“The Changing of a Continent” is a new column by journalist Kenneth R. Rosen that focuses on the US trans-Atlantic relationship and Europe’s future.
Countless stories emerged from Europe at the end of World War I. The continent sat on edge yet maintained a hopeful gaze above the detritus of the human and the institutional ruins of the war as the German, Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian empires fell. Troublesome questions arose: Would the League of Nations succeed, or would the Bolshevik revolution spark socialist uprisings in industrial countries such as Germany, France, and Britain? Would a journalist come to violently turn Hungry into a Soviet regime? Or were fledgling democracies possible in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna?
For centuries, Europe has faced upheaval and power competitions, many of those struggles sparking violent conflicts that lasted centuries and do not need to be recounted here. That foundation of bloodshed has, however, given rising to a rather extraordinary experiment, which for the last roughly 75 years has engendered a world power all its own.
Comprising 27 separate countries — many of which share the same currency and process free trade and movement across their borders with one another, and all of which send representatives to legislative, executive, and judicial branches which oversee many aspects of life for most of the continent’s inhabitants — the European Union today is not the obedient lapdog or interagent of yore, standing as a mediator of feuding nations oceans apart. Instead, the EU has transformed itself from a history of barbarism into a leading superpower capable of shifting the global order and underpinning democratic values worldwide.
But in order to maintain that power in an age of NATO expansion and furthered American isolationism, it must seek to corral its weakest links — Poland, Hungry, and sometimes Italy — into a more unifying representation of what the bloc aspires toward, not what it remained during several US presidential administrations.
In fact, there is a name for this unanimity: the United States of Europe.
WEALTH AND ARMS
As early as August 2021, when the United States announced its troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the end to a nearly two-decade conflict recalled European’s global tailgate-leadership orientation: a conflict the EU responded to along with the rest of NATO when Article 5 was invoked — the first and only time — committing members to defend each other. As Resolute Support Mission forces drew down alongside its US counterparts, the EU pledged $1.15 billion in an economic aid program to Afghanistan and provided an equally-reassuring military presence. The White House decided the timing and spearheaded the withdrawal, the bloc in lockstep.
The EU has transformed itself from a history of barbarism into a leading superpower capable of shifting the global order and underpinning democratic values worldwide. But in order to maintain its power, it needs to corral its weakest links, namely Poland, Hungry, and sometimes Italy.
What we can glean from the withdrawal is a kowtowing approach to foreign policy and international relations for a world power worthy of a more central leadership role, if only it could resolve engrained hesitations. For one, Europe’s wealth alone is a tool it rarely uses. As the world’s second-largest economy, its investments have the potential to curb authoritarian uprisings and bolster internal and external defense capabilities but are often overlooked by the world, and even by the bloc itself.
But in the years before the Biden administration and, indeed, the Russian invasion of Ukraine (a conflict which tests the very reason for the union’s existence, which is to prevent continental war), the bloc and its initial iteration focused on economic expansion. It sought to potentially create its own army but despite a military drift continues to rely on NATO and the United States to protect its borders from afar. Historically, the EU’s regional passivism emanates from World War II and Nazi Germany’s atrocities. Germany is the bloc’s largest economy, so its reluctance to ship weapons outside its border, or to increase the size of its military, dictates policy elsewhere on the continent.
However, German reluctance is quickly changing. As a response to greater threats along its shared borders with Russia and increased migration from war and climate disasters, the European Defence Fund began the process of receiving $9.4 billion in 2021, which will be completed over the next six years. The financial injection came at a time when the bloc began developing a document, the European Strategic Compass (released this spring), to outline the ambitions for internal and external security in the coming years. Yet, some believe that effort has already failed because of ongoing infighting.
Nevertheless, having begun discussing in earnest the creation of a 60,000-strong Rapid Deployment Force — all Europe’s own — is the natural byproduct of a much-needed wake-up call. Such a military drift, as it were, should also be seen as a benefit to the Atlantic alliance, making the bloc a more strategically capable ally for the United States as it seems to increase burden sharing and turn its own focus (and resources) to counter China.
OLD ANXIETIES, NEW ACTORS
The bloc can also become a democratic force in the world, not only through its financial and military might but also through the values it collectively holds. However, to do so, the EU has to overcome serious internal anxieties.
For instance, Italy, long the “sick-man” of Europe, has fought to prevent a Chinese economic stranglehold on its telecommunication industry and political coercion while many of its ministers refuse to support Ukraine. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, including representatives from Romania and Bulgaria, sought to complicate the bloc’s climate goals. The French defrayed a decision on the Russian oil embargo because the candidates did not want the topic muddying the electoral waters. And self-styled autocrat Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban won reelection in April 2021.
There was a spell of hopeful news. Slovenian voters ousted their right-wing prime minister (34% of the vote went to the opposing liberal party, and 24% to the previously governing conservative party) on the same day the French re-elected Emanuel Macron in a victory over Marine le Penn, the populist and cat breeder. The French election was, however, extremely close. Last week, Le Pen’s National Rally Party secured ten times the parliamentary seats it had just five years ago, signaling a dangerously close shift toward a more populist electorate.
Furthermore, in the last several months, European countries have: welcomed Sweden and Finland into NATO, formally backed Ukraine’s membership in the EU, made it tougher for Russian oligarchs to access their money abroad, and established a phased embargo on Russian energy products. Italy, for its part, has reassessed its economic commitments and ties to China, which in the years under the previous Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti had flowered.
All of these developments highlight how the EU could help resist the ongoing global democratic backslide.
“RING OF FIRE”
A rolling anxiety is not new to Europe, which for the last decade alone has weathered a refugee crisis, Brexit, populist movements and terrorism, a debt crisis (even as a new one looms), and the pandemic. Nevertheless, it has provided Europeans a sense of stability since the 1950s and shows no signs of facing ruin. Carl Bildt, a former prime minister of Sweden, once said, “It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are surrounded not by a ‘ring of friends’—but by a ‘ring of fire.’”
With a renewed refugee crisis, rising food and gas prices, and its own slew of internal issues, the months ahead will define Europe’s next century. Barbarism and disunity are the continent’s past. Democratic cohesion is its future. The EU is not a single country but it must act as one.
Kenneth R. Rosen is an independent journalist based in Italy.