Sometimes an outsider’s eye perceives symptoms of decay more clearly than those who live in the midst of Europe’s daily churn.
In “Fractured Continent: Europe’s crises and the fate of the West,” veteran U.S. journalist and think tanker William Drozdiak shows how three flawed projects launched at the end of the Cold War — the euro, the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, and the eastward enlargement of the EU and NATO — have stumbled into trouble, opening deep rifts in Europe.
“Today, the dream of European unity has begun to wither away, and the future stability of the Continent is clouded in uncertainty,” Drozdiak says in an assessment that contrasts starkly with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent assertion that Europe has the wind back in its sails.
Compounding the crises, the former Washington Post foreign correspondent says the United States’ disengagement has left Europeans adrift where previously a steadying hand from Uncle Sam often helped navigate the Continent through troubled waters. Drozdiak is a lifelong Atlanticist steeped in the late Richard Holbrooke’s vision of the U.S. as a benevolent, hands-on European power. He warns that, in the absence of strong American leadership, Europe risks being consumed by its old demon: nationalism.
Drozdiak takes readers on a tour of European capitals, diagnosing the fractures he says still threaten to pull the EU apart.
Drozdiak points to a deep-seated EU methodological problem: the habit of setting out to achieve ambitious objectives with half-baked plans forged in late-night compromises, without anticipating what would happen when things go wrong.
Adopting a single currency without a fiscal union or a lender of last resort; opening internal borders without joint action to protect Europe’s external frontiers; bringing former Soviet satellites into the Western orbit without anticipating a hostile Russian backlash — in each case, Europe’s leaders appear to have been naively optimistic and unprepared.
Drozdiak stops short of predicting whether the EU will fall apart, pitching Europe back into conflict, or seize the chance to pull itself together in a salutary response to Trump and Brexit. But he makes clear the key lies chiefly in Berlin, “the new epicenter of power.”
U.S. President Donald Trump’s disdain for Europe and for multilateralism has piled a huge burden of leadership on the weary shoulders of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to whose inner circle Drozdiak enjoyed unrivaled access as the former longtime head of the American Council on Germany. Each of Europe’s overlapping crises has placed new demands on the EU’s reluctant hegemon.
The insider anecdotes Drozdiak recounts highlight Merkel’s lonely responsibility at the peak of the crises, as she rushed from negotiations with Vladimir Putin in Minsk over Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine to an all-night summit in Brussels on Greece’s debt crisis and then talks with British Prime Minister David Cameron on how to avoid a British exit from the EU.
He reveals how reluctant Merkel was to stand for a fourth term and how intensively former U.S. President Barack Obama worked last November to convince her she had a responsibility to the West to run again after the shock of Trump’s election.
Her biggest frustration in battling the multiple crises has been the lack of strong partners in Europe. She could never rely on Cameron, a hostage to Euroskeptics in his party, and was frequently disappointed by French Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, unable to reform France’s bloated state and shackled economy.
“France’s weakness has become one of Europe’s — and Germany’s — biggest problems,” Drozdiak quotes Merkel as telling aides. When Sarkozy, who irked her with his impulsiveness and inferiority complex, tells Merkel: “Angela, we are made to get along. We are the head and legs of the European Union,” she retorts: “No Nicolas, you are the head and legs. I am the bank.”
Drozdiak takes readers on a tour of European capitals, diagnosing the fractures he says still threaten to pull the EU apart, despite a recent return to modest economic growth, the election of the energetic pro-European Emmanuel Macron as French president and an uptick in public support for European unity after nearly a decade of deepening disenchantment. Some of his sharpest observations take place in Warsaw, Moscow and Ankara.
He sees liberal democracy under threat not only in former communist countries such as Poland and Hungary, which joined the EU after the collapse of the Soviet empire, or from authoritarian rulers in Russia and Turkey on Europe’s fringes, but also at its Anglo-Saxon core, with angry nationalism trumping enlightened self-interest in Britain and the United States.
Though Drozdiak paints with a broad brush primarily for an American audience unfamiliar with the minutiae of the EU, his dark tableau is a usefully unflattering mirror for any Europeans tempted by complacency following the defeat of anti-EU populists in France and the Netherlands earlier this year. The surge of support for the anti-immigration far right in Germany and Austria underlines the persistent danger of centrifugal forces tearing at the fabric of European integration.
At times, Drozdiak’s picture may be a shade too black, notably on France, which looks less stagnant and doomed to perpetual decline six months into Macron’s reforming presidency than it did late last year when he was writing. Yet he is right to warn of the potential for Islamist terrorist attacks to trigger anti-Muslim violence by extreme-right vigilantes who are arming and training, against a backdrop of rising tensions over Islam, secularism and security.
Drozdiak compares Trump’s outlook to the isolationism that dominated U.S. policy in the 1930s, ushering in trade protectionism and ignoring the dangers of rising fascism in Europe.
He pinpoints Italy as the next potential flashpoint of European crisis if renewed political instability after next year’s election brings unresolved banking problems to a head in the heavily indebted country, which may be too big to bail out. It’s a judgment that may err on the side of gloom. Italy has a history of teetering on the brink without falling into the abyss.
Drozdiak, who does not hide his dismay at the defeat of Hillary Clinton, depicted as a committed pro-European internationalist, is at his most vitriolic in analyzing the “America first” approach at work in Washington. He compares Trump’s outlook to the isolationism that dominated U.S. policy in the 1930s, ushering in trade protectionism and ignoring the dangers of rising fascism in Europe.
Europeans and Americans alike would benefit from heeding Drozdiak’s warning: That European unification may go into reverse and unravel due to blinkered nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic.
Paul Taylor, contributing editor at POLITICO, is the author of the Europe At Large column.