BUnder the tense bonhomie of the G7 summit lurks a visceral fear: that Joe Biden’s attempt to build a democratic alliance to stem the tide of authoritarianism led by China and Russia will divide the world in two, leaving Europe, betrayed by the British renegade of Boris Johnson, to play pig in the middle.
Despite public applause for Biden’s key message – that the United States is “back” after Donald Trump’s xenophobic hyper-nationalism – European leaders seem far from convinced. They fear that the EU could be drawn into a second Cold War without limits, and that Biden, who will be 82 in 2024, could be toppled by a hawkish Trump or a Trump clone.
The message to Europe in Johnson’s weekend embrace of Biden and America, symbolized by a reworked Atlantic Charter and a lot of Cornish silliness, was clear. Like a whipped bulldog in need of favor, Brexit Britain will be Washington’s obedient and needy pet. Johnson is not Winston Churchill. But like Churchill in 1941, he desperately seeks support from the United States.
Biden will strive to maintain the transatlantic alliance, which for him means all European democracies, including the UK. But the Johnson government’s anti-EU trajectory, seen in the back row with Brussels over Northern Ireland, threatens its vision.
The forceful preemptive intervention by senior US officials last week suggests that London will eventually be forced to compromise, if only because Johnson does not dare to jeopardize wider American relations. Yet the antagonism between the UK and the EU looks set to deepen. Biden will have to tighten the leash again in the future.
Europe’s concerns about strategic isolation as a new bipolar and divisive world order takes shape are well founded. To the east are China, Russia, and like-minded regimes in India, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – autocratic, aggressive, and contemptuous of international standards set by the West.
To the west is the United States, a damaged power, divided against itself, whose political stability and coherence can no longer be relied upon. Biden’s efforts to restore normalcy to international relations are assured of European support for as long as it lasts, as the EU-US and NATO “meeting” summits this week will demonstrate.
But if Trump or his supporters take back power, a permanent rupture of the United States with Europe and its liberal and multilateralist principles could become inevitable. This in turn could wipe out the EU if, say, imitating populists in Poland or Hungary were to break with Brussels for good. For his part, Johnson would be happy to see Trump return and the EU go their separate ways.
Fears about the future of Europe in a hostile world are reflected in a new comprehensive survey of EU states carried out by the European Council on Foreign Relations. It reveals what its authors call “a widespread lack of confidence in the ability of the United States to return as the leader of the Westâ. Most Europeans think the American political system is broken.
This disillusionment is not entirely due to Trump. âMore than a year after the start of the pandemic, the feeling has taken root among Europeans that they can’t count on the United States, Russia or China, and that they must move towards greater autonomy, âconcludes the survey.
In short, they no longer trust anyone. Instead, majorities believe that Europe should develop unified responses to global threats. They prefer pragmatic partnerships to permanent alliances. Many want the EU to be a “beacon of democracy and human rights” and a great power capable of defending itself.
At a time when the EU faces an extraordinary 21st century agenda – climate crisis, pandemic, economic recovery, migration, digitization, cyber threats and right-wing populism – such ambition should, in theory, be welcome.
And yet European politicians and bureaucrats do not seem prepared. While the public wants the EU to do more, trust is low, not least because of its Covid-19 missteps. “The disappointment with the European institutions has now left the periphery and has become widespread,” says ECFR.
This reflects a larger problem: a shortage of effective national leaders. Few are those who are committed to building the independent and self-sufficient Europe that voters want. Solidarity is lacking when it comes to standing up to China against Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Russia against Ukraine, Belarus and Alexei Navalny, or the United States against Israel-Palestine and trade.
In Germany, where many Europeans seek leadership that never quite arrives, Angela Merkel’s impending departure as Chancellor has created a kind of funk. Despite talks about a green revolution, voters appear to be (as usual) opting for the safe, introverted, center-right choice – namely Armin Laschet, Merkel’s successor at the CDU.
In France, Emmanuel Macron, who has no illusions about Johnson or American altruism, regularly calls for a fiscally, economically and militarily integrated Europe. Still, the president’s eloquence didn’t help him at home, where he was literally slapped in the face last week. In any case, he is increasingly distracted by an uphill battle for the 2022 re-election.
In Italy, the rise and rise of far-right parties such as the Brothers of Italy, feeding on fears of immigration, inspire ultra-nationalists, xenophobes and fanatics everywhere. Leader brothers Giorgia Meloni’s ideas on identity and globalist plots make her a natural ally of Trump, not of Biden or Brussels.
Those who are looking for strong European leadership are looking in vain. If the union were a true democracy, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the commission, would have been rejected for her vaccine fiasco. But the EU doesn’t work that way, which is part of the problem.
For European leaders, the G7 perpetuated a fantasy of power and determination. Unless they urgently take ownership of its destiny, Europe will be squeezed like a lime between rival global forces that do not share its values ââand interests.
Europe’s choice: to be a stand-up player on the world stage – or risk becoming an original cultural museum for Chinese tourists and the butt of Trump and Johnson’s jokes.