_ Timofei Bordachev, Programme Director, Valdai Discussion Club; Academic supervisor, Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies, Higher School of Economics. Moscow, 27 May 2019.
The big political season in Europe is nearing its end. Among the events affecting Europe’s internal politics, the most important and significant at the end of May and in early June have been, of course, the election to the European Parliament that took place over the weekend. The main foreign policy event, meanwhile, is Donald Trump’s visit to his European allies, which coincides with the anniversary of the D-Day landing in June 1944. It also seems that the formula of the great novel by Giuseppe Lampeduso “in order for everything to remain the same, everything must change” does not seem to apply anymore within Europe, or to relations between the US and Europe. The European Parliament has become just different one; relations between the United States and Europe are also different.
The dramatic change in the US transatlantic policy under Donald Trump and the new composition of the European Parliament seem to reflect the closeness that characterised the end of the period of European and Euro-Atlantic history after World War II. The United States is no longer a good uncle, in every way overseeing European integration; this was already no longer the case a long time ago, when it rose to its feet and began to show attempts to play an independent game. Europe is no longer the cradle of centrist and centre-leftist anti-national forces that it has been for 75 years. On both sides of the Atlantic, fundamentally new political and ideological forces are gaining power; it has already happened in the USA. For these forces, national interests eclipse community interests, and sovereignty remains the highest value. In Europe, this radicalisation has been complemented by the strengthening of the “Greens” and the liberals — also radical forces, but opposed to the “rightists”.
For its part, the traditional European establishment just a few days before the elections showed that it knows how to deliver very sensitive blows to its opponents. It does not matter that the scandal surrounding the drunken conversations of the recently-departed former Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz Christian Strache led to the sudden appearance of a noticeable hole in the relatively slender ranks of the European “new right”. The real blow was dealt to the European “prodigy” Sebastian Kurz, who had theretofore remained a symbol of the notion that solid European parties can form a coalition with the right-wing radicals and such coalitions can work. Anyway, this scandal did not prevent Kurz from posting successful results in the European Parliament elections on May 26.
This is especially important in the context of the fact that the growing popularity of the Alternative for Germany party in the eastern lands of the former GDR may well soon lead many to question if it could hold government positions. It is no coincidence that literally on the eve of voting in the key countries of the European Union (Germany, France and Italy) the leading media accused the European right of such “terrible” sins as direct ties with “horrible” Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
If we talk about the results of the European Parliament elections, then the expectations, in general, were confirmed. The turnout of European voters was a sensation, exceeding an average of 50 percent in the European Union, the highest result in the last 25 years. Following the four days of voting, the new composition of the EP looks as follows: the leading coalition is the European People’s Party (having lost several dozen seats), and social democrats hold second place (also seriously “losing”). Both parties lost enough votes to end the era of their dominance, which they’d enjoyed throughout the history of the EP. The main winners were the parties with clearly resolute positions – the radicals, both on the left (greens, liberals), and on the right (nationalists of all kinds). This can be expected to lead to the polarisation of the European Parliament and its greater concentration on problems that are really important for the future of Europe.
At the same time, in two of the leading countries of continental Europe (France and Italy) the biggest gains were made by the right-wing forces – Salvini’s “League” and Marine Le Pen’s “National Rally”. At the same time, the leader of the Rally immediately called for the dissolution of the French parliament and for early elections. Even in Austria, where the Austrian Freedom Party is still reeling from a scandal that will keep support low, the right only experienced minimal losses – just over 2 percent.
Thus, a possible right-wing coalition in the European Parliament gained slightly less than a quarter of all deputy mandates and became the fourth-most significant MP group. All this is a rather mixed company and the problem for this group is that unlike its opponents – conservatives and socialists –its participants cannot unite around the whole range of issues that make up the European agenda. But they will be able to stir up the swamp of the European Parliament and make the life of its permanent inhabitants far less comfortable.
In addition, the very presence of a solid group on the right the EP and their potential control over several committees will make the work of the next European Commission more controllable.
And finally, the consistent position of the “Salvini bloc” on the issue of migration offers hope that it will finally get off the ground. The “deal” concluded several years ago with Turkey and systematic disregard of the calls from the Southern European countries to reconsider the common European migration policy do not meet the requirements of time.
What is the “bottom line” of these elections? The European Parliament is finally becoming a place for discussion about the fate of Europe, and not about things that have a very indirect relation to the European Union itself. What can Russia gain from all these changes? First, it cannot but rejoice, that some novel dynamics can appear, which can be influenced. Despite the fact that Moscow is really interested in preserving European integration and the European Union itself, from a diplomatic point of view, a diverse Europe would be a more convenient partner. At the same time, the likely return of a part of Europe to traditional values will make it possible to remove some of the value-related ideological tensions. Due to the value gap that has increased in the past couple of decades, Europe and Russia have long been “unifying others” for each other. Now there are chances that this gap will be reduced.
As for the anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy, which in Russian historiography is traditionally called the Second Front opening, the participation of Donald Trump in the event attracts the great interest. From the very beginning of his presidency, Trump made it clear that relations between the United States and Europe will never be the same.
The second coming of the US armed forces to Europe 75 years ago marked the final deliverance of the Old World from the burden of responsibility for its own affairs and those of the rest of the world. Europe had been the source of two of the most destructive wars in the history of mankind, and the giant who grew up overseas with the flesh and blood of European civilisation could not afford to leave its European allies unsupervised. But the supervision could take one of two forms: soft or hard. Previous US leaders had treated the European allies rather condescendingly. They contributed in every possible way to European integration and covered it with NATO military umbrella, then they “turned a blind eye” to the fact that after the end of the Cold War, Europeans’ defence expenditures never reached 2 percent, failing to comply with NATO standards. Even such a radical as George W. Bush never publicly humiliated his European partners, although he acted without consulting them.
Donald Trump is another matter entirely. Under him, the era of benevolent patronage of Europe from the US has ended literally before our eyes. For two years, the transatlantic relationship has been thrown into disarray. From his very first day in the office, Trump did not conceal his malevolence toward such European leaders as Angela Merkel, or the young “star” of European politics Emmanuel Macron. Instead, he welcomed “marginal” members of the European establishment, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
The US administration pointedly ignored the opinion of the Europeans on two major issues: the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the “nuclear deal” with Iran. The latter is especially offensive for Brussels, Paris and Berlin, since it was the “deal” with Tehran that was presented as the most notable achievement of European diplomacy. There is little doubt that Trump uses his participation in the events on D-Day’s 75th anniversary to launch his next series of escapades against his European allies, using his favourite “hitting and rolling back” style. The purpose of this sort of diplomacy is the large-scale restructuring of the entire system of transatlantic relations.
No matter who sits in the White House, the result of such a restructuring should be: first, the full participation of Europeans in the military preparations of NATO. Second, the rejection of any attempts to play a more or less independent role in international affairs and the unconditional support of the United States on all key issues. For its part, the United States is unlikely to abandon Europe, leaving it in the care of its own politicians. This may be too risky due to the high probability of expanded EU cooperation with Russia and China, which are strategic opponents of the United States.
And here we return to the question of the European parliamentary elections results. As they showed, Europe’s non-systemic forces are not yet ready to take power in the EU into their own hands and implement integration reform along the lines of their own scenario, the “Europe of Fatherlands”, while maintaining the common market. However, if the tendency fixed during these elections persists, then it will also affect transatlantic relations. The collapse of the Berlin-Brussels “imperial” project for Europe is unlikely to lead to greater military-political independence for European countries. On the contrary, a more fragmented Europe will need more protection from the United States with respect to key national security issues. Therefore, for Russia, such a Europe will be both a comfortable and a problematic partner.