The future of the European Union remains
in question. Crucial national elections during 2017 in Germany,
France and Holland will help determine whether the crisis is
existential. In this context, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is
seeking a clearer position from the White House regarding U.S.-EU
relations during her visit to Washington this week, especially as
America’s support for the European project lies at the core of
Thus far, President Donald Trump’s
administration has sent mixed messages: both Euroskeptic and
Eurosupportive. Trump’s criticisms of the EU and his backing for
“Brexit” unsettled Europe’s leaders amid concerns that America was
less dedicated to the transatlantic partnership. However, members of
Trump’s cabinet have also reassured their EU counterparts that the
United States remains committed to an integrated Europe. It appears
that President Trump is receiving two differing policy prescriptions
within his administration.
The Euroskeptics in the White House
contend that fully sovereign national governments ensure good
neighborly relations and question the rationale and effectiveness of
the EU. They also claim that the Union is a vehicle for German
control. As a result, the United States should avoid multilateral
solutions such as free trade agreements and deal on a bilateral
basis with EU member states.
In marked contrast, Eurosupporters in
the Trump cabinet have affirmed Washington’s backing for the EU even
though they understand the costs and benefits of EU membership. On
the negative side, the Union is politically flawed and has not
developed into a confederation with a common foreign policy.
Brussels is also seen as imposing unpopular continent-wide
regulations on states that are grappling with their sovereignty.
Moreover, the Schengen open border system has come under fire since
the massive refugee inflows from the Middle East.
However, the EU has also delivered a
number of positives. It consolidated the post-World War II peace in
Western Europe, incorporated the majority of former communist
states, and proved instrumental in constructing free markets,
democratic systems and the rule of law throughout Europe. It
continues to be important for pushing all West Balkan states, as
well as Ukraine, Georgia and other candidates, to complete their
reform programs and reduce regional disputes.
The EU is also important for the United
States. It forms the world’s most significant market for American
companies and the major base for their operations abroad. The
transatlantic economy is valued at $5.5 trillion and generates 15
million jobs, half of them for U.S. citizens. The EU is America’s
largest trading partner and the greatest source of foreign
investment. The Union provides a one-stop platform, allowing
American companies to deal with a single financial and economic
regulator rather than 28 separate country regulatory bodies.
Unlike the euroskeptics in the White
House, the Central-East European (CEE) states do not believe that
the EU is a vehicle for German control. On the contrary, several
governments contend that without EU constraints Germany may
increasingly dominate the continent at the expense of smaller
countries. This helps to explain why Warsaw did not support “Brexit”
and the example it could set in further shrinking the Union. Warsaw
is also opposed to a “multi-speed” Europe in which the larger states
such as Germany and France accelerate their integration and exclude
the CEE countries.
In the security domain, the EU has a
largely positive impact on NATO, as countries that have a common
economic and political agenda are more likely to defend each other
during a crisis. A lessened role in the EU could mean a reduced
commitment to joint defense and more divisive relations with the
United States. For instance, with London no longer having a voice in
EU affairs it may become less committed to defending Europe and less
important for Washington in dealing with the continent.
The transatlantic link has been the
foundation of American foreign policy since World War II. All U.S.
Presidents supported a politically and economically integrated
Europe bound to America by common values, trade and security.
Indeed, the EU itself can be viewed as a historical success for U.S.
policy, helping to ensure peace and prosperity and ending prospects
for a major new war.
The withdrawal of U.S. support at a time
when the EU is experiencing an institutional crisis and growing
populist demands would further weaken European security and benefit
Russia’s ambitions to divide the continent and manipulate its
foreign and security policies. Without the EU, the old continent may
also unearth dormant national disputes, undermine the NATO alliance
and at some point in the future necessitate another U.S. military
The EU should not react to President
Trump’s occasional criticisms by distancing itself from the United
States or pushing for some separate defense structure. Such moves
are more likely to limit American involvement and ultimately doom
NATO. Donald Trump has already stated that he will reconsider U.S.
contributions to NATO if Europe pursues its own military structure.
Without strong American engagement and an effective Alliance, the EU
would become even more vulnerable to Russia’s pressures as well as
its own internal fractures. Such a scenario would, in turn, threaten
America’s strategic and economic interests.