With the advent of Donald Trump’s presidency, an element of instability has entered the US-EU relations. Trump’s nationalism, laced with his disdain for multilateral governance, raised European diplomats’ eyebrows even before the US leader’s term officially started. The tentative disagreement curled into a rift last spring, when the White House refused to commit to NATO Article 5.
Europe’s response was stark. The US, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, was no longer a trusted ally. “The times when we could completely depend on others are on the way out”, she proclaimed, determinedly. “Europe must take its destiny into own hands”.
When the push came to shove, however, European leaders struggled to deliver on their ambitions.
Take an attempt to breathe life into the permanent structured cooperation, or PESCO. The agreement, unveiled at the EU foreign ministers’ meeting in November, makes use of Article 46 in the Lisbon treaty – allowing several countries to enter closer cooperation on defence matters. Overall, 25 member-states have signed up to a framework in what the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini called a ‘historic’ moment for the community.
Whether the triumphalism quite befits the scale of what had actually been achieved is another matter. At the framework’s drafting stage, member-states oscillated between two competing visions of PESCO. The first, promoted by France, envisaged deeper partnership on defence exclusively between the strongest countries – the ‘pioneers’ - even if that meant a ‘two-speed’ integration. The second, favoured by Germany, sought to incorporate as many member-states into the military club as possible in order to preserve European unity.
The resulting compromise saw German’s option prevailing. The commitments required of PESCO’s members, the first European Defence Agency’s chief Nick Witney observed, “have been watered down so as to become virtually meaningless”. The bloc’s foremost military players are not even required to discuss defence plans with each other.
It isn’t just that PESCO’s commitments are lax. Enforcing what was agreed, as the CER’s Sophia Belch points out, may also prove onerous. Since a qualified majority is required to suspend any member, it would be hard to kick out an underperforming country.
On top of it all, the PESCO framework is integrated into the web of EU institutional assortment, including the European Council, the European Defence Agency, and the European Union External Action. All this cannot but sap the dynamism from the decision-making process.
Concerted effort to consolidate EU foreign policy is similarly lacking. Last September the Commission chief Jean-Claude Junker touted the idea of a super president - merging the presidencies of the Commission and the European Council. Yet, several member-states promptly dismissed the proposal.
The EU’s dash for integration, in a word, has bumped against the same old caveats - the incompatibility of member-states’ military cultures and the lack of political will on behalf of European ‘pioneers’ to bind them together. It is hence the time for Atlanticists to relax, and for the EU federalists to tame their exuberance. Achieving a united European defence pillar is not on the cards.
Yet, equally, Europe’s worst fears over Trump haven’t come true. The prospect of America’s ‘grand bargain’ with Russia is dead. Trump administration’s support to Europeans to contain the Kremlin - under the so-called European Deterrence Initiative - has actually increased compared to the level set previously by Barack Obama. Rationale for cooperating with Europe is still there, the Old World being a crucial geopolitical entity as well as a formidable economic power.
Much has also been said about how the US foreign policy is being increasingly driven by populism and domestic concerns. Consequently, the argument goes, it is only a matter of time until Trump finds the pretext to throw Eastern Europe under the bus. Yet, it is hard to detect any popular backlash against NATO in the US. According to the Pew Research poll, 62% of Americans (and 65% of Republicans) agree that their country should defend a NATO ally if it is attacked by Russia.
So, the dilemma regarding the EU’s global strategy, it seems, looms just as large today as it did when Trump just came to power. In his book the World Order, Henry Kissinger, a former Secretary of State, outlined three possible scenarios for the EU’s long-term future: collaboration with another big actor other than the US; moving in the direction of neutrality; and, finally, embracing the Atlantic alliance.
Russia’s nationalism and the Ukraine crisis limited those options to two. The 1990s idea of ‘common European home’, whereby Moscow and European capitals would unite under one defensive umbrella, is now a pipe dream. The EU’s divergence on normative values with China, meanwhile, is even greater.
Even the neutrality scenario is precarious. Russia’s takeover of Crimea demonstrated the limits of what the EU can achieve as a benign, non-aligned force. There is no use in having values if you cannot effectively defend them (let alone projecting them outwards).
As diplomacy without arms is, to quote Frederick the Great, like music without instruments, so the EU without NATO is just a talking shop. Meanwhile, the US – whatever Trump’s misgivings are – remains firmly the alliance’s backbone. On its own, the EU can battle pirates off the Somali coast - but, alas, not much else.
Nor are American calls for more defence spending from Europe unprecedented. Obama’s Pentagon Chief, Robert Gates, was equally forthcoming on the issue of burden sharing. It is mainly here, rather than in the sphere of defence identity building, where initiatives like PESCO may bring auspicious consequences. The pact can help boost the member-states’ armed forces, while reducing the per-unit cost when purchasing equipment.
That is not to say Europe should forfeit any attempts to disagree with Washington. It is just that confronting the US at the negotiating table makes more sense than walking away from it.
Accumulated through decades of close cooperation, transatlantic ties will likely survive present political turbulence: Dismantling them is still too costly; the benefits for any side are uncertain.
Europe and America may sure choose to go different paths, in the end. Just not, it appears, anytime soon.