The future of the European Union remains in question. Crucial national elections during 2017 in Germany and France will help determine whether the crisis is existential. In this uncertain context, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought a clearer position from the White House regarding US-EU relations during her visit to Washington in March, especially as America’s support for the European project lies at the core of trans-Atlanticism.
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 a trans-Atlantic partnership. However, members of Trump’s cabinet have also reassured their EU counterparts that the US remains committed to an integrated Europe. It appears that President Trump is receiving two contradictory policy prescriptions within his own administration.
The Euroskeptics in the White House contend that fully sovereign national governments ensure good neighborly relations and they question the rationale and effectiveness of the EU. They also claim that the Union is primarily a vehicle for German control. As a result of these factors, the US 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 a common foreign policy. Brussels is also seen as imposing unpopular continental 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 Two 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 remains important for pushing all West Balkan states, as well as Ukraine, Georgia, and other candidates, to continue with their reform programs and reduce regional disputes.
The EU is also important for the US. It forms the world’s most significant market for American companies and the major base for their operations abroad. The trans-Atlantic economy is valued at $5.5 trillion and generates 15 million jobs, half of them for US 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, most Central-East European (CEE) states do not view the EU as a vehicle for German control. On the contrary, they contend that without EU constraints Germany may increasingly dominate the continent at the expense of smaller countries. Hence, CEE capitals did not support “Brexit” and the example it could set in further shrinking the Union. They also oppose 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 US. 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 Two. All US 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 US policy, helping to ensure peace and prosperity and ending prospects for a major new war.
The withdrawal of US 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 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 US military intervention.
The EU should not react to Trump’s occasional criticisms by distancing itself from the US or pushing for some separate European defense system. Such moves are more likely to curtail American involvement and ultimately doom NATO. Trump has already stated that he will reconsider US contributions to NATO if Europe pursues its own military structure. Without strong American engagement and an effective NATO alliance, the EU would become even more vulnerable to Russia’s pressures as well as its own internal fractures.