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Trump: Europe’s wake-up call?

The political pressure on Europe’s rulers, both in Brussels and in their respective capitals, has been tearing the Union apart

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

It should not be controversial to observe that the EU is in a bit of a mess. It has been one slow-motion disaster ever since the 2008 financial crisis. That was initially because one of the pillars of European unity is the Euro currency, yet the European Union does not have the effective political integration to make a currency union work.

Though Europe’s economies, for example, are more similar between themselves than the richest and the poorest states of the US, the United States has an adequate level of political and financial integration to make their monetary union work. Europe is quite far from that.

And the political pressures this has put on Europe’s rulers, both in Brussels and in their respective capitals, has been tearing the Union apart. As has the series of political failures over the handling of the Syrian refugee crisis. Between the two, there is an existential threat hovering over the European project.

Brexit was the first spasm of a potentially fatal illness. But the EU can survive Brexit. Britain has always made a point of being peripheral in the Union, and the EU has never gotten morally or culturally invested in having Britain in.

Nevertheless, as seems to always be the case, people only really react adequately strongly to immediate threats. Long-term threats typically fail to elicit the right amount of concern. The lack of urgency amongst the general peoples of the world regarding climate change is but the best example.

The European project suffers from much the same malaise among its leaders. They can all see that unless they change their approach drastically, the disillusionment with the European project among the people of Europe can ultimately lead to the dissolution of their ambitious project.

Yet, nothing nearly dramatic or organized enough has come out of Brussels, even after Brexit. And this, even as France looks increasingly likely to elect Front National’s Marine Le Pen as President next year, which could well lead to the exit of France from the Union – and that would be a fatal blow.

The threat of American withdrawal from Europe and the resurgence of Russian aggression on European soil may end up doing what the economic situation and the refugee crisis have failed to do

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Trump’s NATO rhetoric

The unlikely hero of this story, however, may end up being Donald Trump. Trump is the first elected leader of the United States to have expressed antagonism towards NATO. NATO has been the keystone of American global power since WW2, but Trump, and his supporters, prefer a more isolationist United States.

If Trump’s rhetoric on NATO is to be taken at face value, the security arrangements for Europe change drastically. For seven decades, Western European countries have developed under the protective umbrella of American military might, while they themselves have maintained semi-independent foreign policies. The security of European NATO members has always been understood as equivalent to the security of the United States’ vital interests, and thus their safety was assured.

But the new US administration does not seem to hold to this defensive doctrine any longer. And even if the Pentagon is still on board, the mere fact that this is up for discussion for the President-Elect, even as Russia continues to carry out military operations against neighboring countries in Europe (i.e. Ukraine), should smash some sense of urgency into the heads of Europe’s political leaders. Europe is less safe now than at any time since the end of WW2. And at this moment in history, division will mean death.

The threat of American withdrawal from Europe and the resurgence of Russian aggression on European soil may end up doing what the economic situation and the refugee crisis have failed to do: persuade Europe’s peoples of the critical importance of coming together and making the European project succeed, both economically and politically, but ultimately, also militarily; and also, get Europe’s leaders on the case and start taking drastic measures to re-engage the integration progress now, while there is still time.

The Front National time-bomb is still ticking. But at least now, thanks to Trump, nobody in Europe can continue to pretend that they cannot hear the ticking. Or that they do not understand the consequences if the bomb does go off.
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Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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