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On Trump, China and Russia the EU must now take a stand

Ursula von der Leyen and MEPs in the European Parliament.Photograph: European Parliament/Gabor KOVACS/Flickr. - Credit: Archant

The stage is set for the EU to finally develop from a trading bloc into a major global power, says JOHN KAMPFNER. But will it do so?

China has stamped on Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms with a ferocity that is its hallmark. Russia has ‘voted’ to allow Vladimir Putin to stay in power until he’s 83. America is in throes of the pandemic, violence and electoral mayhem.

Europe has never been more alone or more in danger. Shorn of the awkward squad, the Brits, it has a perfect moment to establish itself, once and for all, as a major power and a major voice in the world. Will it do it?

First the good news: since July 1, the European Union is being run by two German women. The choice of Ursula von der Leyen as president of the European Commission was not to everyone’s taste.

The former defence minister struggled to assert her authority and to give the bloc coherence at the start of the coronavirus crisis

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Panicky member governments took decisions on their own, often putting themselves at odds with each other. It took a couple of months for borders to reopen and for coordination to kick in.

The economic stimulus packages agreed so far are impressive and demonstrate a greater coming together of the wealthy north and spendthrift south (to borrow the caricatures) than happened during the debt crisis of a decade ago.

None of that would have been possible without Angela Merkel. Germany was instrumental in devising the EU’s rescue package to the tune of 540 billion euros. And, together with France, it proposed a recovery fund worth half a trillion euros financed by EU-issued debt, making a leap towards shared liability (though stopping short of issuing ‘coronabonds’ favoured by some member states). There have been no more graffiti of Merkel with a Hitler moustache on Greek buildings.

Now, with Germany taking over the rotating presidency of the EU, it holds all the cards. How will it play them? Is it able to lead?

Since Donald Trump took the helm, the world has lost its lodestar. The process was beginning to happen many years before. The America of John F Kennedy, of Hollywood, ideals, glamour and power may have been a Cold War myth but it was a persuasive one.

Now television screens around the world depict a country racked with racial strife, inequality, crumbling infrastructure and a president who has become the antithesis of everything the country was supposed to represent.

Can Europe fill that gap? Perhaps that is the wrong question. The politics of imitation, to use the phrase coined by the political scientist Ivan Krastev, are over. But it can still set an example. To do that it needs to represent more than the sum total of its parts; it cannot continue to define itself only in economic terms, as the world’s largest trading bloc. Values count – and that is there where it is least convincing.

The recent explosion of populist-nationalist governments, from Poland to Hungary to (until recently) Italy, aided and abetted by Russia and China – and Trump – undermined Europe from within its heart.

Merkel, ever the diplomat, suggested in a recent interview that the resistance to liberal democracy was the result of historical traumas. ‘In our euphoria we failed to fully realise what long-term traces dictatorships had left in the 40 years since the Second World War. After National Socialism and the Second World War, many countries in eastern Europe went straight into a second period of dictatorship,’ she said, with more than one eye on her compatriots from the former GDR.

‘The countries of the eastern bloc had only a few years to develop their own national identities. So only later did they undergo processes that had long been part of normal life in western countries.’

Her argument papers over contemporary weaknesses. Europe has still to resolve the dilemma it has ducked for decades. Does it see anti-democratic forces such as Russia and China as trading opportunities to be kept sweet or as adversaries? Of course, the question is not as binary as that. Trade took place, quite often successfully, during the Cold War. But everyone knew which side Europe (then western Europe) was on.

Last week, Brexiting UK set an intriguing challenge when Dominic Raab, the foreign secretary, announced sanctions on 49 people and organisations behind the most ‘notorious’ human rights abuses of recent years. Most of the individuals were Russians implicated in the death of the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009 and Saudis involved in the gruesome killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Raab said the move sent a ‘clear message’ that action was being taken against the ‘thugs of despots and henchmen of dictators’ as well as stopping those trying to launder their ‘blood-drenched ill-gotten gains’.

Behind the colourful rhetoric lie many inconsistencies. Where were the Chinese on the list? Is that country deemed too powerful, too economically essential, to tackle? The UK government is clearly confining itself to the low-hanging fruit, the perpetrators of crimes rather than the politicians and leaders who ordered them.

But even if the glass is only half, or a quarter, full it is a start. Germany will use its turn at the helm to launch the first-ever common threat analysis for the EU, as well as brokering a deal allowing non-member countries (for that particularly read Britain) access to defence cooperation projects. Finding common ground among the 27 over Russia and China is a high bar in itself.

That task is made inordinately harder by Trump’s belligerent approach towards Germany. He loathes Merkel and makes no secret of it. He explained his recent announcement of US troop withdrawals by calling the Germans ‘delinquent’ – a curious choice of adjective with which to describe the otherwise legitimate American complaint that Germany has failed to honour its promise to spend 2% of GDP on defence.

If Trump loses in the November election and chaos before, during and after polling is averted (big ifs), how much will the old order return? Not as much as one might hope, said Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas. ‘Everyone who thinks everything in the trans-Atlantic partnership will be as it once was with a Democratic president underestimates the structural changes.’

Good relations remained highly important ‘and we are working to ensure they have a future,’ he added. ‘But with the way they are now, they are no longer fulfilling the demands both sides have of them.’

A Biden presidency would most likely re-join the Paris climate agreement and call off the threats against the World Health Organisation. It might well seek to learn from Europe’s stronger line towards big tech and privacy. It might even borrow some of its economic instruments, such as job protection schemes at times of crisis.

It would work much more closely with Europe and other countries in tackling future emergencies. But it would be no easier a negotiator on trade and would demand more from Europe in terms of defence spending and in standing up to China and Russia.

Trump’s feud with China has taken some of the heat off Europe. In early June, the high representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, said the EU did not regard China as a military threat. Nor did the bloc say much of consequence about China’s hideous new security law in Hong Kong.

Faced with adversaries from all directions, an embattled Europe has not had to choose which side it is on. The time is fast approaching, however, when it will. That will be an uncomfortable moment, but an unavoidable one – if it is ever to be taken seriously as more than a trading station.

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