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Can readers of this newspaper name the EU’s chief diplomat without looking it up? Or, to remain ceremonial, the “High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy”? Can even one in ten do that? If that is not the case, it is not all the fault of Josep Borrell himself, a persistent type who gave the best of himself during a convulsive period. It’s just that an envoy to 27 states that don’t unify their external policies—not really, not outside of trade—isn’t an envoy at all.
Fragmentation: This is one reason for the peculiar weakness of the EU, which has many more inhabitants than America and a share of world output that rivals China’s at current exchange rates.
Before we explain the other reasons, it is worth discussing the extent of that powerlessness. Yes, the EU, its states and Britain are doing their utmost to help Ukraine, with Germany being a prolific donor of equipment, not just finance. But the future of that damaged country, with which the EU has a border, depends largely on tens of thousands of swing voters in the American rust belt, plus Georgia (not those in the South Caucasus) and Arizona. There I sat in these pages in September, trying to guess the foreign policy of a second Donald Trump administration, when the real story is that Europe, a lifetime since the Marshall Plan, still decides its fate abroad.
At the same time, Israel, which is about 200 nautical miles from EU member Cyprus, looks more to Washington than to all the continent’s capitals combined. Europe’s dependence on the US in and around its own region is now so well known and so much part of the wallpaper of world politics that we have completely lost sight of its bizarre strangeness.
A more centralized foreign policy would help. But even if this “Hamiltonian moment” came, it would mean – what? Better coordination of insufficient resources? And now Europe’s second problem.
The main armies in Europe are Great Britain and France. One country has shaky public services, a tax burden high by its own standards, and so much debt that the markets cried the last time it tried to borrow much more. In the other case, the government faced some of the strongest protests since 1968 against raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Add to that the German situation – the economic model there relied on Russian gas as a raw material and on China as buyers – and it is fanciful. that Europe will finance a permanently stronger defense position. This is a case of too little growth over too long a period, resulting in too little budget revenue to cover too much expenditure. Gross domestic product is not everything, but it is almost everything, including life and death.
You will find that both problems – institutional fragmentation and underspending on defense – are practical. I completely assumed that a European superpower would do good things, if only the everyday agreements could be made.
Would it? It is often assumed in Washington that Europe’s worst mental habit is a kind of peace naivete. But most of that went extinct a while ago. Almost no one of note in the EU believes that it can redeem the world through diplomatic finesse, economic aid and sheer power as an example. (Even Sweden wants to join NATO.) No, the problem is much worse than that. It consists of that large minority of politicians and voters who think in hard strategic terms, but have obscure preferences.
The Ukrainian fatigue in Europe is not the same as the America First strain growing on Capitol Hill. First, it is often directed in return for The United States. There is a trend in European thought that tends to seek alignment with the most representative counterweight to ‘Anglo-Saxon’ power. Part of it is a genuine belief that a multipolar order is more just. (Based on what precedent?) Some of it is much smaller in scale. This is not the main force in European intellectual life, but it extends from left to right, and has a history dating back to the Seven Years’ War, the most neglected event(s) in modern history, which helped define that English-speaking countries instead of France would shape the world.
This fall, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National finally repaid a notorious Russian loan. In the not unthinkable scenario that she would be president of France, the idea of a geopolitical Europe would take on a completely different appearance. We must ask ourselves whether the irrelevance of the EU’s top diplomat is a cause for shame, or the greatest relief.