The Donald has been president for a few days now. Here’s what I’ve got, broken into bits as I’m able to piece things together. I apologize if this is somewhat stream of consciousness but as we all know, prognosticating about the new American president is not your normal spectator sport.
Part II: The End of Europe
President Donald Trump entertained his first foreign dignitary Friday, January 27: UK Prime Minister Theresa May. The primary outcome of their trip? The two pledged to work towards the formalization of a “quick trade deal.”
This takes us all kinds of interesting places.
First, from a strategic point of view anything that binds the United Kingdom closer to the United States is phenomenal for U.S. power. Britain maintains the world’s third-most powerful navy, and soon will float the only functional supercarriers in the world not in the U.S. fleets. London is the world’s second-largest financial hub, and the chief route out for capital fleeing Continental Europe. London has centuries of bred-in experience manipulating political and economic systems the world over. Add in a wealth of preexisting bilateral political, economic and cultural ties, and if there is one country that is a natural complement to American power projection, it is Britain.
Second, the EU is spotlighting the path to its own end with a bizarre sort of enthusiasm. Technically, the May-Trump summit is illegal; under EU law only the European Commission — the EU’s executive — can engage in trade talks on behalf of its members, and the UK’s exit negotiations haven’t yet begun. Just to be sure that the Europeans know that this isn’t an accidental oversight, May has also announced the commencement of trade talks with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Turkey and India.
The Commission and EU Parliament are bubbling with fury about how this won’t be allowed to stand, will poison the UK’s pending Brexit talks with the EU, and that Britain will be punished for it. But considering May has indicated that she prefers simply walking away from the EU to any sort of divorce deal that doesn’t serve London’s interest, the EU is absolutely bereft of leverage.
If there was an issue that could prove that the EU had some flexibility, a flat-out Brexit negotiation was it. It will be a negotiation that is predominantly economic in which the EU has lots of leverage and for which the EU has lots of options to choose from. This should be easy.
Such obstinacy pretty much dooms the EU in its grappling with its far larger problems: the EU faces a demographic implosion, a sovereign debt crisis that only increases by the year, anemic-at-best economic growth, a rising banking crisis, an aggressive Russia, an increasingly belligerent Turkey, waves of refugees as Mideast countries crumble, and so on. Rather that start reimagining the Union or getting on with the very real work ahead, the EU’s institutions are doing the equivalent of rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs during a Godzilla attack with a tsunami on the horizon. Britain is already moving on, yet it looks like Brexit will consume all the EU’s emotional bandwidth for months (years?). Such ossification makes it scarily easy to predict how this will all go: everything that happens in the EU is now an institutional crisis.
Third, after decades of Continental military downsizing, the UK and U.S. are Europe’s security policy. May still went through the motions of pledging her support for NATO, which literally earned no more than a curt nod from the new American president — a man that, since his election, has made no secret of his belief that the alliance is already over. So long as Europe cannot come to terms with Brexit, it is a mighty reach to assume that the UK will continue going to bat with Trump for the sake of the Continent. Expect American drawdowns of its warfighting capabilities in Europe to begin in the not-too-distant future. The only question now is whether this is done in league with evolutions in U.S.-Russian relations or not.
And a quick glance through history indicates that a German center to Europe never holds for long.