Is Europe on the verge of becoming the new world leader?
Under its new President, the US appears to have temporarily ceded its position as the default leader of the liberal, democratic world. Can France and Germany fill the gap?long reads Updated: Jul 02, 2017 07:37 IST
When leaders of G20 states gather in Hamburg this week, the world will be watching closely to see if they step up to the plate to fill the space ceded by the US under President Donald Trump.
The rise of Trump with his “America First” credo had boosted the fortunes of nationalist forces across Europe but recent elections in the UK and France have shown the tide has been stemmed, if not reversed.
With the success of French President Emmanuel Macron and his centrist party, La Republique en Marche in elections and with Chancellor Angela Merkel on course for a fourth term as Germany’s leader, albeit with reduced backing, many around the world are looking to Europe’s key powers to set the global agenda.
Others have pointed to the rise of the Labour Party in the UK and its leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to tap into the backing of the youth, despite the Conservative Party’s victory in the June 8 snap election, as a reflection of the rejection of populist policies that appeared to have spread after Trump’s win in the US.
The right-wing UK Independence Party imploded in the recent poll, its vote share of 12.6 per cent in the 2015 polls falling to just 2.1 per cent.
In March, Geert Wilders’ populist Party for Freedom was defeated in the election in the Netherlands. More recently, Finland’s ruling coalition parted ways with the rightwing True Finns party earlier this month. These developments too have been perceived as a dip in support for populist and hardline forces across the continent.
“Altogether, these national developments seem to signal that the wave of right-wing populism, which swept the US and UK last year, is receding. While reformist politics appear on the upswing, Germany and France are seizing new opportunities for global leadership,” said Antoine Levesques, research associate for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
But there are also signs that people across Europe want change, Levesques explained.
What the French and British elections had in common, he told Hindustan Times, is the revelation of a “profound sense of ill-ease among sizeable segments of their electorates with business-as-usual policies supporting ever-freer movement of labour across Europe (and) the model of financial globalisation which failed in 2007 and is blamed for austerity and widening inequality”.
Levesques said turnout in the German election in September, which will “partly be a referendum on Merkel’s pro-immigration and pro-EU policies”, will be closely watched for “signs that the respite from populism could only be temporary”.
Political commentator Jasdev Rai, also director of the Britain-based Sikh Human Rights Group, believes Trump’s politics – which he describes as “tweetomatic and impulsive” – have shaken up the world order to an extraordinary degree with “threats of wars, xenophobia, protectionist economics, racial violence and attacks on established international institutions”.
“As the US goes into internal tensions, there will be sigh of relief if Angela Merkel wins the forthcoming German election and takes leadership of the democratic liberal world order,” he said.
And in the face of Trump dismissing climate change and global warming, pushing NATO to pay more for the defence of Europe, firming up protectionist trade policies and acting unilaterally on a raft of issues that impact the world community, leaders such as Merkel and Macron have shown their willingness to do more to provide the lead.
Merkel has pledged to take up climate change and free trade at the G20 Summit. Addressing the German Parliament, Merkel said, without naming Trump, that global problems couldn’t be solved with isolation and protectionism.
Merkel, who met European allies last week to firm up a strategy to take on Trump, also spoke of France and Germany taking on a greater role in the EU. She said she had spoken with Macron about plans for “deepening the EU and the euro zone”.
Even as Trump kept up his attacks on Germany’s “very bad” trade policies, Merkel made it clear that Europe could no longer see the US as a reliable partner. And both Merkel and Macron have taken on Trump’s skepticism about climate change – the French president responded to his US counterpart’s “Make America great again” slogan with “Make our planet great again”.
After Trump’s constant hectoring of NATO members for not spending enough on defence, European countries are set to increase their military budgets at the fastest pace since 2015. This year’s increase – at 4.3 per cent, compared to 1.8 per cent in 2015 – also represents the fastest growth since a decade of cuts ended in 2014. The European Union also has plans to create a multi-billion euro defence fund.
The added military clout, experts say, could provide essential backing for a Europe that is expected to play a larger role in world affairs, especially to counter a perceived threat from Russia, cyber attacks and terror groups such as the Islamic State.
JUMPING THE GUN?
But there are also sceptics who question whether too much is being read into the rise of leaders such as Macron and the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France and the humbling of Prime Minister Theresa May in the UK.
“The problem with political pundits is that they tend to try to draw ambitious conclusions from single events. Thus, the victory of Macron in the French presidential election has been widely portrayed as a triumph of liberalism,” said Professor Anand Menon of King’s College., London.
“This may turn out to be true. Equally, there are good reasons to be sceptical.”
Macron’s victory, Menon said, is “not evidence of some pan-European liberal revival”. The conditions for his victory were specific to France and his success can be “judged only on the basis of his record in power and not his success in achieving this”, he added.
Karan Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer and a member of Britain’s House of Lords, argued that the financial crisis of 2008-09 and subsequent years of austerity and lack of growth were part of the reason for the protest votes in the Brexit referendum and the US election.
“Since then, the greatest threat with Trump’s rhetoric has been his protectionism and the possibility of trade barriers coming up all over the world once more…The previous peak in globalisation at the start of 19th century led to World War 1, a state of complete protectionism and barriers to trade,” he said.
“Now, we have had the highest level of globalisation for over a century and the worry about protectionism is that it would potentially lead to conflict throughout the world, starting nowhere other than the US, the world’s only real superpower – that is seriously worrying.”
Europe will also have to contend with divisions between its wealthy west and less privileged east, where there are more takers for Trump’s rhetoric, especially his anti-immigration stance.
Euractiv, an online media outlet specialising in EU policy, said in a piece titled “Will Trump divide Europe” that the US president still has friends in Europe. “But as some EU countries shun him and others welcome him with open arms, Trump could become the wedge that drives the Union apart,” it noted.