EU edges its way toward defining a ‘new Europe’

Why We Wrote This

For decades, European countries have been key partners of the United States. Yet with France and Germany leading, the 27-member EU is grappling with a more assertively independent identity as priorities and goals diverge.

John Thys/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron (center) at an EU summit in Brussels on July 20, 2020. The two leaders are scheduled to meet Aug. 20, 2020, in France.

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With France and Germany taking the lead, the EU seems to be grappling its way toward a more assertively independent identity. As French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in France this week, they are bound to play a key role in whether the world’s largest trading bloc becomes an equally cohesive political force.

Bonds are loosening with Washington. U.S. focus on China and President Donald Trump’s criticism of NATO have played a role, as has U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. France, Britain, and Germany last week abstained on a failed U.S. attempt to get the U.N. Security Council to extend the international arms embargo on Iran.

Other catalysts – from EU economic recovery to strains in NATO – have given fresh urgency to EU efforts to redefine itself. They also seem to have narrowed differences between President Macron’s vision of something like a United States of Europe, and Chancellor Merkel’s past preference for a looser, primarily economic union. 

The question is whether this new economic solidarity will be widened to forge a similarly strong new geopolitical identity.

The European Union’s two preeminent political leaders will sit down this week in an imposing medieval fortress off France’s Mediterranean coast. And a lot more than croissants and canapés will be on the menu.

What they’ve be chewing over for some time is more substantial: the prospect of what might be called a “new Europe.”

For decades, European countries have been key partners of the United States. Yet with France and Germany taking the lead, the 27-member EU seems to be grappling its way toward a more assertively independent identity.

The extent to which this happens – whether the EU, the world’s largest trading bloc, will become an equally cohesive political force alongside the U.S. and China – is likely to become clearer only in the months ahead. Yet the two leaders meeting at the Fort de Brégançon this week, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are bound to play a key role.

There are already signs of loosening bonds with Washington. In part, that’s because in recent years, U.S. eyes have increasingly looked eastward, away from the old Cold War rival, Russia, toward a rising China. But under President Donald Trump – who has sharply criticized European members of the NATO security alliance, and wielded trade sanctions against EU states – there’s been a palpable erosion of trust in the alliance with America.

Mr. Trump has also pulled out of international initiatives that the U.S. actually helped lead alongside its European allies: the Paris climate accord, and the deal with Iran to limit its nuclear program in exchange for removing sanctions.

In a striking sign of the new tension, France, Britain, and Germany last week abstained on an ultimately failed U.S. attempt to get the United Nations Security Council to extend the international arms embargo on Iran.

Fresh urgency

A range of other catalysts have been lending fresh urgency to EU efforts to redefine itself. They also seem to have narrowed differences between Germany and France on the way forward: between President Macron’s vision of something like a United States of Europe, and Chancellor Merkel’s past preference for a looser, primarily economic union. 

And Ms. Merkel has been readier to exert German political influence within Europe, something modern German leaders have been reluctant to do in awareness of the country’s World War II legacy. That heightened profile is especially significant now. Not only is she in her final term in power, but Germany has just assumed the rotating, six-monthly presidency of the EU.

Two of the change catalysts – both of them also factors in a closer Franco-German entente – have come close to home. The first was the decision by Britain, a key European economy and Europe’s most important military power, to end its decadeslong membership in the EU. The other was the pandemic, and the huge costs it has placed on EU countries, especially the more economically vulnerable southern member states.

The pandemic response has offered a dramatic sign that the EU could be headed toward major change. With Mr. Macron among the prime advocates, Ms. Merkel departed from years of emphasizing the need of each individual EU state to look after its own fiscal probity, and her reluctance to see the stronger economies in effect bail out more fragile ones. Instead, she helped convince the clearly reluctant wealthier states to agree on a historic economic recovery package. It created a nearly $900 billion fund that, though needed disproportionately by the southern EU countries, will be backed by borrowing that is jointly guaranteed by all member states.

The question now is whether this new economic solidarity will be widened to forge a similarly strong new geopolitical identity. On that front, there have also been catalysts for change. 

NATO is under unprecedented strain. One member, Turkey, sent troops into Syria last year against Kurdish forces who were allies of the U.S. in defeating the Islamic State. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to buy Russian anti-aircraft weaponry. And in recent days, he has been in a naval standoff with fellow NATO member Greece over natural-gas rights in the Mediterranean.

The Turks are also at loggerheads with another NATO state, France, with both sides backing opposite sides in the battle between rival political leaders in Libya. And on the natural gas dispute, Mr. Macron is now siding with Greece, beefing up France’s presence in the Mediterranean and warning Turkey to stand down.

There, and on the broader question of future Europe-U.S. ties, Ms. Merkel is likely to play an especially critical role. That makes their informal summit, at the French president’s official seaside retreat, particularly timely.

While Ms. Merkel, too, wants Mr. Erdoğan to pull back from confrontation with Greece, she’s been hoping to avoid overtly taking sides, and instead to pave the way for a negotiated resolution.

Still, she does seem increasingly to share Mr. Macron’s view that in the longer term, Europe must define itself and its policies more independently from Washington.

She and other politicians in Germany were especially vexed by the Trump administration’s sudden announcement last month that it was withdrawing 12,000 U.S. troops from the NATO presence there. And for her, like other EU leaders, U.S. trade sanctions have reinforced the view that Europe also needs an independent trade policy. 

Germany is backing a gas pipeline project to bring supplies from Russia despite Mr. Trump’s objections, for instance. But Ms. Merkel has also taken a tough line on geopolitical issues like Mr. Putin’s intervention in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.

And there are differences as well on China – formally defined by the EU this year as a “systemic rival,” but also still a key trading partner.

Given the number and complexity of issues involved in any international repositioning of the EU – not to mention the likelihood that on many geopolitical issues, European and U.S. interests are apt to continue to overlap – defining a “new Europe” will take far more than a single meeting between the German and French leaders, however important their roles within the EU.

And the main focus of this week’s talks is likely to be not on the long view, but on issues like the immediate risk of open conflict between Turkey and Greece.

But the political context is broader: part of an intensifying, ongoing dialogue around questions concerning the future shape of the EU, questions that both leaders acknowledge have become increasingly pressing.

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