Europe Must Avoid Self-Fulfilling Pessimism
Over the last decade, the requisite year-end reflections and predictions have become increasingly bleak. This pessimism is understandable: inequality has been rising sharply in much of the world; democratic values and norms of governance have been steadily eroded; and technology has transformed our societies and economies so rapidly that many have been left feeling overwhelmed and insecure. But we must take care not to allow grim predictions to become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Consider the European Union. As their international clout has declined, Europeans have been made to feel increasingly powerless, as individuals, as nations, and as a bloc. Without a unifying vision for the future, the EU has lost its élan and fallen victim to passivity and fear under the guise of nostalgia.
But the past for which many Europeans long never actually existed, and the present that they eschew isn’t nearly as bad as it seems: Europe remains an economic and regulatory superpower, with massive diplomatic potential. If Europeans recognize this and regain their collective self-confidence, their future can be bright.
The call for Europeans to “believe in themselves” may sound naive and simplistic. But it is a prerequisite for effective action. This does not mean pursuing some grand federalist platform or making unrealistic promises, such as to form a European military. On the contrary, the last thing the EU needs is more soaring rhetoric and impossible pledges. Its failure to deliver in the past on such promises has contributed to today’s overwhelming sense of helplessness and cynicism.
Instead, the EU needs to make concrete, incremental progress to boost its credibility. Here, there is reason for hope – beginning with the newly confirmed European Commission, led by Ursula von der Leyen. Although the new Commission has indulged in familiar-sounding grandiloquence, it also embodies an unusual degree of realism. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the selection of a German president for the first time since the 1960s. The EU has abandoned the pretense that there are no standout powers within the bloc, in favor of recognizing that the only way to get things done is to secure the buy-in of its most influential members.
Moreover, the EU has indicated a willingness to explore the potential of different cooperative configurations to propel the policy agenda. For example, there is growing momentum for a European Security Council, a proposal introduced by France and Germany, to strengthen European foreign policy and underpin security cooperation with a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
Such a UK will emerge very soon, given the overwhelming victory of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the recent election. Johnson campaigned on a promise to get the UK out of the EU by January 31, and meeting that deadline would be a good outcome. As undesirable as Brexit may be, dragging out the process hasn’t done anyone much good. Finally ending the three-and-a-half-year saga will allow for greater strategic clarity.
Another major source of uncertainty may also be removed next year: US President Donald Trump. Perhaps no development has done more to fuel insecurity among Europeans than Trump’s capricious attacks on the transatlantic relationship over the last three years. If he is defeated in the November presidential election, the relationship won’t simply return to its pre-Trump state, but predictability will be restored, and Europeans will be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Even a victory for Trump, however, will provide some measure of clarity. It will be apparent that the United States can no longer be counted on as a strategic partner. Rather than try to wait out Trump, let alone count on him, Europe would move forward on its own.
A final reason for hope about Europe’s prospects in 2020 is its growing recognition of the threat that a rising China poses to the liberal international order. In March, the EU labeled China a “systemic rival.” Early this month, at the NATO leaders’ meeting in London, the EU went further, acknowledging that China’s rise poses “challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance.” This raises hopes that Europe will not be so blinded by the promise of Chinese finance and investment that it fails to uphold its values and protect its long-term interests.
The challenges Europe faces – including managing migration and developing a new Africa strategy – may be formidable, but they are hardly insurmountable. Progress will require strategic vision, political will, and effective execution. But first, it will require far more self-confidence.