Beneath the strained bonhomie of the G7 summit lurks a visceral fear: that Joe Biden’s bid to build a democratic alliance to stem the authoritarian tide led by China and Russia will split the world in two, leaving Europe, betrayed by Boris Johnson’s turncoat Britain, to play piggy-in-the-middle.
Despite public applause for Biden’s key message – that the US is “back” after the xenophobic hyper-nationalism of Donald Trump – European leaders seem far from convinced. They worry the EU may be sucked into a second, limitless cold war, and that Biden, who will be 82 in 2024, could be unseated by a hawkish Trump or Trump clone.
The message to Europe in Johnson’s fawning weekend embrace of Biden and America, symbolised by a reworked Atlantic Charter and much Cornish corniness, was clear. Like a whipped bulldog craving favour, Brexit Britain will be Washington’s obedient, needy pet. Johnson is no Winston Churchill. But like Churchill in 1941, he’s desperate for US backing.
Biden will strive to hold the transatlantic alliance together, which for him means all the European democracies, including the UK. But the Johnson government’s anti-EU trajectory, seen in the latest row with Brussels over Northern Ireland, threatens his vision.
Last week’s forceful pre-emptive intervention by senior US officials suggests that London will eventually be forced to compromise, if only because Johnson dare not jeopardise the wider US relationship. Yet UK-EU antagonism looks set to deepen. Biden will have to tighten the leash again in future.
Europe’s concerns about strategic isolation as a newly divisive, bipolar world order takes shape are well founded. To its east lies China, Russia and like-minded regimes in India, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – autocratic, aggressive and contemptuous of western-defined international norms.
To its west lies the US, a damaged power, divided against itself, whose political stability and consistency can no longer be depended upon. Biden’s efforts to restore normalcy to international relations are assured of European support for as long as he lasts, as this week’s EU-US and Nato “reunion” summits will demonstrate.
But if Trump or his followers regain power, a permanent US rupture with Europe and its liberal, multilateralist principles may become unavoidable. This in turn could wreck the EU if, say, copycat populists in Poland or Hungary were to definitively break with Brussels. For his part, Johnson would be happy to see Trump return and the EU split asunder.
Fears about Europe’s future in a hostile world are reflected in a comprehensive new survey of EU states by the European Council on Foreign Relations. It reveals what its authors call “a widespread lack of confidence in the US ability to come back as leader of the west”. Most Europeans believe America’s political system is broken.
This disillusionment is not wholly due to Trump. “More than a year after the start of the pandemic, the feeling has taken root among Europeans that they cannot rely on the US, Russia or China, and that they must move towards greater self-reliance,” the survey concludes.
Europe will be squeezed like an unripe lemon between rival global forces that share neither its values nor its interests
In short, they don’t trust anyone any more. Instead, majorities believe Europe should develop unified responses to global threats. They prefer pragmatic partnerships to permanent alliances. Many want the EU to be a “beacon of democracy and human rights” and a great power capable of defending itself.
At a time when the EU faces an extraordinary 21st-century agenda – the climate crisis, the pandemic, economic recovery, migration, digitisation, cyber-threats and rightwing populism – such ambition should, in theory, be welcome.
And yet Europe’s politicians and bureaucrats seem unprepared. While the public wants the EU to do more, confidence is low that it will – not least due to its Covid-19 missteps. “Disappointment with EU institutions has now come out of the periphery and gone mainstream,” the ECFR says.
This reflects a broader problem: a dearth of effective national leaders. Few are committed to building the independent, self-sufficient Europe voters want. Solidarity is lacking when it comes to standing up to China over Xinjiang and Hong Kong, to Russia over Ukraine, Belarus and Alexei Navalny, or to the US over Israel-Palestine and trade.
In Germany, to which many Europeans look for leadership that never quite arrives, Angela Merkel’s imminent departure as chancellor has created a sort of funk. Despite talk of a Green revolution, voters seem likely to opt (as usual) for the safe, inward-looking, centre-right choice – namely Armin Laschet, Merkel’s CDU successor.
In France, Emmanuel Macron, who has no illusions about Johnson or US altruism, regularly calls for a fiscally, economically and militarily integrated Europe. Yet the president’s eloquence has not helped him at home, where he was quite literally slapped down last week. In any event, he is increasingly distracted by a tough 2022 re-election battle.
In Italy, the rise and rise of far-right parties such as the Brothers of Italy, feeding off immigration fears, inspires ultra-nationalists, xenophobes and bigots everywhere. Brothers leader Giorgia Meloni’s ideas about identity and globalist conspiracies make her a natural ally of Trump, not of Biden or Brussels.
Those who look, meanwhile, for strong EU leadership look in vain. If the union were a true democracy, Ursula von der Leyen, commission president, would have been voted out over her vaccine fiasco. But the EU does not work that way, which is part of the problem.
For EU leaders, the G7 perpetuated a fantasy of power and purpose. Unless they urgently take ownership of its destiny, Europe will be squeezed like an unripe lemon between rival global forces that share neither its values nor its interests.
Europe’s choice: be a standup player on the world stage – or risk becoming a quirky cultural museum for Chinese tourists and the butt of Trump’s and Johnson’s jokes.