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December 10, 2014 3:57 pm

Opinion: Why the EU’s Actions Impact America

avatar by John Bolton

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EU flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels. Photo: Amio Cajander via Wikimedia Commons.

Important American interests are at stake in what may seem, from a distance, arcane disputes within and among members of the European Union. Nonetheless, European debates over issues such as the common currency, immigration and economic regulations all reflect fundamental disputes over the EU’s ultimate purpose.

Whether and how EU members chose deeper political and economic integration fundamentally affects U.S. global security interests. For decades, beginning with the Marshall Plan, Washington encouraged closer cooperation among Europeans governments, perhaps leading to a “United States of Europe.” During the Cold War, this seemed to many Americans a sensible way to protect the Western alliance from fragmentation, and provide the unarguable benefits of reducing trade barriers.

But some Europeans had other motives: a fearful opposition, verging on obsession, with “nationalism” and nation states, seeing these political phenomena as the cause of Europe’s twentieth-century conflagrations. And especially in the Cold War’s aftermath, many saw a politically united Europe as an alternative “pole” to America in a multipolar world.

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In reality, however, “ever closer union” in Europe has produced an increasingly sclerotic regulatory maze and a far weaker politico-military influence in world affairs. Both these results are negative for America. Concededly, we too have massive problems from over-regulation, but the continent that coined the word “bureaucracy” has raised the problem to its highest pitch. And in terms of real clout defending the West, a more-integrated EU is less than the sum of its parts.

Beyond the political and economic weakness, Europe seems to be losing its moral and philosophical moorings. Pope Francis recently admonished the European parliament that “in many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant…. The great ideas that once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions.”

Just weeks earlier, U.S. entrepreneur Peter Thiel told the Financial Times that “if you’re a slacker with low expectations, those low expectations are likely to be met … Pessimism in Europe has a … demotivating effect. When you’re pessimistic and unmotivated, it has a self-fulfilling character.” Hearing such similar comments from these diverse sources is telling, but even more telling is that no one rushed to dispute their conclusions.

Europeans themselves increasingly recognize that the EU project has gone badly awry. Defending the euro has trampled democratic institutions in several member states, and is far more an ideological objective than the original sponsors ever admitted. While 2008’s economic turmoil has receded, the common currency’s underlying contradictions and problems, without true political union or a real continental economy, continue simmering.

Moreover, “populist” parties in several countries have arisen over immigration issues. While it is quick and easy to deride these parties as extremist and racist (though their concern is often about immigration from other European countries!), and is partly true, the criticism misses the deeper concerns that “populist” politicians reflect. The EU does indeed have a “democratic deficit” as Margaret Thatcher and other responsible European leaders have stressed repeatedly. Despite years of complaints about the problem, however, little has been done.

So serious is the challenge to the European project that the prospect of Britain exiting the EU is now very real. UK politics are in a turmoil unseen since the mid-to-late nineteenth century when modern political parties took shape. If anything wakes Americans up to the seriousness of the EU’s political and economic disarray, it will be the UK, which itself just narrowly averted a Scottish decision to declare independence more than three hundred years after union with England and Wales.

Admittedly, Washington has limited influence over the raging European debate. There may even be a downside in expressing our opinions about the EU’s increasing debility, such as faltering before Russia’s military aggression and economic and political pressure on Ukraine (especially since our own president contributed mightily to the general Western disarray). Many Europeans who view “ever closer union” as a religious tenet define Europe as “not the United States,” so criticism could simply cause them to cling more tenaciously to their increasingly imperiled vision.

Nonetheless, Europe remains centrally important for America, as does NATO, which in material respects is a casualty of the EU’s increased powers. A strong Europe is definitely not synonymous with a strong EU. U.S. isolationists complain about European NATO members not bearing their fair share of maintaining a common defense, and that has been true for decades. But we must focus not on the free riders, but on America’s own vital interests.

As our 2016 presidential campaign unfolds, many national security issues demand attention, especially given President Obama’s conscious avoidance of international affairs. Threats and challenges in the Middle East and Asia are unquestionably compelling, but they should not obscure the fundamental importance of addressing the tectonic political forces now at work in Europe. If Americans fail to assert their interests, Europe’s collective insularity and weakness will only grow worse, to our very real detriment.

John R. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was originally published by The Washington Examiner.

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