In the COVID era, the EU is its own stumbling block

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, with a virtually present Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
(Getty Images)

By Zack Blumberg

As its leaders try to push ahead with grand ambitions, the EU is waylaid by itself. When Germany officially assumed the European Union (EU) Council presidency on June 1 of this year, its proposed agenda represented a watershed moment for the rapidly developing Franco-German vision of Europe. German MEPs said their nation’s plans included advancing “a strong Europe in the world,” the type of rhetoric which, just six months ago, would have been associated exclusively with France (and President Emmanuel Macron), not Germany. While this signifies a major step towards an increasingly integrated, far-reaching, and liberal Franco-German vision of Europe, this vision is likely more of a fantasy than an actionable plan which can ever come to fruition. 

Before critiquing the new Franco-German plan for Europe, it is essential to contextualize the development of this unlikely alliance. Since coming to office in 2017, Macron has consistently pushed for the ambitious goal of a highly integrated and internationally involved EU; in February of this year, he even laid out his ‘10-year vision’ for the bloc, explaining “what’s key in the coming years is to move much faster on issues of sovereignty on the European level.” However, in his first several years in office, Macron’s calls for further integration were largely unpopular, and, crucially, he lacked Germany’s support: until very recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had staunchly resisted Macron’s ideas, reticent to tie Germany’s finances to those of Europe’s weaker economies. 

However, spurred on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Merkel finally changed course earlier this year and abandoned her typical financial restraint, instead working with Macron to create an ambitious rescue plan which included billions of Euros in grants and loans as well as, for the first time, collective EU debt. This plan represented the start of a momentous (if potentially temporary) alliance, which was demonstrated by Germany’s ambitious agenda as EU council president. For the first time in decades, the EU’s two most powerful nations, who largely represent the views of the western part of the bloc, appeared to have comparably grand and expansive visions for the EU’s future. 

Since assuming the council presidency, Germany has acted on this vision and already begun using the EU’s political and social clout more aggressively than it previously had. After Belarus’s fraudulent elections and subsequent mass protests earlier this month, Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, took the lead on the situation, calling for a meeting of EU leaders to discuss sanctions on Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. Additionally, Maas also publicly announced that the EU must “increase pressure on the rulers” in Belarus. In tandem with that, Merkel called for a national dialogue to mediate the situation, and Germany summoned the Belarusian ambassador for answers. Similarly, after the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexy Navalny, Maas and Merkel released a joint statement demanding a full and transparent investigation into the incident. In comparison with Germany’s traditional approach, Merkel and Maas’s willingness to lead the diplomatic charge represents a new and ambitious style of EU foreign policy. In barely a month leading the EU council, Germany has already demonstrated its increased ambition for defending liberal European values outside of the EU’s own borders. 

Unfortunately for Macron and Merkel, their vision of a liberal and internationally influential EU is incompatible with the bloc as it exists and operates today, and is unlikely to amount to anything more impactful than the largely symbolic moves Germany has recently begun making. Crucially, Merkel and Macron’s vision for an increasingly involved EU is undercut by two major factors: the bloc’s policies for voting and the ideological discrepancies among its members. First, the EU’s voting policy requires unanimous decisions on major issues such as common foreign and security policy, a major roadblock to making foreign policy decisions quickly and efficiently; this is particularly relevant since many foreign policy situations develop rapidly. 

Second, it is important to remember that many EU nations (particularly those in the East) don’t necessarily agree with the values Macron and Merkel want to advocate for. For instance, while the Franco-German alliance may advocate pushing for the advancement of liberal values such LGBTQ+ rights abroad, this stance would be extremely unpopular in Poland, where President Andrzej Duda was recently reelected after saying that homosexuality was worse than Communism during his campaign. While this is only one example, it is emblematic of a larger divide which exists within the EU. Because of the chasm between the more liberal West and the more conservative East, the Franco-German alliance would have a hard time advocating for many of its positions on behalf of the EU as a whole, especially since the bloc values consensus very highly. 

Furthermore, it is unclear how much sway the EU would have abroad, especially since it is already largely unable to control misbehaving nations within its own borders. Most notably, the EU has effectively stood by as Hungary and Poland have slid towards authoritarianism: Although the EU’s mission explicitly includes the promotion of democracy, it has done little more than write strongly worded rebukes to each nation’s ruling parties over their political misconduct. Similarly, during negotiations over the EU’s historic and all-encompassing Coronavirus relief bill earlier this year, the Polish and Hungarian governments forced Western European leaders to back down from their demand to tie Polish and Hungarian relief funds to democratization; this tactic succeeded since the final plan required unanimous consent Even when illiberal leaders abuse the EU’s own policies, such as Hungarian President Victor Orban using EU farm subsidies to enrich himself and his inner circle of loyalists, the EU has been unable to formulate a strong and meaningful response.

Ultimately, while France and Germany appear intent on strengthening the EU’s foreign policy and using its political and economic power to promote liberal values abroad, these goals are undercut by the EU’s very nature as an organization. Between the bloc’s heavy emphasis on consensus, the discrepancy in values between the east and the west, and the EU’s proven inability to control rogue actors within the Union itself, it is unclear how Macron and Merkel can project strength abroad. Considering the EU’s current institutional structure and ideological makeup, it is unclear how forceful or effective the bloc’s foreign policy could be, despite the best efforts of wealthy, liberal western European nations such as France and Germany. 

Zack Blumberg is a junior at the University of Michigan studying political science and history. He primarily studies European politics, and focuses on both political developments within Europe and their impact on American foreign policy.






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