LIFE for the European Union is turning into a bit of a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes it seems the skies over Europe are clearing. The mood gets upbeat, there’s a sense of new beginnings and heady talk of the EU becoming a more powerful global player. And then it all goes grey, gloomy and pear-shaped — again. Just like the summer weather.
It would be easy to blame US President Donald Trump and his erratic actions for Europe’s changing moods. Certainly, the messages from Washington are causing serious unease across Europe — except in some EU countries like Hungary whose Prime Minister Viktor Orban is an aspiring Trump wannabe.
But it’s not that simple. The divisions and rifts within the still-28 EU states are equally responsible for Europe’s changing mood. Certainly Brexit is a preoccupation. But the EU’s east-west divide on human rights and the rule of law is an equally deep wound.
First America — or rather America First. Put bluntly, Trump is driving Europe crazy. Europe has long looked to the US for leadership on foreign and security policy. That leadership is no longer there.
In addition, there is a rising China, a more assertive Russia and a multi-polar which is entirely different from the West-dominated global order which has been the norm for at least two centuries.
The thing is: you get used to being in charge. Hoarding power becomes a way of life. And to suddenly find yourself — as the EU does now — having to share power, to share leadership with other nations is difficult to accept.
But to give it credit, the EU — unlike the US — is trying to adjust and adapt. The EU is building partnerships with so-called emerging nations and hesitantly accepting on some issues — at least for the moment — it has to take the lead.
Take Iran. Preserving the Iranian nuclear deal after the US decision to withdraw from it, is one key priority for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. The focus is also on making sure that once US sanctions against Iran come into force, European companies and banks are not obliged to follow US rules and cut off ties with Iran.
This is of course on top of the US decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. In addition, the US decision to impose tariffs on steel imports still has the EU running around in circles, trying to secure permanent exemptions for its steel exports.
“We are witnessing today a new phenomenon: the capricious assertiveness of the American administration,” recognised Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, earlier this month, adding: “Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, some could even think, ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’”
Indeed. The transatlantic discord is prompting many to question — timidly — the value of the transatlantic alliance while others warn that China and Russia should not be allowed to benefit from the EU-US estrangement.
There are interesting demands for the EU to put up a robust defence of the multilateral liberal order — take the lead on issues of climate change, trade liberalisation and Iran.
But as Mogherini admitted recently, while the EU has the tools and the wherewithal to do so, European governments often lack the political will.
There are also the twists and turns of leadership within the EU. One day, French President Emmanuel Macron is hailed as the EU messiah, a superman who is going to put Europe right. The spectre of populism which haunts Europe disappears for a while.
Then things get a bit tense between Paris and Berlin over eurozone reform and the dimmer goes on — at least for the moment. Macron also faces a summer of discontent as trade unions from an array of sectors embark on strikes and demonstrations.
After the surprise of the far right winning votes in Austria, it’s now time for populists in Italy to take control of the government.
Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella has accepted law professor Giuseppe Conte, a political novice, as prime minister, following an agreement between winners of recent elections the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and right-wing League.
Having to deal with the two parties, which reject years of EU austerity and want to renegotiate Italy’s debt, is making EU policymakers extremely nervous. And so the mood has once again turned sour, not least because the coalition deal promises tax cuts, a guaranteed basic income for the poor and deportations of 500,000 migrants — policies that are likely to put the eurozone’s third biggest economy on a collision course with Brussels.
There are also disagreements over violations to the principles of rule of law and disrespect for EU values by countries such as Hungary and Poland.
So expect more hand-wringing and talk of existential crisis as the EU heads towards elections to the European Parliament and the nomination of a new European Commission leadership next year.
There is some good news. A recent opinion poll shows that for the first time since 2007, a majority of people have come out in favour of Europe. They also, however, seem to like populists and anti-establishment parties.
The challenge for European policymakers is to stay on course and keep calm and collected as the weather goes from sunny to stormy in the months ahead. But that’s easier said than done.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2018