“The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent. We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.’
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s words in late May 2017 have become almost prophetic. After the Brexit referendum shattered the EU and questionable parties rose in various Member-States, a power shift sprouted along with Donald Trump’s election in the United States, the political woes of a post-Brexit United Kingdom, and the decisive victory of Emmanuel Macron in France. In this piece I will look into how a new world order is being designed out of an improbable political moment of fading longstanding leaderships.
The fading American hegemony
After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, what political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued to be ‘’an unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism, the triumph of the West’’ (Fukuyama, 1989), the United States asserted its position as the sole superpower in the world – its soft power was incomparable, hard power unbeatable and political leadership undeniable. Their principal role among the United Nations’ Security Council and the NATO allies avowed their role as ‘leader of the Free World’, a term first originated in the Cold War era. The United States of America were the ultimate, and the victorious, representation of democracy and liberalism in the new globalized reality, having led international efforts in Somalia (1993), the Bosnian War (1995) and Kosovo’s liberation (1999), as well as commanding peace efforts in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama presidencies also enjoyed this hegemonic period in international relations: after the 9/11 attacks, Bush invoked NATO’s Article 5 (beholding the principle of collective defense) for the first time, summoning all allies in their ‘’war on terrorism’’ (White House, 2001), and Obama led efforts to further human rights externally (lifting the embargo on Cuba, championing climate change agreements) and internally supported LGBT rights, enacting the Affordable Care Act).
Come November 2016, the United States of America chose Donald Trump to lead their country, bringing into power his extremist views on immigration, human rights, and climate change. It marked a new period in American history but also in World history: the once ultimate representation of liberalism and globalism had turned on its head and instead opted for a nationalist and protectionist position. Nations and heads of state worldwide have long not only relied, but mostly trusted American leadership to guide the modern world down a progressive road. As the new administration signed travel bans into law, voted healthcare acts out of law and took the exceptional position of not ratifying the Paris Agreement, it isolated itself more and more from economic and political allies.
The rise of European influence
Across the Atlantic, the European Union was going through a difficult period as well, seemingly on the way to disintegration. The United Kingdom had voted to leave the Union and the upcoming Austrian, Dutch and French elections worried political analysts and civil society alike. By late 2016, it seemed fated that far-right movements were rising and ultimately winning over traditional Western nations.
Yet, one by one, the elections proved to not only opt against nationalism, but for pro-European candidates. Austrians voted in Alexander Van der Bellen, a self-proclaimed “open-minded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president” (Oltermann, 2016), and the Netherlands rejected the populist message Geert Wilders was preaching in keeping Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s party as the biggest in parliament. Perhaps most significantly, France, a country ravaged by repetitive terrorist attacks in the last two years, overwhelmingly voted for Emmanuel Macron’s centrist, pro-European movement. En Marche took 66% of the votes in the May 2017 presidential election, which Merkel dubbed ‘’a victory for a strong united Europe and for the Franco-German friendship’’ (Kirby and Manesfield, 2017), therein rescuing the European project from a different fate. This win was made even more decisive the following month with Macron’s party winning the majority in the parliamentary elections of June 2017.
At the same time that Macron walked to his victory speech to the sound of the European Union’s anthem ‘’Ode to Joy’’, the United Kingdom was still battling the aftershocks of the political earthquake that was Brexit – from David Cameron’s resignation to Theresa May’s calling of snap elections and Britain’s will to retain rights comparable to those of a Member-state, the surprise decision to leave the Union has turned into what has been dubbed ‘’a long, costly and messy divorce’’(Karnitschnig and Hirst, 2017). Recently EU negotiation Michel Barnier alerted that ‘’I’ve heard some people in the UK argue that one can leave the Single Market and keep all of its benefits. That is not possible. (…) The decision to leave the EU has consequences and we have to explain to citizens, businesses and civil society on both sides of the Channel what these consequences mean for them” (Gutteridge, 2017). Also worth mentioning is that, when rivers of ink were written about the inevitable collapse of the EU at the hands of Brexit, little was said about how the UK always held a special status among the Member-States, opting out of the single currency and the Schengen Area, for example. This means their decision to leave, albeit a blow to the system, would never deliver such shockwaves as those from a founding Member-State, a Eurozone member or a Schengen partner.
A new international political order
All of the above political cleavages have translated into new alliances and rethought deals. After the Trump administration pulled out of negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, Japan and the EU moved forward with their own bilateral free trade agreement. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared it ‘’the birth of the world’s largest, free, industrialized economic zone’’ (Financial Times, 2017). The G20 Hamburg summit also materialized such shift in influence and international relations: the final joint statement read that ‘’We take note of the decision of the United States of America to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. (…)The Leaders of the other G20 members state that the Paris Agreement is irreversible. We reaffirm our strong commitment to the Paris Agreement’’ (G20 Summit, 2017). Similarly, as the UK moves forward in its path to leave the Union, the Franco-German axis has been revamped along with Macron’s new centrist charge. Indeed, if you turn inward and choose a nationalist and protectionist stance, the world will continue without you. The improbable political clutters the United States and the United Kingdom find themselves into worked as a catalyst of the European Union to have faith in itself once more.
Such sentiment of renewed belief in the European Union was also visible at the passing of EU giants Helmut Kohl and Simone Veil. Respectively the first Chancellor of a reunified Germany and the first President of the elected EU Parliament, their deaths gathered the European civil society at large in praising their efforts for a stronger Union, one of inclusivity and openness. In fact Kohl was the first beneficiary of a European Ceremony of Honor at the EU Parliament, being put to rest under the EU flag instead of his native German
Once more, Angela Merkel said it best, in giving the following statement just some weeks ago: “For many people, including myself, something changed when we saw the Britons want to leave, when we were worried about the outcome of the elections in France and the Netherlands. (…) But we have realized in the past few months that Europe is more than just bureaucracy and economic regulation, that Europe and living together in the European Union have something to do with war and peace, (…) You don’t have all this in many parts of the world. And that’s why it is worth fighting for this Europe”(Bolongaro, 2017).
After Macron’s victory, The Washington Post stated that ‘’the popular doom-and-gloom narrative about the European Union has proved to be overblown’’ (Cross, 2017). Several months in, I argue that the tragic omen given to the EU was not only misguided, but has been successfully turned around into positive momentum. Concerns have instead shifted to the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively its (former) main ally and (on-the-way-out) member-state.
With an incomparable track record in social and economic rights, an area of borderless travel and free circulation, and larger political troubles seemingly surpassed, the European Union’s values of globalism and integration position it as the new leader of the free world.
The overblown panic has developed into a pronounced sentiment of hope that the European Union is not only alive and kicking, but the new beacon of the West.
Written by Bárbara Matias currently studying her Master’s degree in Human Rights at Columbia University in the United States.
Fukuyama, F., ‘’The End of History?’’, National Interest, Summer 1989, online via: https://www.embl.de/aboutus/science_society/discussion/discussion_2006/ref1-22june06.pdf
The White House, ‘’Remarks by the President upon arrival,’’ 16/Sep/2001, https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010916-2.html
Philip Oltermann, ‘’Austria rejects far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in presidential election,’’ The Guardian, 4/Dec/2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/04/far-right-party-concedes-defeat-in-austrian-presidential-election
Will Kirby and Katie Manesfield, ‘’Merkel reacts to Macron win and hails Franco-German relations,’’ Express, 8/May/2017, http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/801569/emmanuel-macron-france-french-election-leaders-react-donald-trump-theresa-may-merkel
Matthew Karnitschnig and Nicholas Hirst, ‘’’A long, costly and messy divorce’,’’ POLITICO, 3/Feb/2017, http://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-eu-divorce-uk-cameron/
Nick Gutteridge, ‘’EU negotiator says Britain eluded over trade links after Brexit,’’ Express, 6/Jul/2017, http://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/825370/Brexit-news-Michel-Barnier-British-ministers-in-denial-cost-leaving-EU
Financial Times, ‘’ Why the EU’s agreement with Japan is a big deal,’’ 8/Jul/2017, https://www.ft.com/content/572fef42-6260-11e7-91a7-502f7ee26895?mhq5j=e1
G20 Hamburg 2017, G20 Leaders’ Declaration: Shaping an interconnected world, 8/Jul/2017, pg.10 , online via: https://www.g20.org/gipfeldokumente/G20-leaders-declaration.pdf
Kate Bolongaro, ‘’Merkel: Brexit and France election changed my opinion on Europe,’’ POLITICO, 15/Jul/2017, http://www.politico.eu/article/merkel-brexit-and-french-election-changed-my-opinion-on-europe/?utm_content=buffer4a56a&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer