Europe Against Ropes

THE EUROPEAN BUSINESS DAILY / Handelsblatt Global / Monday, November 21, 2016 /

CZECH LEGACY / Europe Against the Ropes / ANA PALACIO /

Donald Trump and Vaclav Havel: it is hard to imagine more different figures. It is the vision of the latter of a united, peaceful Europe which is needed now, says a former Spanish minister.

Former Czech leader Václav Havel did much to unify Europe and in these troubled times, his vision is needed to bring the bloc together.
Vaclav Havel was a poet and statesman who became the last President of Czechoslovakia and whose party played a key role in the Velvet Revolution. Mr. Havel played an important role in dismantling the Warsaw Pact and pressing for NATO expansion to the East.
The E.U. is struggling with successive crises and faces a new era in security policy as Donald Trump suggests Europe should do more to defend itself.

On November 8, as Donald Trump was sealing his shocking victory in the United States presidential election, a conference in Brussels commemorated the legacy of the late Václav Havel, the first post-communist president of Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic). As the world enters the Trump era, that legacy could not be more important, especially for Europe.

It is hard to imagine two figures more different than Mr. Havel and Mr. Trump. The former was an artist and intellectual who fought his entire life for truth, working tirelessly to bring out the best in people and societies. The latter is a self-obsessed huckster who rose to power by playing on people’s basest emotions.

Mr. Havel’s values have much in common with those that drove, after World War II, the creation of the liberal world order, which has brought unprecedented peace and prosperity. Trump’s election, however, suggests that the U.S. may no longer uphold those values, much less continue to fulfill its post-WWII role in maintaining international order.

The resulting strategic lacuna creates an opportunity – indeed, a desperate need – for some other global actor to take up the mantle of leadership. The European Union – which, more than any other global actor, has internalized and operationalized the ideals
and principles that undergird the liberal world order – should be the one to do it. The problem is that, for now at least, the E.U. does not look like it can.

The E.U. has made valuable contributions to the liberal world order, from setting an example on climate change to helping push forward a workable deal to contain Iran’s nuclear program. But, so far, it has not shown a capacity for real global leadership. Consider the disastrous 2009 Copenhagen climate-change conference, the bungled Libya intervention, or, most painful, its inadequate response to the ongoing migration crisis.

In short, while Europe has been a solid team player, it has not been a very good team captain. This is not for lack of hoping. Establishing the E.U. as a pole of global power was the goal of the much-maligned 2003 E.U. security strategy, to cite one example. Following Trump’s victory, E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini declared that the E.U. is becoming an “indispensable power.” But, as so often happens in Europe, there is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality. The poorly attended emergency meeting of European foreign ministers following the U.S. election is a stark reminder of just how far Europe has to go to fill the gaping hole that Trump’s abdication of America’s global responsibilities would create.

“While Europe has been a solid team player, it has not been a very good team captain.”

The truth is that the E.U. lacks both perspective and clout. To be a pole requires magnetism, produced by either hard or soft power. During the early 2000s, the heyday of E.U. enlargement, Europe had this pull. And it may have had this pull as recently as the 2013 Euromaidan protests, when young Ukrainians died in the name of their country’s potential links with the E.U. Today, as the E.U. and its member states look inward, that attraction is gone.

Now, as Brexit plays out and the trans-Atlantic partnership becomes unmoored, the E.U. could well unravel. If not, the most likely alternative is that it becomes a platform on which its hegemon, Germany, can stand and lead. In some ways, the E.U. is already well down this road. It is a truism that nothing gets done in Brussels these days without the German government’s acquiescence. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unilateral pledge to welcome refugees and the German-led E.U. deal with Turkey to stem refugee flows underscore this reality.

“The truth is that the E.U. lacks both perspective and clout.”

This outcome would be highly problematic – even tragic. The E.U. was supposed to be a supranational endeavor, shaped by the spirit of collective action for the common good that Havel championed. Though Germany s surely a benign hegemon, mono-national domination of Europe controverts the very basis for the E.U.’s creation.

On a more practical level, Germany will not be a strong enough international champion for Europe. In our increasingly Hobbesian world, demonstrations of conventional strength are needed. Germany’s traditional aversion to hard power will hamper its ability to project its influence – and Europe’s – globally.

There are, to be sure, ways the rest of Europe can help.Most notable, the long-stalled effort to coordinate and streamline European defense could be reinvigorated. Fortunately, there have been signs of life on that front in recent weeks, with European foreign and defense ministers agreeing to move forward on cooperation. Placing those efforts under de facto German leadership is not optimal, but it may be the best possible outcome, given the circumstances.

Ideal outcomes in Europe are not realistic. And, as Mr. Havel pointed out, clinging to optimism – the belief that things will end well – is pointless. Instead, we must find grounds for hope – the belief that things will eventually make sense. The only way to do that is to be honest with ourselves and take a sober look at what we can and must do to ensure the most that can be achieved.

Europe has the potential to play a leading role in the world, but lacks the self-confidence and dedication to make it happen. It is time to recognize that, and to acknowledge the real threat that the liberal world order faces. Only then can we figure out
how, realistically, to safeguard our interests and ideals in a challenging world. This, I believe, would be Mr. Havel’s message today.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
anaa former Spanish foreign minister
and former Senior Vice President of
the World Bank, is a member of the
Spanish Council of State and a visiting
lecturer at Georgetown University.



The Vaclav Havel Center