European political leaders concluded a morale-boosting summit in Brussels last week, agreeing to a range of initiatives, including enhanced defence cooperation. The meeting capped off a remarkable few months for the European Union (EU), following the failure of far-right populists to win power in France and the Netherlands, and Brussels now believes the Eurosceptic wave may have reached its peak.
While only time will reveal if this is the case, the victories of liberal, centrists President Emmanuel Macron in France, and Prime Minister Mark Rutte in the Netherlands, plus the recent defeat of the far-right in Austria, is a significant turnaround in fortunes for those forces championing European integration across the continent. It was Macron’s victory that proved most decisive, given the potentially existential threat to the EU project that the election of anti-Brussels National Front leader Marine Le Pen would have signalled.
This political fillip has been reinforced by stronger economic data too. After several years of slow growth, the Eurozone economies are now expanding faster than expected.
That these developments have, collectively, changed sentiment is shown by Italy’s Europe Minister Sandro Gozi. She remarked this month that we “now have a possibility of launching a new phase ... we have to make the best of Brexit negotiations, we have to limit the damage ... on the other hand, it is essential that there will be a parallel process of relaunch and deepening of European integration”.
The contrast here with the mood music of key European leaders from only a few months ago is striking. For instance, European Council President Donald Tusk said in February that the threats facing the EU were then “more dangerous than ever”. He identified three key challenges “which have previously not occurred, at least not on such a scale” that the EU must tackle.
The first two dangers related to the rise of anti-EU, nationalist sentiment across the continent, plus the “state of mind of pro-European elites” which Tusk then feared were too subservient to “populist arguments as well as doubting in the fundamental values if liberal democracy”. At that stage, it was feared by some not only that Le Pen could pull off an upset victory, but also that the anti-establishment conservative Freedom Party, led by so-called “Dutch Trump” Geert Wilders, could top the poll in the Netherlands.
While the salience of these two issues has subsided, perhaps only temporarily, the third threat cited by Tusk remains, That is what he called the new geopolitical reality that has witnessed an increasingly assertive Russia and China, and instability in the Middle East and Africa which has driven the migration crisis impacting Europe. And intensifying this is uncertainty from Washington with United States President Donald Trump openly calling for more Brexits across the continent.
Nevertheless, numerous European leaders believe recent economic and political news has brought in at least a temporary respite and potentially a ‘window of opportunity’ to move forward with a new agenda. And at the summit, the number one item was how best to improve the internal and external security of Europe, while enhancing the socio-economic welfare of citizens through a jobs, growth an competiveness agenda.
Here there is growing consensus around what several European leaders have called a new, Twenty First Century European security pact compromising measures to enhance security and border protection; and greater EU intelligence cooperation to emphasise the resilience of the EU project. Indeed, given current disagreements within Europe on the wisdom of wider, grand integration initiatives, including in the economics area, security issues are one of the items where there is a significant consensus across member states of the best way forward, post-Brexit.
Impetus for movement forward on this agenda has been provided by recent terrorist attacks across the continent, the ongoing migration crisis, and the launch last year by High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, of a new global strategy, the first such European document since 2003. Reflecting this, Tusk has asserted that “people expect that the EU ... will again be a guarantor of stability, security and protection”. Perhaps the most striking agreement reached at the summit between the European leaders was a new defence plan that advocates greater military cooperation between EU states. The new initiative includes a multi-billion Euros weapons fund, shared financing for battle groups, and allowing more ‘coalitions of the willing’ to conduct missions abroad.
This development is being driven, in part, by the new geopolitical reality cited by Tusk that includes Russian assertiveness; the threat of Trump to scale down US security commitment to Nato, and his campaign rhetoric that Washington should not defend European allies that are perceived not to be paying their fair share of contributions to the military alliance. And Brexit too could now eliminate a longstanding obstacle to greater European cooperation in this area given that successive UK governments have been opposed to deeper EU defence integration.
Going forward, one sign of further potential direction of travel came last year when European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker asserted the EU needs its own army, a proposal welcomed by German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, so Europe can “react more credibly to the threat to peace in a member state or in a neighbouring state”. While such a force is at best a longer-term aspiration, however, the new defence plan has a goal of reversing around a decade of defence spending cuts by EU member states, totally more than 10 per cent in real terms.
Taken overall, a growing number of European leaders sense that the Euroskeptic wave may now have passed its peak and that at least a temporary window of opportunity may now exist to move forward with a new EU integration agenda. Decisions taken in coming months, including on the security front, will help define the longer-term political and economic character of the EU in the face of the continuing threats still facing the continent.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.