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The Continent’s Future at Stake in European Elections

Europe is ailing. Wracked by a war in the neighborhood with no resolution in sight, starved of leadership willing to address its main challenges, Europe is fast becoming the “sick man of the West.” But with elections to the European Parliament running Thursday through Sunday, voters in the EU’s twenty-seven member states have the chance to be the opening act in the development of a stronger Europe that would, in turn, be a better partner for America.

In recent years, the long-reigning “Atlanticist” consensus—premised on an alignment of interests between the United States and Europe—has taken ever more unsustainable forms. Egged on by militancy from across the ocean, Europe has followed a wartime path fully dependent on American military backing, yet ever more precarious and uncertain in its outcomes. A sanctions policy has been implemented with little recognition of its effects on ordinary citizens, and European political processes show little appetite for public debate of strategic questions.

An “America First” agenda need not be at odds with a more sovereign, self-supporting Europe. Indeed, they can be complementary. But how to get there depends on European developments in the coming months, and on American developments thereafter. So where do things stand?

Ordinary Europeans realize that something is deeply wrong. According to the newest poll from Semafor, voters in France and Germany have begun to doubt the commitment of the United States to European security. Yet this sentiment is not a warlike one. Contrary to mainstream European politicians, western European citizens favor a negotiated settlement in Ukraine, think that Europe should be more responsible for its own defense, and favor a more balanced relationship with the United States. Likewise, 69 percent of EU citizens oppose sending troops to Ukraine.

These ordinary viewpoints are not being reflected in the level of European politics, however. Instead, more and more, Europe’s sickness is beginning to look like a fever. Far from bringing about a reconsideration of the war, the parlous state of the Ukraine conflict has only prompted European leaders to redouble their military commitment. Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that Ukraine would be able to use certain French missiles to strike targets inside Russia. And NATO’s secretary general has brought the organization close to crossing its own red lines against direct involvement in the conflict.

Politics in Europe is still national, but Brussels’ institutions enjoy tremendous power. This disjunction has caused a paralysis in Europe’s definition of its international role. “Vote locally, with unmanaged international consequences” has proven a manifest failure. While European elites long for a “Hamiltonian moment” that could transform Europe into a unified political entity, in practice they mean preferring the European institutions insulated against popular dissatisfaction.

What has this meant in recent years? Involvement in the Ukraine conflict has been adopted as a defining moment of European politics—yet with little or no input from European citizens. The green agenda favored by center-left elites has been pushed by the European Commission, effectively Europe’s governing body. “Rule of law” investigations have been launched against Hungary and, formerly, the conservative Polish government—tightening the politicization of European institutions. The most recent sovereigntist turn in Europe—the return of Slovakian prime minister Robert Fico—resulted in the gravest European political assassination attempt in living memory. The consequence of all these trends has been a continent on the verge of economic decline, with politicized institutions of declining credibility, a social model destroyed by uncontrolled illegal migration and a political model of great fragility.

Europe does not have long to begin to resolve this problem—and cannot do so alone. Having suffered the consequences of a disastrous migration policy, and having taken the brunt of a failed energy sanctions policy, Europe’s reserves are running thin. The institutional context for resolving these concerns is also lacking. Unlike most parliaments, the European Parliament (EP) does not propose new laws, but—in the EU’s Byzantine structure—votes on policies proposed by the European Commission and Council. Since the Commission’s membership is voted on by the European Parliament, its effects on European policymaking are indirect but real.

Under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission has reflected a “centrist” agenda in the same way that the American “center” has, over time, reflected a more and more radical agenda. Fittingly enough, the von der Leyen Commission has also been a faithful replicator of the liberal-Atlanticist agenda of the American deep state.

Here the possibility for change hinges on tilting the European Parliament to the right, and hoping that the right-wing parties can come together and shape a more conservative, more responsive Commission. At the moment, the EP is dominated by an alliance between the center-right EPP and center-left S&D party groupings. In the most recent elections in 2019, held in the wake of Brexit and the migration crisis, sovereigntist parties grew in strength. But the von der Leyen Commission was ultimately elected on a “centrist” alliance of center-right and center-left.

Current polls show that a rightward tilt is the likely outcome of the election. Stitching together the corresponding parties and European party groups is another matter. Aside from EPP, Europe’s right-wing party groupings, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID), are dominated respectively by Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN). ID recently expelled the German AfD party from its ranks; here too, domestic political needs could get in the way of making alliances among the right-wing parties. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party is not conjoined to any party grouping, and has expressed an intention of joining ECR. But only the election results will show what combinations are possible.

American skeptics of involvement in the Ukraine conflict have sometimes cast aspersions on the European right (particularly Italy’s Meloni) for not being bolder in advocating for a swift, peaceful resolution to the conflict. But as long as Europe depends heavily on outside support, it can be wishful thinking to expect most European politicians to diverge from the transatlantic consensus. A true transformation of European politics toward the seeking of a peaceful resolution requires a change of leadership as well as the development of a stronger native defense capacity.

Regardless of what happens in the elections, European ability to pursue its own foreign policy goals will demand a delicate balance on the part of any corresponding conservative resurgence in the United States. The sad fact of the situation is that European debate about its international role has devolved into a very degraded state, with little discussion of strategic issues around war and peace. In other words, Europe has been emptying its coffers to support Ukraine’s military effort without any plan regarding the conflict’s denouement. When European politicians speak as though the military wind is at their sails, they do so on the basis of perceived American support and not on the basis of Europe’s own geopolitical strength.

The needy state of European defense, and the limits on American global military projection, have prompted many on the American right to insist on a greater role for Europe in its own self-defense. If a returned Trump administration is to pursue this approach, however, it will have to foster the conditions necessary for European political leaders to identify European strategic interests and to develop ways of calculating the nature of their own security and defense. It won’t be enough to simply vocalize that Europe should take care of its own defense. American conservatives will need to directly help European sovereigntist forces bring about a rethinking of Europe’s strategic priorities.

The increasingly militant nature of the transatlantic consensus has hobbled the development of this strategic mindset in Europe, however. At present, European politicians willingly pursue decoupling from Russian energy or Chinese markets if the imperative comes from Washington requiring that in the name of Western security.

In other words, American “realist” expectations won’t be realized for Europe unless Europe is given the chance to define its own interests, and has the economic and political conditions necessary to realize them.

Many American skeptics of intervention have fretted that shifts to the right haven’t brought a reconsideration of the war. But it is difficult for an economically weakened, militarily underdeveloped and socially torn Europe to develop the framework of a robust self-defense. The war has cost Europe approximately 100 billion euros thus far (the United States has contributed a comparable amount), plus an untold opportunity cost as energy prices have risen and business and trade has dried up.

With Trump poised to storm over an ailing Biden candidacy into the White House, Europe’s ailing place in the Western alliance will soon take center stage. If Trump comes to power, America’s role in Europe can only be managed with the strong presence of sovereigntist forces in Europe.

An America First agenda can only take hold in the United States if European patriots have the chance to replace Europe’s uniparty with sovereigntist forces intent on defining and realizing a path that makes sense for Europe. Such a path would be built on strong nations, an interlinked economy, strategic decision-making and a restored cultural nexus.

In the coming days, we will find out what political forces Europe has to offer in this essential fight.



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