The November Election Could Not Be Bigger — for Europe

For Americans, the stakes in the November election are huge. For Europeans, they may be even bigger.

That’s an exaggeration, but only slightly. Since May 9, 1945, the U.S. has kept the peace and prosperity on the continent, which in the previous three decades had set off wars that killed more than 100 million people. The Europeans themselves  deserve immense credit for finally getting off of each other’s throats and forming a series of trade and legislative organizations that reached its apogee as the European Union. However, as my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Niall Ferguson wrote on July 19: “Europeans like to give the EU credit for the fact Europe is no longer the world’s number one battlefield, but Americans understand that it has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the presence of U.S. troops that have really kept the peace. They are rightly proud of that achievement.”

There’s not been so much to be proud of lately. The U.S. is clearly the side dragging the transatlantic relationship into the mire. President Donald Trump’s words  (insulting European leaders, fawning over dictators) and actions (ordering U.S. troops withdrawn from Germany, slapping tariffs on everything from airplane parts to single-malt whiskies) have placed 75 years of shared success at risk. How serious is it?

To answer that question, I talked to someone with a foot on either side of the ocean: Anne Applebaum, whose latest book is titled, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism.” A longtime fixture in Washington foreign-policy circles, first as a columnist at the Washington Post and currently at the Atlantic, Applebaum lives in Poland with her husband, Radek Sikorski, who was that nation’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2014.  Here is a lightly edited transcript of our discussion: 

Tobin Harshaw: Let’s start with the $850 billion European Recovery Fund that EU leaders hashed out this week. There were people talking about this as the continent’s “Hamilton Moment.” Do you see an eventual United States of Europe?

Anne Applebaum: One of the oddities about the EU is that for all the complaining that it’s overbearing and that it's telling people what to do, its central structures are really quite weak — at least outside of trade, the one area where members have seen it as in their interests to cede power to the European Commission. But the EU doesn't have the ability to run a proper fiscal policy, let alone a foreign policy or defense policy. Because of that, it has a very weak voice in the world.

I don’t think we need a United States of Europe, but I would like to see the EU play a bigger role in geopolitics, to represent a set of values, in opposition to the values of Russia and China. I would like it to think about projecting stability and prosperity into its neighboring regions — Eastern Europe, North Africa — and to play a bigger role in international institutions.

But it is also true that it has to get there through means of consensus — and so that’s going to take a long time, if it ever happens.

TH: How much desire do Europeans have for that?

AA: It depends whom you ask, and when. But don't underestimate the desire of millions of Europeans for Europe to have a bigger voice in the world. As 27 separate countries, they aren’t really heard, and there are many who would like that to change.

TH: Do you think that a tighter fiscal union would be the driver in all this?

AA: It may well be that a tighter fiscal union would transfer more power to the European collective, that shared monetary instruments will be the tool that brings countries together. Personally, I would prefer that the EU consolidate around foreign and defense policy, but Europe integrates thanks to crises, and this is the one that we have at the moment.

TH: Governments like those in Poland and Hungary — what we call the illiberal regimes — are driving a wedge into Europe. Is the illiberal movement an anomaly or a long-term trend?

AA:  It’s a long-term trend. Hungary is no longer a democracy. I don't believe an opposition political party can win a national election in Hungary — the playing field is too tilted. Note that Hungary is now doing deals with Russia and China; I believe the prime minister, Viktor Orban, knows he could eventually wind up outside of the European Union.

TH: And Poland?

AA: Poland is more complicated. There are reasons to believe that democracy can be preserved – the opposition is very large, independent media still exist, the economy is big and diverse — although we'll see what happens over the next three years. But Poland’s destruction of judicial independence may pose an even greater problem for the EU, which needs its member states to have reliable courts for all kinds of business reasons as well as political reasons. European companies and people need to have faith in the idea that courts will treat you fairly. Polish courts are in danger of no longer meeting that standard.

TH: Are there tangible connections between these countries that have turned illiberal and the populist movements in Western Europe?   

AA: Yes. There are connections between the Hungarian ruling party, the Polish ruling party, the far-right in Italy, the far right in France and to a lesser extent the far-right in Spain. All of them have links to the U.S. too, to the Trumpist part of the Republican Party, as well as the online alt-right.  

Some of the links are personal: the party members and leaders meet one another and go to conferences together. There are also connections between their followers online. They copy one another’s posts and promote one another’s ideas. They will often fixate, as a group, on one particular incident; after the Notre Dame fire last year, many began posting and tweeting about alleged Muslim responsibility, or using the fire as a symbol for the supposed destruction of Christianity.

TH: There's probably no way to quantify the damage that Trump has done to the transatlantic alliance. But how fixable is it? Or is it permanent?

AA: The idea that America would always be a voice for democracy and for freedom, the idea that America would always be a reliable ally for Europeans as well as America’s partners in Asia is probably gone forever.

TH: Wow. That’s quite a statement.

AA: Of course President Joe Biden would seek to revive these alliances. But unless there's a major change inside the Republican party — unless, post-Trump, it is taken over again by people who seem to have genuine interest in America's alliances around the world — then I think there will always be the fear, “another lost election and we lose America again.”

For many, many decades, U.S. foreign policy has maintained a bipartisan consensus around a few issues, and one of them was the alliance with Europe. If that is no longer the case, if the Republican Party is no longer interested in alliances, then Europeans will rightly see that one of the political parties favors them and the other one doesn't, and that it is time to start planning a world without the U.S.

It’s beginning to happen already. French President Emmanuel Macron is arguing for a deeper and more integrated Europe partly because he wants Europe to prepare for a world in which the U.S. is, if not hostile, then no longer a friend.

TH: In that case, is there a future for Republicans and conservatives who want to engage with the world and promote democracy — so-called Never Trumpers

AA: It depends on what happens in the election — not just whether Trump loses, but how he loses. I think if he loses quite badly, if the Republicans lose the Senate, then perhaps there's a chance for a different kind of Republican leadership to emerge.

If Trump wins, or if he loses but only by a little bit, then Don Jr. or Tucker Carlson or someone else who wants to continue Trump’s nationalist politics may well take over.

TH: I'm assuming you were being sarcastic about Donald Trump Jr. and Tucker Carlson.  

AA: No. Tucker Carlson concerns me a lot — Trump was proof that you don't have to be a politician to become the party leader or to become president. Now other celebrities will seek to use their popularity and their Facebook followings in politics.

TH: Finally, I had one personal question for you. I'm wondering how being married to a prominent Polish politician complicates your role in writing about these things, and how do you keep your home life and your journalism separate?

AA: This is the main reason why I wrote “Twilight of Democracy” the way I did. It is not a magisterial political science treatise about illiberalism in Europe and America, it’s not a piece of third-person reporting or an objective history. It’s written in the first person, it includes some elements of memoir or my own experiences and it really tries to explain what my biases might be — precisely because I am part of the story.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tobin Harshaw is an editor and writer on national security and military affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper’s letters editor.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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