In Europe, the challenge is to give meaning to both the benefits and the responsibilities of a genuine union.
Washington DC – The events of 1989 really were momentous in Europe. The Iron Curtain was beyond repair, so the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9 signaled—seemingly out of nowhere—a new era.
The Cold War, the dominant political, economic and strategic narrative that had defined the continent since 1945 was rapidly coming to an end. But who could have been prepared for the speed of that demise? German unification came in October 1990 and 14 months later the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It is in part a testament to US leadership at the time that as the Berlin Wall collapsed and German unification unfolded (as well as the realignment of Eastern Europe) those momentous events were rightfully credited to a mix of skilled statecraft from European political giants like German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev, as well as a legitimate desire by Germans to live in an undivided nation.
When advisors to US President George Bush suggested that he travel to Berlin as the wall came down to claim ultimate success in the Cold War struggle, he reportedly responded, “What would I do? Dance on the wall?”
Bush saw the importance of restraint by American, German, and Soviet leadership during turbulent events. The decades-long American commitment to militarily defend Western Europe following World War II helped set the stage for enduring prosperity in the EU that slowly took root after the wall fell.
Fast forward to 2019. We have a far different Europe, far different challenges, a far different American president and a vastly different political environment across the continent.
US President Donald Trump views key European allies with a measure of skepticism, and he has emphasized the need for Europeans to make greater financial contributions to the NATO military alliance and to take a greater role in their own security.
Agree or disagree, Trump’s blunt assessments have had an impact. In a Paris speech last year to French ambassadors, Macron proposed a blueprint for a more European-oriented defense strategy that would complement the transatlantic alliance and NATO. “It’s up to us to meet our responsibilities and guarantee our security, and therefore European sovereignty,” said Macron.
Macron is right. Europe faces new challenges that have little in common with the Cold War playbook. Irregular migration, inward-looking nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic, economic dislocation, Brexit, Russia as both trading partner and regional neighbor (though it is no longer the Soviet Union nemesis, an uneasy relationship remains), and more consternate continental leaders.
Europe is critically important for global security beyond just the health of the European Union; the largest single market in the world remains a destination for people and goods from around the globe. The heartbreaking discovery of 39 Vietnamese migrant bodies in a lorry container in Essex, England, two weeks ago is testament to that fact.
New challenges for ‘Old Europe’
In 2003, then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld infamously derided the Germany-France relationship as representative of “old Europe” as the US sought European support for the eventual invasion of Iraq. Old Europe still matters, and how Berlin and Paris cooperate on key issues often sets the tone for the rest of the EU.
A new Pew Research Center survey of 19,000 EU and non-EU citizens regarding views on the general progress that the continent has made since the fall of the Berlin Wall indicates general support for the move to more democracy and market economies. But the report also noted the apparent disconnect between segments of society: “There is widespread agreement that elites have gained more from the enormous changes of the past 30 years than average citizens have.”
Migration is one example of the EU struggling to form a unified policy for the 21st century. As a recent policy brief from the European Council on Foreign Relations noted, the EU has yet to construct a coherent and unified migration and asylum processing model: “The bloc’s current approach to cooperation with third countries is marked by unstable, security-driven deals and an insular, not-in-my-backyard approach that leads to chaotic governance.”
In the absence of a broader EU-wide mass migration and asylum framework, individual members will work with regional partner nations.
Morocco, for instance, now partners with Spain to combat irregular migration across the western Mediterranean. Morocco has reportedly stopped 57,000 irregular migrants from crossing to Spain this year alone. In turn, Spain has committed to providing Morocco an additional €32 million (beyond other EU financial commitments to Morocco) for migration control efforts and equipment.
Italy has just renewed an agreement with Libya to control irregular migration across the Mediterranean, too.
A delicate balance
The challenges for the EU will be to work with North African and other nations on migration issues that protect and respect EU member state borders while acknowledging the critically important role that departure point nations play in EU security and migration matters—not to mention the importance of the migrant workforce in the EU economy.
Security, economic, political, humanitarian and electoral issues are now often linked together by politicians and political parties in Europe.
The dynamics are complex and contradictory at times. Hungary may balk at permitting Syrian refugees to settle in the country, but low domestic birth rates and an exodus of young educated Hungarian workers westward has meant the country is now actively pursuing foreign workers from Mongolia, Serbia, and elsewhere.
Here the challenge is to give meaning to both the benefits and the responsibilities of a genuine union.
Russia remains an important EU trading partner despite tensions over Crimea and other security issues. How the EU balances the views and priorities of member states at the eastern end of the union like Poland and Hungary, where civil society institutions are facing increasing restrictions, with the views from Berlin, Paris, and Brussels will demonstrate the long-term durability of a European union.
Though Euroscepticism is widespread, including the caricature of free-spending Eurocrats in Brussels, the EU annual budget (€148 billion in 2019) represents less then 2% of combined member nation budgets.
Brexit—no matter its outcome—demonstrated the power of citizens who reside outside the power centers of a nation to effect dramatic change in national policy. The same goes for the rise in influence of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party in eastern Germany, particularly at the expense of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Even with a sprawling population of 513 million citizens, all EU politics is seemingly local.
The challenge for a new generation of EU leaders is to build on the success of the past union and to secure prosperity and security through relationships with domestic partners committed to strengthening core values. Those values led Europe to become the largest single market in the world and created an enduring transatlantic alliance with countries like the US and Canada and now rising regional leaders like Morocco.
Thirty years after the wall, a renewal is required. In ways large and small, it is already underway.