US policy towards Europe, and strengthening the transatlantic alliance, should be a foreign policy priority for the next President of the United States, who will take office in January 2017. Europe remains the most important source of allies for the United States, and it is in US interests to maintain a strong partnership with individual European nations. A flourishing and healthy transatlantic alliance is vital to US security, trade and prosperity. It makes sense for America to support a flexible Europe that promotes national sovereignty and economic freedom, and does not limit the ability of individual European countries to stand alongside the United States whenever they choose to do so.
A supranational Europe that stifles sovereignty and weakens both the NATO alliance and the Anglo-American Special Relationship would be firmly contrary to US interests. The direction Europe is now taking, with accelerating integration in the areas of foreign and defense policy and a deepening Eurozone debt crisis, should give Washington major cause for concern, and lead to a re-think of traditional American backing for the process of European integration, known within the EU as the “European Project.”
The European Project is the process of economic, and subsequently political, union that began with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. Americans should not confuse the European Project with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), or with the broader transatlantic alliance. Today the term refers specifically to the ongoing process of integration within the 28-nation EU and the 19-nation Eurozone. Key landmarks in the development of the European Project have included the establishment of the European Economic Community in 1958, the European Union in 1993 (through the Maastricht Treaty), the launch of the European single currency in 1999, and the coming into force of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009.
Successive US administrations have supported, to varying degrees, the process of ‘ever closer union,’ in the belief that it would preserve peace in Europe and advance economic growth across the continent. In the aftermath of the Cold War, expansion of the European Union was seen as an important mechanism for bringing former Eastern Bloc countries into the Western orbit. With the accession of Croatia in 2013, that grand era of expansion is now over, at least for the near term. Turkey remains a candidate, but Berlin and Paris remain implacably opposed to its entry, and Turkish public opinion is turning increasingly away from EU membership.
The Obama administration has been an enthusiastic and uncompromising supporter of the European Project, including the single currency and foreign and defense policy integration. President Obama has declared that “we stand behind the European project, we stand behind the euro.” Vice President Joe Biden delivered a speech in Belgium in 2010 declaring Brussels to be the “capital of the free world” while crowning the European Parliament as “the bastion of liberal democracy.” Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton strongly backed the Treaty of Lisbon. In an interview with The Irish Times soon after taking office, she stated that “I believe [political integration is] in Europe’s interest and I believe that is in the United States’ interest because we want a strong Europe.” Barack Obama’s former Ambassador to London, Louis Susman, warned British Members of the European Parliament that “all key issues must run through Europe”, i.e. Brussels. The Obama presidency has also chosen on several occasions to warn Britain against leaving the European Union, an extraordinary intervention into Britain’s domestic political debate.
The European Union today is vastly different from the far humbler trading organisation originally envisioned by US strategists in the aftermath of World War Two. Today the EU has many of the trappings of a superstate, including: a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), a Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), a President of the European Council, a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, and a 7,000-strong diplomatic corps spread across 130 embassies in the form of the European External Action Service. The unelected European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, wields extraordinary power at the helm of a vast and growing supranational bureaucracy that increasingly presumes to speak on behalf of individual EU member states.
As well as evolving into a supranational leviathan, the European Union, and the Eurozone in particular, has become beset by deep-rooted economic problems, with massive public debts in several member states, huge unfunded pension liabilities, heavy unemployment in southern Europe, weak economic growth, and a destructive big government culture that constrains entrepreneurial spirit and economic liberty.
As a result of this economic decline Europe may witness the beginning of the break-up of the Eurozone, starting with Greece within the next year, with Italy, Spain and Portugal all countries that could potentially make an exit at a later stage. It is conceivable that the Eurozone could shrink to a significantly smaller group of EU nations clustered around Germany and France, as it is unlikely that the Eurozone will survive long-term in its current form. Whether or not this also threatens the very future of political integration within Europe remains to be seen. But there can be no doubt that there is rising disillusionment with the European Project itself across the EU.
When it enters office in 2017 a new US administration should make a hard-nosed reassessment of American policy on Europe. The next president should avoid backing the idea of a supranational Europe that lacks democratic legitimacy, tramples on national sovereignty, and increasingly acts against US interests in some key areas. The White House should instead elevate the importance of NATO, as well as bilateral alliances with European partners such as Great Britain and key US allies in Eastern and Central Europe, which have been undermined in recent years. It must also place advancing economic freedom in Europe at the heart of its transatlantic policy.
The next US presidency must embark upon a fundamental re-evaluation of earlier American support for the process of ‘ever-closer union’ in Europe. Europe itself is deeply divided over the matter, and it makes no sense for Washington to continue backing an undemocratic political and economic project in Europe that frequently undercuts US interests.
In addition, the UK’s planned 2017 EU referendum (dependent upon a Conservative-led government following the May 7 general election), with the strong possibility that Britain will leave the EU, must also force a reassessment in Washington’s overall approach to Europe. An independent Britain, freed of EU membership, should strengthen, not weaken, the Special Relationship, and open up the opportunity of a US-UK free trade area. The United States should not fear “Brexit” if it takes place, but rather embrace it.
The United States needs a healthy, free and enterprising Europe, but not a European superstate that limits the ability of key European allies to work freely with the US on important issues, ranging from the Iranian nuclear crisis to intelligence sharing and the global war against Islamist terrorism. US foreign policy should emphasize ties with nation states, not supranational institutions. American policymakers should heed the advice of Britain’s Iron Lady, who declared in 2002 with great prescience:
“That such an unnecessary and irrational project as building a European superstate was ever embarked upon will seem in future years to be perhaps the greatest folly of the modern era.”