The United States needs a stronger Europe. With China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence, and America’s soft-power image tarnished by its bungled domestic handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States should revive the transatlantic alliance. But a return to the more predictable days before President Donald Trump took office, when Washington led and European capitals were supposed to follow, is not sufficient anymore. Regardless of whether Trump is re-elected or Joe Biden becomes the next president, the United States will need Europe to act as a genuine partner that can step up and out onto the world stage, on its own when necessary. For that to happen, Washington should change its traditional approach to the transatlantic alliance.
For decades the United States has encouraged Europeans to “get their act together,” while simultaneously looking warily at any efforts by the European Union to expand its influence over foreign and security policy. During the 1990s, the Bill Clinton administration was deeply skeptical of the European Union’s evolving security and defense role. President Barack Obama dropped much of the animosity toward Brussels that permeated the George W. Bush administration, which famously divided Europe into “old” (i.e., Western Europe) and “new” (i.e., Eastern Europe). But a pivot to Asia and a focus on ending the wars in the Middle East left the United States little time for Europe. Only toward the end of Obama’s tenure was there a gradual softening of the U.S. approach to E.U. defense efforts, leading to greater E.U.-NATO cooperation. But the Trump administration’s intense hostility toward the European Union renewed U.S. objections about new E.U. defense initiatives.
But as the European Union is signaling an ambition to become more “geopolitical,” Washington ought to end its hostility, or at least its ambivalence, toward the European Union. Instead, the United States should become the biggest advocate for a stronger European foreign policy. The next U.S. administration should begin with using America’s remaining diplomatic clout in Europe to push the European Union to transform its foreign policy decision-making and upgrade its strategic thinking in order to be able to become a more capable partner.
Consensus Versus Majority
As the United States has been consumed by governing crises in 2020, the European Union has taken a major step to strengthen its union. In the spring and summer, Brussels faced a potentially existential challenge from the COVID-19 crisis. Hit hard by the novel coronavirus early on, Europe’s response was initially haphazard and caused tensions between member states, as each country rushed to close down their borders, causing widespread economic disruption. COVID-19 also hit Europe’s struggling economies the hardest, prompting Italy and other southern European countries to demand the European Union provide fiscal aid, just as the U.S. federal government would provide support to struggling states. The key question was whether the European Union could finally do fiscal policy and provide support to its hardest-hit members. The answer turned out to be yes, and the summer culminated with agreement on a path-breaking E.U. recovery package. The agreement included a $460 billion recovery fund financed, importantly, through shared E.U. borrowing. Referred to by some as the E.U.’s “Hamiltonian moment,” this agreement marked a big step forward for Europe in overcoming Germany’s traditional reluctance to participate in European fiscal programs and opposition from a group of “frugal” Northern European states.
In the fall, crises in Belarus, the eastern Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus have given rise to a similar question: Can the European Union do foreign policy?
Thus far the answer isn’t promising. The European Union’s slow response to Belarus illustrates its foreign policy shortcomings. Two months after E.U. leaders first pledged to impose sanctions against Belarusian officials for election fraud and the subsequent crackdown on peaceful demonstrators, Brussels had yet to take decisive action, despite agreeing to do so in principle. The main reason: A single member state, Cyprus, was blocking action until its demands were met for sanctions on Turkish officials responsible for drilling in contested waters in the eastern Mediterranean. Although E.U. sanctions against Belarus were finally adopted, the delay prompted some member states and the United Kingdom to take independent action, which is ultimately less impactful.
Of course, this is hardly the first time the European Union failed to reach unanimity on a pressing foreign policy issue due to a member state’s exercising its veto. For example, both Greece and Hungary have blocked E.U. statements to condemn Chinese militarization of the South China Sea or human rights violations in the past. Italy blocked a statement on Venezuela, and Poland and Hungary prevented the European Union from putting out a statement at the E.U.-Arab summit in 2019.
But the backlash against Cyprus has been unusually sharp. Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs accused Cyprus of “hostage taking,” and Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt called it “profoundly embarrassing.” Even E.U. High Representative Josep Borrell admitted that the union’s “credibility is at stake.”
Indeed, the European Union’s inability to take swift and decisive action on Belarus, an E.U. neighbor frequently labeled “Europe’s last dictatorship,” stands in sharp contrast to its ambition to be more geopolitical and its desire to cultivate greater “strategic autonomy.” The European Union can’t be geopolitical if it can’t act fast. With rising instability in its neighborhood, a revanchist Russia, an assertive China, and a rocky transatlantic relationship during the Trump administration, there is a pressing urgency for the European Union to have a strong and coherent foreign policy that can defend and advance its interests.
Justly frustrated, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen used her recent State of the Union speech to pose a central question: “Why are even simple statements on EU values delayed, watered down or held hostage for other motives?” Her answer was to call for qualified majority voting on critical foreign and security policy decisions such as sanctions and human rights. Her predecessor Jean-Claude Juncker also issued similar calls, but to little avail. As opposed to today’s situation, where decisions in the European Council on foreign and security policy require unanimity among the 27 member states, using qualified majority voting would mean that decisions on foreign policy could be adopted on the vote of 55 percent of E.U. states, as long as they represented at least 65 percent of the population. This voting mechanism is used on a host of other policy areas within the European Union, including trade, and is allowed under the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty.
There are some good arguments against qualified majority voting on sensitive foreign policy decisions. Many smaller member states have legitimate reservations about surrendering their national veto on foreign policy and fear being marginalized — though they would arguably have less reason to worry if qualified majority voting were used exclusively for decisions over human rights and sanctions policy, not military or defense-related issues. Moreover, the process of having to forge a consensus among the European Union’s 27 member states can be valuable in terms of promoting give-and-take and encouraging debates. Yet striving for consensus can also lead to muddle and lowest-common-denominator outcomes.
Reforming voting procedures would not be a “silver bullet” for E.U. foreign policy, but it would enable Brussels to act more quickly. The visibility and influence of the E.U. high representative would grow, enabling the European Union to lead, rather than follow, by leveraging the power it has as the world’s largest market. Qualified majority voting would remove the bureaucratic deterrent to working through the European Union. It could also give smaller states the power to mobilize coalitions and initiate proposals, as opposed to simply waiting for a Franco-German consensus to emerge, which in turn could promote a more common strategic culture in Europe. In fact, it could lead to a shift in the foreign policy geometry in which the clout of Brussels increases — where small states have a real voice — while the influence of Paris and Berlin could see a relative decline. Even so, both Germany and France understand what is at stake and have expressed interest in moving this debate forward.
If agreeing on qualified majority voting proves impossible, E.U. leaders should at the very least consider abolishing single-country vetoes or accepting joint statements by only 25 or 26 member states, as Borrell recently suggested. This move would allay some of the smaller member states’ concerns while also ensuring that E.U. foreign policy decision-making does not grind to a halt — and that a hostile external actor could not influence an individual member state to undermine a certain E.U. decision.
The bold action taken by the European Union this summer on its recovery package raises some hope that Brussels could also implement transformative foreign policy reform. Yet even without reform, the demand for a strong European response has prompted some E.U. members to act without trying to achieve consensus. In instances when the European Union remains bureaucratically stuck, smaller ad hoc coalitions of member states led by France and Germany and including the E.U. high representative are already emerging. Flexible but more exclusive coalitions such as the E3 group of London, Berlin, and Paris will likely become more commonplace if E.U. foreign policy continues to fall short. These “avant-gardes” are useful but are ultimately less impactful than would be a European Union speaking with a single voice.
One intractable problem for E.U. foreign policy is the difficulty of creating a common strategic culture and outlook across 27 member states with very different geographical and historical outlooks. Such a common outlook is essential to conducting foreign policy — it enables a state to define its interests and set priorities. The European Union, in short, should figure out how to define its “national interest.” To some degree, elements of a common outlook are emerging among European governments. The notion of European “strategic autonomy” or “sovereignty” is increasingly galvanizing the Brussels institutions, member state ministries, and the European foreign policy “blob.” Moreover, initiatives like the 2016 European Global Strategy and the new Strategic Compass are valuable efforts to define Europe’s collective interests in the world. But what is ultimately needed is for member states to put aside their differences and come together to recognize what is at stake: the relevance of Europe in a geopolitically turbulent world. Muddling through is longer an option. At the very least, the Belarus situation should lead European leaders to dispense of old dogmas and taboos and consider fresh and creative solutions, recognizing that Washington will not always come to its assistance.
U.S. Stakes in a Stronger Europe
And here the United States should make its voice heard. Washington should want the European Union to be a much more prominent and capable actor on the world stage, because the United States urgently needs strong and able partners as its own strategic attention shifts more and more to the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, calls for Europe to “step up” are a rare point of bipartisan agreement. Either a second Trump administration or a Biden administration would want to see Europe shoulder a greater share of the burden of protecting itself from security threats in its neighborhood.
Of course, there is the inevitable concern in Washington that a focus on the European Union could detract from NATO. America’s NATO-first approach to Europe, however, is outdated. NATO remains the cornerstone of transatlantic security but is less suitable than the European Union for confronting the wide variety of economic, technological, and diplomatic challenges facing both the United States and Europe. When it comes to China, NATO has a role in addressing some dual-use issues, but it is the European Union that has the appropriate toolbox to address most others, especially those relating to technology and economic practices. Moreover, the notion that a stronger European Union comes at the expense of NATO is simply not the case — they have almost all the same members and the two organizations today cooperate closely. The real fear that the European Union would be able to more forcefully stand up to the United States than it has in the past — such as over the invasion of Iraq or the withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement — should be weighed against the necessity for Europe to be able to push back more firmly against Russian and Chinese influence.
Despite Trump’s immense unpopularity, the United States still has diplomatic clout within Europe and should use it to encourage and possibly push E.U. member states to act more quickly and boldly on foreign policy issues. After Trump described the European Union as a “foe,” such U.S. engagement might understandably cause whiplash among European officials. But Washington should make clear that it seeks to build a new strategic partnership with the European Union if it can speak with one voice. A new administration should engage European capitals from Warsaw to Paris, Stockholm to Madrid, Berlin to Bratislava, and push for sensible E.U. foreign policy reform ideas, such as qualified majority voting. Washington will need to identify holdouts, likely smaller Central and Eastern European states, and use whatever goodwill it has left to reassure those states that a stronger E.U. foreign policy would advance transatlantic security.
Reviving the transatlantic relationship will require more than the United States and Europe’s simply being nicer to each other and rediscovering old platitudes. It will require that they roll up their sleeves and get to work, forging common approaches to tough issues. But without effective foreign policy decision-making and a deeper strategic discussion, Europe’s ability to be a strong partner to the United States may fall short. This could leave transatlantic relations once again adrift. Washington should act to prevent that situation by actively encouraging E.U. foreign policy reform.