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6 December 2023

Amid multiple crises, EU leaders cling to a misplaced optimism

Economic turmoil is on the horizon – the scariest of all outcomes for Europe would be a Trump victory.

By Wolfgang Münchau

The EU has already suffered three big shocks this decade: Britain’s departure, Covid, and the Ukraine war. As we approach 2024, I see four more possible mega-shocks on the horizon: a victory by Donald Trump in next year’s US presidential election; Ukraine’s defeat; a recession followed by financial instability; and a surge in support for the far right in next year’s European elections. I am not predicting all four will happen. But some of them might.

Europeans have started at least to consider the possibility that Trump might win. Back in 2016, they underestimated him. They underestimated him again in 2020, when he came close to winning a second term. Joe Biden’s victory lulled them into a dangerous complacency about the future of EU-US relations. The EU’s transatlantic strategy is premised on Biden staying in the White House.

[See also: Geert Wilders’ victory is a dire threat to the EU]

The EU’s leaders had previously also underestimated the Brexit dynamics from start to finish. They underestimated Vladimir Putin. And they did not foresee the financial crisis in 2012.

There is a pattern here. European integration has always been a project of hope. It attracts optimists, but also people with a complacent mindset. It also attracts politicians who value symbolism and appearances over content. Many pro-European commentators fall into that category too. Applause in Brussels comes to those who give inspirational speeches about European integration, not to those who warn about the pitfalls ahead.

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The priority in Brussels is the preparation of accession talks with Ukraine, rather than the more urgent task of supporting it in the war right now. For Ukraine, it has been a terrible year on the battlefront. The counteroffensive has stalled. The overconfident forecasts by Western politicians, academics and military experts have proved mostly wrong. The Ukrainian high command disagreed among themselves over strategy. The West over-promised and under-delivered. One of the Western leaders who has been guilty of this is Olaf Scholz. The German chancellor has been working behind the scenes to block the delivery of Taurus cruise missiles. He does not want Ukraine to strike the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea with mainland Russia and is critical for Russian supply lines. The US administration, meanwhile, has warned that its support for Ukraine runs out at the end of the year, unless Congress agrees to a new package.

A much under-appreciated risk to Europe is the economy. Germany and France have been drifting apart on energy – especially on nuclear energy – but lately they have also been differing on macroeconomic policy, which is far more serious. The German constitutional court recently ruled that the Scholz government’s budget is unconstitutional. It is now under pressure to impose austerity, and risk a deeper and longer recession. But in France, Emmanuel Macron is spending recklessly. The eurozone is economically more divergent than ever. This time, the divergence is not between north and south, but between the two core members.

But as serious as an economic crisis would be, the scariest of all outcomes for Europe would be a Trump victory. He has threatened to end military and financial assistance to Ukraine, and to leave the Europeans to deal with the situation on their own. The EU’s leaders are, of course, not prepared for this. Nor are they ready for a US disengagement from Nato.

One would have thought that the EU heads of state and government would discuss potential crisis scenarios at their summit in Brussels on 14-15 December. But this is not what will happen. They will try to unlock an internal dispute with Hungary about financial aid to Ukraine, discuss EU enlargement, and attempt to resolve a big gap that has arisen in the EU’s budget.

On the future of European security, the summit agenda only says that the leaders will take stock of progress since they came together last time, and that they will give additional guidance. Which is another way of saying that this is not a priority.

The big winner from the political paralysis in Europe has been the far right. Based on their current polling, far-right parties stand to make big gains at the European elections in June next year. And the greater their number, the greater their power to block European legislation.

Over the years, they have become stronger, smarter and more subversive. They are no longer campaigning to leave the European Union, but to fight the EU from within. They are succeeding. They are setting the political agenda on immigration in many countries, and lately also on the watering down of green policies. The centre right is copying them.

The larger the far right, the more fragile the political centre becomes. Most of Europe’s political leaders govern with multi-party coalitions. The German one started with high hopes in 2021, but has been in crisis for much of this year. Macron has no majority in the French National Assembly. Pedro Sánchez in Spain only managed to gain a majority after agreeing to an amnesty law for Catalan separatists.

Looking ahead to 2024, I expect the EU to continue to support Ukraine, with words, money and weapons – in that order. There will not be a financial crisis just yet. But I expect the far right to consolidate its support. Will Donald Trump win? If he does, it will come as a total shock for many in Europe.

[See also: Spain’s amnesty for Catalan separatists is a dilemma for the EU]

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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