Europe MIA

Italy crisis further tarnishes EU image as chimera of global leadership fades

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Vox populi, vox dei. Source: Reuters

President Donald Trump was in full campaign mode as he played to his audience in Nashville this week to support a Senate candidate. The crowd saved its biggest cheers for his broadsides on illegal immigration and threats posed by North Korea and China. And the punch line on immigration was, “Look at what’s happened in Europe.”

Europe can ignore yet another barb from Mr. Trump, who enjoys attacking it. But it is incontrovertible that the huge numbers of migrants in recent years have caused a backlash in Europe. One expression of it is rising populism and nationalism. It was the unilateral decision of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2015 to open the doors to refugees that created this crisis, and voters made her pay for it last year with diminished support.

Now one of those nationalist parties, Italy’s League, has been thwarted in its effort to form a coalition government with the populist Five Star Movement. Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, blasted Germany for attempting to dictate who should govern Italy in order to maintain the euro with all the rules Berlin requires. He is repeating charges made three years ago by Greek leaders but with a much bigger megaphone.

Germans can tut-tut about what they consider extremist views, but this backlash is transforming the image of Europe and Germany – and not for the better. The threat of Europe’s fourth-largest economy defaulting on its debt or withdrawing from the euro prompted investor George Soros to say Europe is going through an existential crisis and must reinvent itself to survive.

Far from leading in foreign policy, Berlin is in a defensive position down the line.

But reinvention is the last thing on the mind of Berlin’s fragile coalition, and this weakness is further tarnishing the image of Europe. Ms. Merkel has gone from being the champion of Western values to a weakened and ineffectual leader who can’t keep Germany’s promises on emissions reductions or defense spending.

Far from leading in foreign policy, as many have urged Germany to do, Berlin is in a defensive position down the line. The new coalition selected a no-name Social Democrat, Heiko Maas, as foreign minister. He has zero clout on the world stage. The uneasy compromises of the grand coalition force Berlin to sit on the fence when the going gets tough, prompting Handelsblatt’s former Washington correspondent, Moritz Koch, to accuse Germany of only paying lip service to foreign policy.

President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord provoked predictable teeth-gnashing in Europe. As in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, there was much talk of Europe assuming the mantle of leadership, specifically of a youthful, charismatic Emmanuel Macron forging a path separate from that of its erstwhile ally, America.

But this new flare-up is once again proving to be so much hot air. Europe cannot go a different way. It has neither the political will nor the democratic legitimacy to replace US leadership. Ms. Merkel hardly has the political will to find her way out of what is essentially a hung parliament. The French president, after winning what was fundamentally an anti-establishment election last year, has chosen to rule by fiat, ignoring parliament even though he nominally has a majority.

Neither leader, in short, has much legitimacy in his or her own country. On top of that, Germany and France have fundamentally different views of European integration even as they seek to force the 26 other countries to go along with them. France wants a unified, centralized superstate, much like France on a larger scale. It goes without saying that France would provide the unifying coherence and that the first president of a united Europe would be French. God willing, his name will even be Emmanuel Macron. Step aside, Napoleon.

Germany doesn’t want a unified, centralized superstate, because it wants to keep doing things the way it does, which is the best way to do things. The last thing Germans want is a French president telling them what to do – no more than the Italians want a German finance minister telling them what to do.

So the idea that a French-German tandem at the head of the European Union can provide global leadership is a chimera. The Trumps and Xis and Putins of the world will continue to ignore them. These European leaders aren’t willing to pull their own weight in defense and most of the talk about peace and security and values is simply a smokescreen to keep doing business with pariah countries.

Far from rising to the occasion, Europe has lapsed once again into the squabbling and nitpicking that have periodically characterized its lurching progress toward integration. The challenge from Italy has further weakened the rule of Berlin-Brussels-Paris, perhaps terminally.

Contact the author at d.delamaide@extern.handelsblatt.com.

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