For decades, the US and the UK were pivotal global leaders. On occasions, as in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the consequences were malign. On others, such as Gordon Brown’s leadership during the 2008 financial crisis, they were virtuous. But most importantly, both states were regarded as reliable upholders of the liberal international order.
The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president have ended this status. As the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, stated in May: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over… We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Though the UK was never a full participant in the European project – enjoying exemptions from the single currency and the borderless Schengen Area – it acted as an Atlantic bridge between the EU and the US. Having once been viewed as a constructive force, Britain is now regarded as a destructive one.
Philip Hammond’s description of the EU as “the enemy” (which the Chancellor hastily retracted) confirmed Europe’s worst suspicions. By spending more time negotiating with one another than with EU member states, senior Conservatives have left Europe bewildered as to the UK’s intentions.
Mr Trump has similarly lived down to expectations. Since entering office earlier this year, he has announced the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate change agreement, recklessly provoked North Korea and threatened to abrogate the successful Iran nuclear deal. Mr Trump’s repudiation of multilateralism amounts to what the distinguished historian Nigel Hamilton calls an “Amerexit”.
The US president, like the most ardent Brexiteers, hoped that the UK’s withdrawal would be a precursor to the EU’s disintegration. The reverse has so far proved true. The election of the liberal centrist Emmanuel Macron as French president and the re-election of Mrs Merkel in Germany have reanimated the Franco-German motor at the EU’s centre.
In a remarkable, wide-ranging interview with Der Spiegel magazine published on 13 October, Mr Macron spoke eloquently of his ambitions. “We need to develop a kind of political heroism,” he said. “I don’t mean that I want to play the hero. But we need to be amenable once again to creating grand narratives.” He continued: “Why is a portion of our youth so fascinated by extremes, jihadism for example? Why do modern democracies refuse to allow their citizens to dream? Why can’t there be such a thing as democratic heroism?”
Rather than indulging his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen – as David Cameron indulged the Conservatives’ Brexiteer wing – Mr Macron confronted her. “In the debates, you don’t hear anything from them any more, because we engaged them in battle,” he said of the Front National.
The French president aspires to use this moment to reaffirm Europe’s political and intellectual leadership. His recent two-hour speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris revived the ambition of a more integrated eurozone and increased defence and security co-operation. If the euro is not merely to survive but to thrive, a common currency must be accompanied by a common budget, including fiscal transfers from richer member states to poorer ones.
Even without fundamental reform, however, the EU economies that Conservative ministers once derided are outpacing the UK, which is now the slowest-growing major European country.
A possible escape route for Britain is emerging. In a truly “multi-speed Europe”, the UK could join an outer ring exempt from “ever closer union”. Britain could draw on its defence and security expertise in return for economic concessions. However, the Brexiteers, who indulge in geopolitical fantasies of a swashbuckling “Anglosphere”, display no such imagination.
There is no cause for European complacency. The Austrian election on 15 October, which will likely lead to a coalition that includes the far-right Freedom Party, was a reminder of lingering maladies. But the EU is the only candidate to fill the vacuum left by the retreat of the US and the UK.
This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions