number of countries to create alternatives to the dollar-dominated financial order, but in the short term, the United States had the leverage, and bullying worked.

Or take the continuing civil war in Libya. Because Libya is an important transit point for migrants and refugees trying to get to Europe from various parts of Africa, continued anarchy there is also a serious problem for Europe. That is why German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently convened a summit meeting in Berlin to devise a cease-fire among the warring factions in Libya. The summit produced an agreement that promptly broke down, as such agreements often do. The underlying problem, however, is that neither Germany nor anyone else in Europe has the capacity to enforce any agreement that might be reached in the future, or even much leverage over the warring parties. To the extent that outside powers have any sway over the Libyan situation, it is Russia and Turkey and several Gulf states, not the EU or any of its members.

Then there’s Europe’s policy toward Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron is increasingly worried about China, and he seems to want to mend fences with Moscow to wean it away from Beijing. This is sound geopolitics from France’s perspective but anathema to Poland and some nations in Eastern Europe. How can Europe have a “common foreign and security policy” when it can’t even agree on its approach to a strategically important neighbor?

Alas, Europe’s problems are bigger than just these conflicts of interest. Europe is also facing a long-term demographic crisis, the full impact of which is still not fully appreciated. It is now the world’s oldest continent, with a median age close to 45, and its working-age population is projected to decline by some 50 million people by 2035. In the east, this problem has been compounded by emigration, with young people heading elsewhere in search of economic opportunities. Croatia has lost 5 percent of its population since 2013, and Bulgaria’s current population is projected to drop by 23 percent by 2050. Fewer young people means slower economic growth, which means fewer economic opportunities, which in turn encourages more emigration, while an increasingly older population imposes greater health care burdens on societies whose economies are less and less productive. Older populations also tend to be more religious, more sympathetic to nationalist appeals, and less committed to the EU’s liberal ideals, creating further troubles for the EU vision.

In theory, one solution to Europe’s demographic crisis would be to encourage greater immigration from abroad. But as the 2015 refugee crisis suggests, bringing in even small numbers of immigrants can have unpredictable political consequences. Given the difficulties that European nations have had in assimilating immigrants in the past, and the clear opposition to it from xenophobic nationalists, it is hard to see this as an easy fix. Bottom line: Although Europe remains a wealthy continent with a large, mostly integrated market, its overall power is destined to decline further in the years to come.

The core problem, however, is that Europe thought it could transcend power politics, build a thriving liberal society, and get away without an independent European approach to world affairs. During the Cold War, the limitations of this approach were masked by the overwhelming role of the United States: The EU didn’t need a comprehensive or coherent foreign policy, because security issues were handled by NATO, and the United States ran the show. Even so, the major European powers still had competent and capable military forces of their own, as part of NATO’s collective effort to deter Soviet aggression in Europe.

When the Cold War ended, however, Europeans quickly decided that civilian power would be sufficient (and maybe even superior) to the hard power that Americans prized. Germany had more than 500,000 well-equipped soldiers in its armed forces in 1985; it has only 180,000 less-than-well-armed troops today. If Americans erred by assuming that complex world problems could be solved either by blowing things up or toppling tyrants (or both), Europeans mistakenly concluded that diplomacy and law were enough and that hard power wasn’t necessary.

Although this idealistic formula left Europeans vulnerable to the consequences of U.S. mistakes (see under: Iraq), it was sustainable as long as Washington was still willing to be on the front lines of European defense. It is increasingly untenable, however, because the United States’ strategic attention has shifted away from Europe, and it is not going to shift back. And the problem isn’t just Trump. As Merkel recently acknowledged, “Europe is no longer, so to say, at the center of world events. The United States’ focus on Europe is declining—that will be the case under any president.”

Her solution is “more Europe”—progress toward banking union, efforts to catch up in digital technology, renewed initiatives to streamline decisions in Brussels, etc. But these and other reforms will not solve the fundamental problem: None of Europe’s separate states are true great powers anymore, and their relative position will erode further as their populations age and shrink. A truly united Europe would be a formidable agglomeration, but the EU is simply not fit for purpose when it comes to developing either a unified foreign-policy vision or acquiring the capabilities needed to stand up to strong powers or to shape events in Europe’s immediate vicinity.

As for trans-Atlantic relations, the result is something of a paradox. As long as Europe remains divided and punching below its weight, Americans will take it for granted, bully it when they are so inclined, and see less and less reason to contribute to its security. If Europe were to shake off its malaise and become more capable, Washington would no doubt see it as a more valuable partner, but in that case Europe wouldn’t need much if any U.S. protection. In other words, a weak, increasingly elderly, and politically divided Europe isn’t worth spending much time or effort to protect, and strong, vibrant, and cohesive Europe might be well worth defending but won’t need U.S. help. Either way, it’s hard to be upbeat about the future of the trans-Atlantic partnership.

Unless, as I’ve argued before, Europe and the United States fashion a new trans-Atlantic bargain over China. Europe would agree to take primary responsibility for its own security, with the United States remaining formally in NATO as defender of last resort but not as first responder. This arrangement would leave the United States free to focus on Asia as the balance of world power shifts in that direction. In exchange, Europe would agree to align with the United States vis-à-vis China and, in particular, to deny China easy access to advanced technologies or other capabilities that might have significant national security implications. Neutrality is not an option: If Sino-American competition heats up and Europe tries to remain aloof, Americans will rightly conclude that NATO has outlived its usefulness and pull out.

Whether Europe accepts the terms of this new trans-Atlantic bargain will be up to the EU, although its decision will undoubtedly be affected by how Washington and Beijing behave in the years ahead. But from where I sit today, I cannot imagine any other way to keep the trans-Atlantic partnership together over the longer term.

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