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Transatlantic Ties in a Populist Era
The U.S. and E.U. flags hang at the W20 conference on April 25, 2017 in Berlin, Germany (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
The U.S. and E.U. flags hang at the W20 conference on April 25, 2017 in Berlin, Germany (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Transatlantic Ties in a Populist Era

Michael Doran & Peter Rough

On March 25, 1957, representatives of France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg assembled in Rome to sign the treaty that established the European Economic Community (EEC). The focus of the moment was on building a common market limited to six countries, but their true aspirations were political, not economic, and their scope encompassed the entire continent.

In calling for “an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe,” the Treaty of Rome fixed the attention of European leaders on a North Star: political integration. For three generations, this attention did not waver, and the six-member EEC grew into the 28-member European Union (EU) we know today. For five of the past six decades, the project seemed destined for success, but in recent years it has fallen on hard times. The EU’s cumbersome fiscal and banking arrangements have made it all but impossible to tackle deep structural problems such as Greek and Italian debt. The consequences for economic growth, particularly in southern Europe, have been severe. Youth unemployment in Italy, Spain, and Greece stands, respectively, at 35, 42, and 45 percent. With no clear remedy in sight, opposition to the EU is growing at an alarming pace.

This opposition, however, is only partly economic in origin. Some of it focuses on the EU’s alleged “democracy deficit,” one outgrowth of which is an increasing resentment of the common European policies on immigration. Almost every European country now has a populist party calling for restrictions on immigration, particularly from Islamic countries. The populists accuse the EU of prying open the doors of their country against the manifest will of the majority. This past June’s referendum, in which the British people voted in favor of Brexit, now stands as a model of democratic action designed to give majority national opinion a strong say on matters such as immigration. And so does the arrival of the Trump Administration in Washington.

European elites are clearly discomfited by all this. In a recent speech in London, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliament’s Brexit negotiator and the former Prime Minister of Belgium, grouped the main threats facing Europe into three “fronts.” The first two were familiar—Islamic radicalism and Russian revanchism. The third was as surprising as it was new: the American President. “We have a third front . . . undermining the European Union, and it is Donald Trump,” he said.

Verhofstadt is hardly alone in this assessment, but is it correct? Does Trump truly pose a serious threat to Europe? That depends on which Europe we are talking about. If we mean the “ever-closer union” to which European integrationists aspire, then yes. But if we are talking about the Europe most Europeans recognize and care about, then, on the contrary, Donald Trump’s presidency offers an opportunity to recast Transatlantic relations for a new era. To seize it, however, Americans and Europeans must develop a common understanding of the kind of political communities they wish to build, the challenges those communities face, and the proper methods for addressing them together.

This task is not as farfetched as it may seem. There is more common ground between the new Trump Administration and most European leaders than Verhofstadt and likeminded officials would have us believe. If Transatlantic cooperation is to thrive, however, we must recognize that we have entered a new era, one that requires us to update our operational definition of “Western unity.” Doing so will not be easy, but truly important things never are.

The Dream World of Globalism

It’s not hard to see why Trump has unsettled many Europeans. He burst onto the scene with rhetoric about Europe not heard from any American leader since World War II. In place of extolling U.S. allies, he leveled sharp criticisms against them, all under the unsettling banner of “America First.”

Trump the candidate almost seemed eager to place the United States on a collision course with Europe. He cheered for Brexit, openly associating himself with its boisterous advocate, Nigel Farage, whom European leaders loathe. He expressed a lack of respect for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, accusing her of destroying Germany by opening its gates to refugees. He blamed Germany more broadly for manipulating the euro to take advantage of the United States on trade, and for failing to foot its share of the bill for NATO, which he notoriously labeled “obsolete.” And he expressed a strong desire to work closely with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who uses a deft mix of traditional diplomacy, military intimidation, and cyber hacking to exacerbate intra-European tensions. In the worst nightmares of many Europeans, then, Trump was going to conduct a trade war with Europe while abandoning it militarily to the tender mercies of the Russian army.

In office, however, Trump is proving to be a more conventional Republican President than expected. He has surrounded himself with advisers—Vice President Michael Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster—who express a more traditional view of U.S.-European relations. At the same time, Trump has shifted some of his positions drastically. For example, on April 12, after less than three months in office, he reversed himself completely on NATO. “It’s no longer obsolete,” he said at a press conference.

Trump’s penchant for personalizing policy disagreements remains disconcerting to Europeans. Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House on March 17 seemed to break the ice between the two leaders, but only time will tell for sure. Nevertheless, it must be said that Trump, who is habitually accused of being thin-skinned, has a surprising capacity to let bygones be bygones. It was only this past July, for example, when he publicized Senator Lindsey Graham’s cellphone number while calling him a “lightweight” and an “idiot.” Today, however, the two are working together on the President’s legislative agenda. If Trump’s treatment of Graham poisoned their relationship for less than a year, then there is no reason why his relations with Angela Merkel can’t also improve quickly.

No personal reason, that is. Two other obstacles to warm relations remain between the Europeans and Trump. The first of these is Trump’s protectionist impulses on trade. The United States, he has frequently complained, is getting a raw deal from Europe in general, but especially from Germany. Peter Navarro, the top trade official in the White House, has pointed to a “grossly undervalued” euro as the culprit. “This is the problem with Germany. It is able to basically use the argument that they are in the Eurozone and they are therefore unable to have any kind of discussion with the United States about reducing our almost $70 billion trade deficit,” he argued in March. Trump has floated the prospect of an import tax, among other protective measures, to rebalance the trade relationship.

This disagreement over trade is serious, but it is also something solvable through the give and take of negotiations. Trump regularly touts The Art of the Deal; he is transactional to his core. His harsh rhetoric should often be read as an opening bid in a complex negotiation that will probably end in compromise.

The second cause of friction with the Europeans is harder to gauge: Trump’s populist ideology. When Trump’s detractors in Europe accuse him of being “anti-European,” they are really saying the opposite: that he is all too European. Trump’s core themes are woven into the cloth of Europe’s still highly nationalized political cultures.

The dirty little secret in Europe is that Trump’s signature policies enjoy deep legitimacy—much to the chagrin of the European establishment. Take, for example, the most controversial policies of all—building a wall on the Mexican border and restricting Muslim immigration. Trump’s calls for policing the border and repatriating immigrants are more popular among Europeans than EU officials care to acknowledge. In 2015, as refugees poured into Europe, Hungary erected a barbed-wire fence along its borders, drawing the ire of EU leaders until their own populations began demanding the same. In early 2016, Austria, which had been one of Hungary’s staunchest critics, followed Budapest’s lead and sealed its own border. At the same time, the so-called Visegrad group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary) is refusing to admit refugees—all in open defiance of EU dictates.

When it comes to immigration, European public opinion overwhelmingly favors border controls. In February, the London think tank Chatham House polled people across ten European states, asking whether “[a]ll further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.” While an average of 55 percent agreed with the statement, only 20 percent disagreed. Note that the survey formulated the statement in absolutist terms, thus guaranteeing the highest possible rate of disagreement. Nevertheless, in only one country, Spain, did more than 23 percent of those surveyed disagree.

From trade to immigration, Trump’s views echo those of anti-EU populists. Naturally, then, European leaders fear a sinister intention—to foment insurgency against them. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, complained that the new President’s enthusiasm for Brexit was encouraging other countries to quit the EU. “Mr. Trump should . . . not be indirectly encouraging them to do that,” Juncker said. “We don’t go around calling on Ohio to pull out of the United States.”

The EU’s core dogma of “an ever-closer union” has always been aggressively hostile to nationalism, which Europe’s elites see (not without reason) as the cause of the destruction of their civilization in two world wars. Verhofstadt captures this dogma in Europe’s Last Chance, his new blueprint for a United States of Europe. “It is no exaggeration,” he writes, that “old nationalisms pose more danger to Europe than new threats.”

To arch-integrationists like Verhofstadt, Trumpism is another name for populism, which is inseparable from nationalism, which, in turn, is a disguise for blood-and-soil fascism. As long as members of the European elite regard these several phenomena as but different masks on the same beast, then they will approach the major problems of Europe with a bunker mentality based on the fear of a third paroxysm of nationalist self-destruction. They will see themselves as enlightened representatives of a transnational civilization besieged by an unruly mob of peasants with pitch forks, for, in truth, continental elites have never trusted the democratic temperament. For them, the goal is to destroy populism by creating a transnational super-state. Trump is a populist, so there is no common ground between him and the European elite. Donald Trump is the enemy within.

But is today’s populism truly a revival of dark 1930s nationalism? The guardians of the status quo in Europe certainly speak as if it is. They persistently diabolize the populists, whom they depict as a rabble of racists and xenophobes. In the United States, Hillary Clinton echoed this rhetoric during her presidential campaign when she referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” The most striking aspect of this demonization campaign is its consistent failure to win elections. To be sure, it has not been a total failure—especially in countries with proportional representation. A significant segment of the European electorate indeed regards populists as “deplorables,” and it rewards politicians who treat them accordingly. That segment is large enough and sufficiently represented in government and the media to trumpet its views loudly, but it has not proved strong enough to arrest the rapid spread of populist ideas.

The failure of the elite to stigmatize the “deplorables” in the eyes of the majority was the story of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and of Trump’s election in the United States. Importantly, it was also the untold story of the recent election in, of all places, that famous bastion of tolerance, the Netherlands. The Euro-integrationists on the continent greeted the results of that election with a sense of victory and relief—because Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam populist, performed worse than expected. This analysis, however, hurried past three inconvenient points: Wilders gained in total number of seats; the center-Left (the Labour Party) suffered an historic defeat, losing three-quarters of its seats; and Prime Minister Mark Rutte arrested Wilders’s advance only by co-opting elements of his agenda. The real story of the Dutch elections was not the “defeat” of Wilders but a collapse of the center-Left and an incremental shift of the entire system in the direction of populist sentiment.

There can be no doubt that we are witnessing the rise of popular nationalism all across the West. However, to understand the specific content of these movements, we need more nuanced terminology than “populists” versus “elites.” Thankfully, David Goodhart, a British author affiliated with the London think tank Policy Exchange and the founding editor of Prospect, offers just that. In his forthcoming book, The Road to Somewhere, Goodhart sees “two rival value blocks” that are setting people at odds with each other: those who see the world from anywhere versus those who see the world from somewhere. Educated and mobile, the Anywheres value autonomy, openness, and fluidity. They flourish in a globalized economy: If a software engineer loses his job in one city, he packs up and moves to another, with national boundaries posing little impediment. By contrast, the Somewheres are more rooted and less well educated. They value group attachments, familiarity, and security—they are deeply concerned about the welfare of particular places.

Goodhart is describing nothing less than the social and cultural chasm that has opened up across the West owing to the impact of globalization. Anywheres make up a sizeable segment of the population but not a majority; nevertheless, they tend to run the government as well as the technology and media companies. The most vocal and influential element of our elite, they increasingly live in a bubble with only likeminded people, out of touch with the majority of the population.

To grasp the conceptual landscape of the Anywheres, it is useful to distinguish between, on the one hand, “global” and “globalized,” and, on the other, “globalism.” The first two describe the increasingly worldwide reach of our day-to-day endeavors; the third is a political ideology. Our communications grid and our financial infrastructure are globalized. Our military is an enterprise with hard assets situated throughout the world and operations that span the globe. The supply chain of all major automobile manufacturers is similarly globalized. It is simply a fact of life that many commonplace transactions transcend national boundaries. It is vital, however, to distinguish clearly between that fact and “globalism,” the creed of the Anywheres. Their ideology holds that breaking down national boundaries is, at all times and places, a laudable activity. Globalism is a utopian, one-world ideology.

It is also a cross-dresser. In commercial and financial settings, it presents itself as a steely-eyed, muscular adaptation to the iron dictates of modern commercial life: Labor, capital, goods, and raw materials flow across national frontiers with impunity. In political and cultural settings, by contrast, it dolls itself up as a pious effort to attack the hatreds and misunderstandings of an inevitably pluralized planet. It denigrates all efforts to preserve or resurrect those boundaries, depicting them as either an exercise in bigotry, an untutored nostalgia for simpler times that never existed, or a self-defeating refusal to come to grips with economic reality.

In Europe, globalism has taken the phrase “ever-closer union,” a pious aspiration, and turned it into an overriding political imperative. The ideology imbues its adherents with a sense of quasi-religious virtue. They see themselves as rising above the primordial passion of nationalism, creating a more harmonious world, one regulated by reason and science. This high-minded creed holds out the false hope of rendering politics, as we have traditionally understood it, obsolete. Gone would be the struggle among competing groups for honor, interest, and glory; democratic participation and representative government—rooted in the consent of the governed—would fade away. In place of the petty bickering of national parliaments, globalism will substitute a system of impersonal rules administered by career bureaucrats, of markets managed by technocrats, and of rights adjudicated by judges on the basis of a universal code.

The defect in this vision is that it elevates the desiccated logic of the transnational system over the affect-laden social cohesion of the nation. Consider the case of Greece, which since the financial crisis of 2009 has languished under a mountain of debt. The transnational system has robbed the national authorities of the traditional tools they need to pay down the debt—by, for example, devaluing their currency, a move made impossible by the euro. When Greeks point to their plight, the EU effectively answers, “Tough luck.”

Across Europe, it offers the same answer to the problems posed by the Somewheres. When former steelworkers in Wales or factory workers in Calais, whose industries have been destroyed with devastating consequences for their families and communities, ask “Why?” they are greeted with a shrug of an elite shoulder. Are you one of the unemployed young men in Spain or Italy with no prospect of a brighter future? “Tough luck.”

In the United States, the story is similar. Did your steel town in western Pennsylvania go under, thanks to globalization? Is heroin and opiate addiction on the rise among the youth in your rural town? Do unfamiliar immigrants suddenly make up a large segment of your small city’s population? “Tough luck. Those are the iron laws of globalization.”

The Somewheres who received these answers flocked to Donald Trump. Many political commentators have expressed wonder that Trump, a son of privilege from the East Coast, has proved so adept at forging connections with the working class and unemployed in the de-industrialized cities of the rustbelt. What he shares with them is a sense of rootedness. Trump came of age in the world of Manhattan real estate. There are few things in this world more rooted than skyscrapers. Building them requires deep local knowledge and an enduring web of relationships; maintaining their value requires making sure that the surrounding area doesn’t go to seed. Trump intuitively understands people who feel invested in their communities. He is, to his core, a Somewhere man.

Somewhere in Europe

History will remember 2016 for the rise of the Somewheres. Across Europe and America, the most successful and talented politicians have already recognized the necessity of shifting the balance between transnational institutions and the nation-state in favor of the latter. The evolution over the past year of Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, is the most obvious case in point.

In keeping with much of the Tory Party leadership, May voted Remain in June 2016, but she demonstrated little enthusiasm for her stated position. After the referendum, she joined the ranks of the Brexiteers. Before long, she took a hard line about what exactly the decision to leave the EU meant. “Brexit means Brexit,” she said in her campaign to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister. The phrase was a rejection of the concept, which the Remainers were pushing after the referendum, of a “soft Brexit”—a formal break from the European Union while preserving the economic links of membership and some of the political obligations.

As May became an increasingly more ardent Brexiteer, she implicitly presented her position as the creed of the Somewheres. In the fall of 2016, her government highlighted its concern for the so-called JAMs, families who feel shortchanged by globalization and who are “just about managing” to stay above the poverty line. At the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in October, Brexit, she said, “was about a sense—deep, profound and let’s face it, often justified—that many people have today that the world works well for a privileged few, but not for them.” Implicitly rejecting the ideology of globalism, May promised “to tackle the unfairness and injustice that divides us, so that we may build a new united Britain … a programme for government to act to create an economy that works for everyone—an economy that’s on the side of ordinary working class people.”

May is practicing the politics of affinity. It is crucial to democracy. Making statements such as “We are all in this together” is really only possible from a nationalist platform. Would British JAMs ever believe that their plight weighed on the minds of the transnational bureaucrats in Brussels? Moreover, the globalism of those bureaucrats makes the politics of affinity unthinkable, because it credits no intrinsic value to the national community. Only a British Prime Minister could convincingly tell the British public, as May did at the party conference, that “a citizen of everywhere is a citizen of nowhere.”

That is not to say that she is an isolationist. In her most important address on Brexit to date, at Lancaster House in London in January, she spelled out a vision for “a truly global Britain—the best friend and neighbor to our European countries, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe, too. A country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies like.” The key to May’s vision, however, is that it empowers the nation-state as the political authority responsible for moderating the adverse effects of globalization.

The Tories’ principal political rival, the Labour Party, has, like the center-Left elsewhere in Europe, utterly failed to equal May’s brilliant straddle of the Somewhere-Anywhere divide. The industrial working class, which has been hit hard by globalization, finds the globalism of cosmopolitan elites utterly myopic. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a doctrinaire socialist, has shown none of May’s dexterity in bridging the gap. He is reviled by a large percentage of sitting Labour MPs, but they are incapable of unseating him due to his hold over the party membership. In late February, Labour lost a by-election in the Cumbrian district of Copeland, a seat it had held continuously since 1935. The Tories’ victory in this contest marked only the fourth time since World War II that a sitting government picked up a seat in a by-election. Now, May has decided to call snap elections, which, according to all informed opinion, she is poised to win by an astounding margin.

Meanwhile, her “Brexit means Brexit” hard line has stripped the most ardent pro-Brexit force, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), of its raison d’etre. The enemies of the party have always portrayed it as a harbinger of a resurgent racism. They undoubtedly exaggerated the extent to which rank bigotry generated support for UKIP, but now that May has stolen a march on the party, the question is an entirely moot point. UKIP is evaporating, and as it does any fears of new chauvinism in British politics are evaporating with it.

In other words, May’s nationalism has disarmed the forces of chauvinism. From the perspective of dogmatic globalism as practiced in Brussels this outcome is impossible; contemplating it, heresy. “We need not less Europe, but more Europe, otherwise we will see the end of Europe,” French President François Hollande said in late 2015. With admirable concision, Hollande expressed the all-or-nothing mentality that globalism fosters—a mentality that impedes sober analysis of globalization, and of the various mediating institutions that can harness its power while also softening its ravages. So long as European leaders remain in thrall to a uni-dimensional understanding of “an ever-closer union” they will prove incapable of thinking clearly about which fruits of the EU/globalization process to date deserve to be preserved, and which ought be discarded.

Fortunately, clear signs suggest that even among the most ardent integrationists, a rediscovery of the value of the national community is underway. Angela Merkel’s experience in the migrant crisis is a case in point.

In 2015, Merkel made a courageous effort to set an example for the entire EU by opening wide the doors of Germany to refugees from the Middle East and Africa. Their numbers quickly swelled to nearly one million. In September of that year, the authorities registered the largest influx of refugees, whom German crowds initially welcomed with open arms. Before long, however, the public mood soured, owing in part to mass sexual assaults in Cologne and Hamburg on New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by immigrants. Thereafter, Merkel switched gears, negotiating a deal with President Erdogan of Turkey to keep the refugees out. The word “repatriation” began to roll off her lips with increasing frequency. “It cannot be,” she said this past November, “that all of the young people from Afghanistan will come to Germany.” A few months later, her government announced a new plan to pay asylum seekers who agreed to repatriate voluntarily.

While Merkel was bowing to the reality of immigration skepticism, she also showed an increased awareness of the power of anti-EU sentiment. On March 1, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker published a white paper on the future of the EU containing five possible scenarios, two of which admitted the possibility—until recently considered heresy—that members might opt to regain lost autonomy by loosening their ties to the EU. Reacting to the paper, Merkel did not doubt that Germany itself would continue moving toward increased integration with willing partners, but she recognized that others might be delayed. “We must have the courage [to proceed with further integration even] if not all want to participate,” Merkel stated. “A Europe of different speeds is necessary, otherwise we will probably get stuck.”

A few months before, Wolfgang Schäuble, Merkel’s powerful Finance Minister, expressed a similar sentiment. “In principle, I’m an integrationist,” he noted. “But now is not the time for integration…. [W]e cannot continue as in the past.” These statements from German leaders, not to mention Juncker’s paper, indicate powerfully that, beneath the surface, leading European politicians have begun admitting to themselves that “an ever-closer union” no longer serves as the North Star for all of Europe.

Locked in Limbo

It is one thing to signal an awareness of transnational overreach and another to develop a realistic reform plan for Europe. What is needed is a vision of an institutional framework that will promote solidarity among independent European nations rather than one-size-fits-all integration. But no one of consequence is openly attempting to champion such a plan. Critics of the EU abound; serious advocates of structural reform do not.

There are several reasons for this. One is the continued legitimacy, particularly among EU officials, of Guy Verhofstadt’s vision of a United States of Europe. Verhofstadt’s plan is a pipe dream, and every serious politician knows it, even those who strongly support the EU. Few, however, will say so publicly because the “ever-closer unionists” retain the all-important moral high ground. Verhofstadt is inviting his fellow Europeans to gaze in wonderment at a star, thousands of light years away, that has already expired but whose supernova has yet to register to the naked eye. Its shimmer is an illusion that still captivates.

Besides, the issue of EU reform is too contentious. It is the subject of bitter arguments among governments and among bitter rivals inside individual countries. The issue, if it is ever resolved, will be decided by the most senior leaders of the most powerful countries. What politician would champion a pragmatic reform plan, when doing so would immediately invite attacks without offering the slightest prospect of victory?

EU reform is also the classic example of an issue that is extremely consequential but never urgent. The most pressing problem on the EU agenda today, for example, is getting past the hurdle of Brexit, which presents leaders on both sides of the English Channel with one of the most demanding negotiations of their lives. “Now is not the time for reform,” Schäuble argued shortly after Brexit. “The situation is too serious to play the typical European games in Brussels. The EU stands before perhaps the biggest test in its history.” In other words, EU reform must wait its turn—which will arrive when? If it comes at all, it will likely be on the heels of a severe crisis, such as, for example, the collapse of the Italian economy.

Finally, the EU is locked in limbo—it can’t solve its key problems within its existing institutions, but it cannot reform those institutions either. It knows it needs to change, but the reasons it needs to change include the inability to change.1 Can the United States help? Should it?

The American Interest

President Obama, in keeping with traditional American foreign policy, began and ended his relationship with Europe with strong affirmations of an ever-closer union. In November 2009, he congratulated European leaders at the White House for the “successful integration that’s been taking place in Europe,” offering a full-throated endorsement of the European Union: “I believe that a strengthened and renewed EU will be an even better transatlantic partner with the United States.” Seven years later, in April 2016, as the referendum on EU membership neared, Obama traveled to the United Kingdom to warn that a vote in favor of Brexit would leave Britain out in the cold: It would receive no preferential economic treatment from the United States. As for a bilateral free-trade agreement, he said, the British would be relegated to “the back of the queue.”

It was a surprisingly ham-fisted move. Nothing is better calculated to irritate a democratic people than a foreign leader instructing it on how to vote—by means of threat, no less. The obvious lesson from this blunder is that unqualified American support for “an ever-closer union” is misguided. That conclusion, however, simply begs the questions: Should the United States adopt any policy toward reform of the European Union? If so, what?

That America should adopt a position is beyond doubt. We have an enormous economic, security, and cultural stake in Europe. The continent guards the West’s borders with Russia and the Middle East, and it is an indispensable ally against terrorism. The largest economy in the world, it is also a mainstay of American prosperity. It remains a beacon of democracy in a world in which authoritarianism is rising. The notion that United States can safely leave Europe to its own devices was tested twice in the past century; both times it was found wanting—with horrific consequences. Our fates are linked.

Europe is today undergoing a fitful and uncertain rebalancing away from the transnationalist enterprise and back in the direction of the nation-state. The United States has an interest in seeing that this rebalancing proceeds in a more orderly fashion. If mismanaged, it can turn chaotic and in some cases even fascistic; it can leave a legacy of bitterness among Europeans that will linger for decades; it can offer opportunities for unscrupulous powers, such as Russia, to exploit. If managed correctly, it can result in a healthier and more vital Europe, one better capable of surmounting its own challenges, and of serving as a partner to the United States on the world stage.

However, the health of European nation-states, as opposed to the supranational European state, is indispensable if European democracy is to thrive. Representative democracy is based on the principles of limited government, accountability to the electorate, and the peaceful and orderly transfer of power, none of which are possible without a strong sense of shared values and interests—a sense of membership in a cohesive community. Democracy has never worked at the level of a whole political community in any other form but that of the nation-state. That same sense of social cohesion is a prerequisite for vitality and strength of purpose in foreign policy. It is noteworthy that individual European nations have repeatedly shown the capacity to act alongside us with vigor and decisiveness, while the 28-member European Union cannot.

Multilateralism, as the Europeans practice it, is notoriously cumbersome. It almost always reduces the scope of political or military action to the lowest common denominator. A more united Europe would seem “stronger” on paper because it would produce more stuff—more manpower, combat battalions, and BMWs. But this statistical bravado hides the absence of that indispensable attribute of strength, a vital sense of self. A rich ally is not the same thing as a strong ally. Strong allies have social and political capital, which derive, first and foremost, from national culture.

Therefore, American policy should seek to help the Europeans come to agreement, as Schäuble recently put it, on a more “pragmatic” model of European cooperation that is more accommodating to the perquisites of the nation-state. America should show a strong preference for the principle of Western solidarity—independent nations coming together to form a phalanx—as opposed to the sludgy amalgam of total integration. Angela Merkel’s preferred phrase for endorsing solidarity—“multi-speed Europe”—should not enter the American lexicon, however, because it keeps alive the fiction that everyone is working toward “an ever-closer union,” albeit at different paces.

Europeans themselves have coined a phrase that best describes the outcome Americans should prefer: “variable geometry.” The phrase implicitly rejects the idea that the growth of a supranational state is both inevitable and desirable. This is not to say that America should oppose integration: If a group of European states remains dedicated to ever-increasing integration, more power to it. However, a formal sub-structure within the European Union that permits a second group of states to participate in the common market and customs union while still retaining the key attributes of national sovereignty—control over borders and immigration, currency and fiscal policy, and domestic politics—is a more stable, reliable, and reasonable formulation from the U.S. perspective.

On one level, variable geometry already exists. The EU has a long history of accommodating states that, for whatever reason, desire a close association without adopting all aspects of membership. For example, nine members of the EU have refrained from adopting the euro, including of course the now-exiting United Kingdom. Ireland has adopted the euro but remains explicitly outside of Schengen. Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway remain outside of the EU altogether, but have access to the single market through the European Economic Area. Switzerland has access to the single market through a series of unique bilateral agreements.

These varieties of association developed, however, over decades and on an ad hoc basis. They do not amount to variable geometry of the kind America should support, because EU leaders assumed that membership would always move in only one direction: toward “an ever-closer union.” Brexit represents the first time a state has sought to move away from the EU, a development that highlights the need to formalize two-way traffic. It is not hard to imagine a mechanism that accommodates such different forms of membership. While one set of countries might accept the euro and full-blown membership, others might prefer an associate membership that provides streamlined access to the single market without the supremacy of EU laws and institutions.

Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland, and Britain would be the obvious candidates for associate membership. If the option actually existed, other EU members might prefer it over full-blown membership. The nation-state, recent history teaches us, is not going away soon—nor should it. The United States should never abet its disappearance, especially where fellow democracies are concerned.

The Continental Partnership

As it turns out, a group of European thinkers made a proposal this past August that could have helped the EU move in the direction of a healthier balance between the nation-state and European supra-nationalism. Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the German Bundestag, Jean Pisani-Ferry, a senior policy adviser to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, and Paul Tucker, the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, teamed up with researchers at the Brussels-based think tank Bruegel to outline what they called “Continental Partnership.”

The proposal sought to find an acceptable compromise between one of the guiding principles of the EU and British adherence to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. From its inception, the EU has insisted that all members must accept what are known as “the four freedoms”: the free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. To the Brexiteers in the UK, it is the last of these—the free movement of people—that became the brightest red line, because it stripped national authorities of control over immigration policy.

In effect, the Continental Partnership would have returned that control to British national authorities. The idea was very promising—practical yet bold—but the timing was inauspicious. In both Britain and Europe, officials were still reeling from the Brexit vote. Deeply aware that they were about to start contentious divorce proceedings, they thought it imperative to stake out maximalist positions. EU officials especially feared appearing eager, on the eve of negotiations, to make concessions to Britain. The paper’s authors faced criticism; their proposal quickly became a dead letter.

The Continental Partnership will remain a dead letter for at least two more years, during which time the EU and Britain will negotiate their divorce. Nevertheless, the Trump Administration should still favor a form of variable geometry—not necessarily the Continental Partnership itself, but certainly an arrangement like it, meaning one that would allow Britain to have relatively easy access to the common market and that would pave the way for an institutional framework under which likeminded nation-states could group together.

America needs its own North Star to guide it through the vicissitudes of intra-European politics, which are becoming more tumultuous and consequential than we have witnessed in decades. Even if there is no possibility of reaching our desired destination in the near term, we can at least prevent others from taking steps that will harm our interests. Consider, in that context, the Brexit negotiations. If cooler heads prevail, these will end in two years’ time in an amicable divorce. Emotions, however, are running high. France is insisting on extracting a steep penalty from the UK for its rash behavior, if only to discourage others who might be contemplating a similar move. “There must be a threat, there must be a risk, there must be a price,” Hollande argued this past October.

In short, there are myriad ways in which the negotiations can end in acrimony, sewing seeds of bitterness between Britain and its erstwhile partners on the Continent. The U.S. government, therefore, should impress upon the most important players—the French, British, and Germans—that it has a strong interest in seeing the negotiations conducted in a speedy, amicable, and fair manner that ends in a tidy outcome. Germany, which sells over 800,000 cars annually to Great Britain, will surely be tempted to embrace such a pragmatic stance.

Moreover, regardless of what happens in the Brexit negotiations, the problems of the EU are not going away. In today’s volatile world, a crisis could erupt at a moment’s notice and force the Europeans to rethink the foundations of their enterprise. A surprise victory of Marine Le Pen in France’s presidential election, for example, or the collapse of the Italian financial system, could confront EU leaders with a stark choice of reform or dissolution. The U.S. government must be ready, therefore, to help the Europeans move toward a system of variable geometry.

The Convergence

Only the Europeans can reform the EU. If the U.S. government is to be of any help, it must establish trusting relations with the key players—Britain, France, and, above all, Germany. Thanks to its economic dynamism and staunch commitment to the European project, Germany will play the biggest role in determining the future shape of the EU. In the absence of a productive American-German partnership, the United States will have little to offer: Its efforts will be treated as an Anglo-Saxon plot to drive a wedge between France and Germany.

But the prospect of a trusting relationship is not as distant as it might seem. The harshest European critics of Donald Trump are the officials in Brussels who are most insulated from the political realities on the ground in their own lands, and whose globalism imbues them with hostility toward the best alternatives available to them. The overreach of their transnational project is a much greater cause of their current predicament than they realize. Their blind faith in the creed of globalism will do more to revitalize the blood-and-soil fascism they fear than will a judicious re-balancing in the direction of nationalism and democratic self-government.

Fortunately, the most influential politicians in Europe recognize, along with Trump, that reforming the EU is both necessary and desirable. However, they lack agreement among themselves as to what this reform should entail in practical terms. A goal of U.S. diplomacy, therefore, should be to encourage the Europeans to develop a practical plan for rebalancing Europe in the direction of nation-states. This is delicate work. America cannot lead this effort; it can, however, quietly and firmly assert—in conversation with the French and Germans—an abiding interest in the matter. It can ask Berlin and Paris for their ideas, and then remind them, often, of their own stated goals.

If a trusting partnership does develop, the United States is uniquely placed to help the Europeans overcome their own divisions and realize their aspirations. Europeans leaders recognize their dilemmas, in general terms, but they have difficulty expressing that recognition loudly and unambiguously. If there is one thing that Trump does well, it is getting people to air what they actually think but are too afraid to say.

1 See the argument on this point in Nils Gilman & Steven Weber, “The European Union: This Decade’s USSR?” The American Interest (January/February 2017).

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