At a political rally in Munich on May 28, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the days when Europe could completely count on others were over, in the wake of last week’s bruising NATO and G-7 meetings. Instead, she said, the time has come for Europe to take its fate into its own hands.
Merkel’s carefully selected words resonated worldwide, triggering a debate on the deepening split within the transatlantic alliance.
Some claim that Merkel’s statements served more to rally domestic support ahead of federal elections to take place on Sept. 24.
Considering U.S. President Donald Trump’s harsh criticism toward Germany in Brussels, where he complained about a $64 billion bilateral trade deficit and accused Germany of unfairly benefitting from trade relations with the U.S., this might be true to an extent.
However, the body language of the participants, as well as the bizarre handshake rituals during the meetings, reflect a shared frustration among European leaders with regard to Trump’s defiant stance toward NATO and Europe.
Contrary to expectations, speaking at the new NATO headquarters before a 9/11 memorial, Trump did not affirm his commitment to Article 5, the mutual aid clause of the NATO treaty. Ironically, the only time NATO invoked Article 5 was to protect the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Instead, Trump reiterated that NATO allies should pay their share of the defense budget so as to reach 2 percent of their GDP, which means that as of now, the collective defense mechanism rests upon the premise of conditionality.
Tension in the transatlantic alliance is no new phenomenon, and it is not something particular to the Trump administration. There has always been an asymmetry in power relations between the U.S. and Europe, and the transatlantic partners have occasionally had conflicting interests, as in the case of the Iraq War in 2003. While Europe’s failure to act as a common front during the Balkan wars in the 1990s engendered contempt; Europe’s overdependence on the U.S. defense umbrella has been something that Washington simultaneously complained about and desired so as to avoid a competing actor in the international system.
What is different today is the fact that Europe has been directly threatened by Russia’s expansionist policies and radical terrorism. At a time when the U.S. leadership and protection is so strongly sought, the Trump administration has refused to undertake the burdens of responsibility alone. This, in turns, creates a grave security deficit for the allies.
Besides, the Trump administration’s pragmatic foreign policy line, which treats democracy and human rights as secondary criteria in international relations, and its disdain for international institutions and its support for economic protectionism, openly contradicts and undermines the basic tenets of the liberal democratic order established by the U.S. after World War II.
So there is also a widening value gap between Europe and the U.S. under the Trump administration.
As such, will Europe really be able to take its fate into its own hands?
The recent victory of Emmanuel Macron in France fostered hopes that the Euroskeptic populist wave might ultimately be halted. And given that Germany’s leading candidates in the upcoming elections are known to have a pro-EU stance, it is possible that the union could be revived based on a Franco-German partnership despite Brexit.
Indeed, it was by and large thanks to the Franco-German reconciliation, from the de Gaulle- Adenauer years to the subsequent Mitterrand-Kohl era, which paved the way for the transformation of the European Economic Community into a political union.
The crux of the matter is how to forge this process without awakening the fears of German assertiveness in parallel to growing German influence within the union.
Against this background, Turkey emerges as a potential partner for Europe in terms of security as well as economic cooperation. Given the recently agreed 12-month calendar on the future of Turkey’s accession bid (the lack of details notwithstanding), today’s turbulence actually offers an opportunity to forge a new EU-Turkey partnership that might work for the benefit of both sides – provided that both sides fulfill their obligations.
Otherwise, this may go down as yet another wasted opportunity.