The European project and the transatlantic partnership are facing two major strains: Challenged internally by strengthened right-wing populists, and confronted externally with a U.S. administration that is somewhere between skeptical and openly hostile toward the European Union, the future of Europe and its position alongside the United States seems more in question than it has been for a long time.
Discussing whether Europe's center can hold: Yascha Mounk, Senior Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute, and Brookings Fellow Alina Polyakova.
On June 13, 2019, The Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank, and the Robert Bosch Stiftung hosted a debate on these current topics, which are existential for Europe, as part of the “Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI)”. Titled “Europe’s post-American future?”, the event was held at Brookings in Washington, DC.
Different perceptions of transatlantic relations
Before two consecutive panels discussed the questions “Can Europe’s center hold?” and “The trans-Atlantic agenda in 2021 – is deeper cooperation possible?”, Christian Hänel, Senior Vice President International Relations America and Asia at the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and Thomas Wright, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, emphasized the good transatlantic cooperation of the two partners. At the same time, Mr. Hänel expressed concerns about the fact that the perception of the relationship on the two sides of the Atlantic currently diverged greatly, quoting two opinion polls conducted by the Atlantic Bridge and the Pew Research Center, respectively: While almost 85 percent of Germans took a negative or very negative view of the partnership, 70 percent of Americans surveyed still considered German-American relations to be good. Mr. Hänel expressed the deliberately ambitious hope that the ensuing discussion would bring about a dash of optimism. A wish that was hard to meet.
The participants of the discussion “Can Europe's center hold?” (from left to right): moderator and Financial Times columnist Edward Luce; Brookings Visiting Fellow Célia Belin; Yascha Mounk, Senior Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute; Brookings Fellow Alina Polyakova; and Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at Brookings.
The recent elections to the European Parliament could not conclusively answer the question of the first panel, chaired by Financial Times columnist Edward Luce, as to whether Europe’s center was holding. Yascha Mounk, Senior Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute, stressed that the right-wing populists had received the most votes in Italy, France, the UK, Hungary, and Poland. Brookings Fellow Alina Polyakova pointed out that, despite this, two thirds of the members of the European Parliament were committed to the liberal norms and values of European integration. On top of that, it was a positive sign that the right-wing populists had not managed to form a joint parliamentary group. Rather, for the first time in the history of the EU, a real cross-continental debate on EU issues could be seen, said Ms. Polyakova.
Are Hungary and Poland headed for dictatorship?
But even without forming a joint group in the EU Parliament, the right-wing populists have a chance to at least obstruct the European project and its foundation of liberal, integrative values and norms, in Brussels and even more so in their home countries. According to Mr. Mounk, this could mean that the EU would be in a kind of zombie-like state in the coming years. At the same time, Mr. Mounk put forward the hypothesis that illiberally governed nations like Hungary and Poland were headed for dictatorship. Ms. Polyakova considered this assessment exaggerated and warned against equating liberalism with democracy. In her view, the rollback of democratic institutions gave cause for concern, but did not yet represent a crisis of democracy: “Even the illiberal populist parties in Europe are democratically legitimized and are responding to real grievances perceived by the population in their respective countries,” she said.
The panelists agreed on one lesson learned from the election though: The story of this European election is the story of fragmentation, stated Brookings Visiting Fellow Célia Belin, pointing out that the traditional center-right and center-left parties combined had received less than half of all votes in the election. At the same time, the continuing fragmentation made it increasingly difficult to find viable solutions to pan-European issues, added Ms. Belin.
What’s behind the rise of the right-wing populists?
Disagreement among the experts remained, however, over the cause of the rise of the right-wing populists and the weakness of the centrist parties. While Mr. Mounk claimed that the dividing line of European politics had shifted from the economy to culture, Ms. Belin countered that the demand for economic and social justice continued to be the decisive political motivation for a majority of European voters.
Panelists of “The trans-Atlantic agenda in 2021 – is deeper cooperation possible?” (from left to right): Moderator Thomas Wright, Director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings; Victoria Nuland, Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings; Walter Russell Mead, Fellow at the Hudson Institute; Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at Brookings; and Benjamin Haddad, Director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
With regard to the transatlantic relationship, the experts agreed that U.S. President Trump could not be blamed for the rise of European right-wing populism. He had, however, further fueled the social and political divide within Europe with his European policy, which benefitted the disintegrative forces on the European continent, stated Amanda Sloat, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at Brookings. But even more than the fact that Trump was backing Europe’s right-wing populists, she considered it worrying that Europeans “still don’t have a Plan B” for dealing with the U.S. in the event of a Trump reelection victory in 2020: “If Trump is reelected, Europeans will need to make some very difficult decisions about their own strategic options and direction,” Ms. Sloat said. This was already overdue and imperative, agreed the participants on the second panel, moderated by Thomas Wright, “The trans-Atlantic agenda in 2021 – is deeper cooperation possible?”.
The EU should take a stand internationally
“We are confronted with an American administration that seems hell-bent on restating the framing of the international order” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at Brookings. “This is a genuine problem for Europe, because the institutions of this order provide peace, prosperity, and democratic transformation not only in Europe, but also elsewhere.” The experts agreed that the conclusion to be drawn from the American renunciation of institutionalism was clear: The EU had to defend existing norms and institutions because no region or political power had benefitted more strongly from multilateralism and international cooperation, emphasized Benjamin Haddad, Director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council. To do so, however, Europeans had to first do their long overdue homework, stressed Walter Russell Mead, Fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. “This means, among other things, thinking in much more depth about what their core interests are and then pursuing them more consistently and actively.” More than ever, the EU must take a stand internationally – despite the numerous unresolved issues within Europe, such as the stance on immigration, and despite pressure from the U.S. administration on issues such as trade and environmental protection, added Victoria Nuland, Nonresident Senior Fellow at Brookings. At the same time, “many transatlantic challenges, such as the right approach in dealing with China and Russia are the same, but we are not addressing them as partners,” said Ms. Nuland. Her biggest concern at the moment was “not too much Europe, but too little Europe.”