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Europe’s Fault Lines

Guest: Erik Jones, Director of European and Eurasian Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Europe is in flux – French and German presidential elections are on the horizon and with vaccinations finally getting traction, what is the outlook for post Brexit continental Europe?

Erik Jones, Director of European and Eurasian Studies of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University, takes us on a deep dive into the future of Europe. With two major elections on the horizon, he joins hosts Peter Schechter and Muni Jensen on Altamar’s latest podcast episode to discuss Europe’s impending changes. Jones, a frequent commentator on European politics and political economy, will take the helm in the Fall as Director of the Robert Schuman Centre at the European University Institute. He has been featured in the Financial Times, New York Times, USA Today, and newspapers and magazines across the European continent.

Europe is a see saw of good and bad news. On the one hand, politics are in flux in France and Germany, with voters increasingly apathetic about their leaders. Brexit is now a fact of life. Some Covid restrictions are returning as the Delta virus spreads, Eastern Europe continues to worry, Hungary, Bulgaria and Poland infringe upon the democratic rights of their people. On the other hand, vaccinations are accelerating, economic growth is growing fast and the first Eurobond in history was a success. The continent is in flux. 

[Europe is] going through a bunch of different things, and we can highlight all the bad things that each different place is [going through]…But the fact of the matter is that there are lots of good things going on in Europe as well. Good things that are related to the recovery that’s about to set in, good things associated with the amount of solidarity that they were able to show during the crisis, and good things in terms of their ability to project themselves towards the outside world. So I think there’s bad, but there’s also good in this big confusing place called Europe,” says Erik Jones.

Recent summits such as the G-7 in Britain and the Geneva summit were more photo-ops, than substance, failing to address competition with China, and relations with Russia. We talk about a ‘united Europe’, but when it comes to critical issues, how united are the Europeans, really? They all seem to be on various ends of the spectrum.

“Clearly [Russia and China] are challenges for Europe but it seems like China is really forcing the Europeans to dance. On one hand they want to condemn human rights abuses in Xinjiang but on the other hand, they’ve got lots of projects cooking with the Chinese. As paragons of Western democracy, you can’t just keep going and pretending that a little criticism is going to solve the problem,” notes Altamar’s Peter Schechter. 

There are different parts of Europe that have different relationships with China. Germany has China deeply embedded in its supply chain and export markets. And so, Germany is trying to figure out how to keep the German economy going but also sever relations with China or discipline China in terms of human rights [abuses] at the same time…However, Hungary, by contrast, is actually looking for China to bring foreign direct investment into the country,” explains Jones. But Italy is the wild card and a country to keep an eye on when it comes to relations with China. “[Former Italian Prime Minister] Giuseppe Conte decided to join in the Belt and Road Initiative in 2019. Now Mario Draghi is saying, ‘Maybe we don’t need all that Chinese investment. Maybe we would be better off being more independent from China,’”elaborates Jones. With such varying relationships on a country-by-country basis, it’s clear that a commonality isn’t easily found…or is it?

 [The European Union has] never agreed on Russia. They’ve never had a common foreign and security policy. That was the fact vis-a-vis Russia. That was true in the 1990s, it was true in the 2000s, and it’s true today. And the fact that they’re no more cohesive today than they were then is not an indictment of the European Union. On the contrary, they’ve shown that they’ve been able to come up with more in common this time around than they’ve ever been able to do before, which is [seen in] that story about [German-led] sanctions [against Russia] from 2014 on. So, I think they’re showing progress. It’s just maybe we have a different metric that we’re trying to put them up against,” says Jones. 

Some of Europe’s most powerful political figures are facing huge changes in the coming year: Draghi in Italy, Macron in France, and Merkel in Germany. 

“Draghi seems to be kind of the rising star from political turmoil in Europe. He also seems to have made good use of Italy’s COVID subsidies and appears to be gaining leadership,” points out Altamar’s Muni Jensen. “[Draghi] is the guy who saved Europe in the middle of the [economic] crisis…this is such an important opportunity for Italy to make the changes that they’ve needed to make over the last twenty-five years. He represents the best opportunity [Italy has], but that doesn’t mean he’s the full solution,” answers Jones. Parliament is about to reach the semestre bianco or “white semester,” which prohibits the dissolution of Parliament in the last six months of the term of the President of the Republic. Those envious of Draghi may see a solution by “kicking him upstairs”.  “Sergio Mattarella, who’s President of the Republic, has to be replaced in January. And the question is whether they’re going to make Draghi President as opposed to Prime Minister. If they do, that could usher in a period of relative political instability in Italy. If they don’t, Draghi could stick around for another two years,” explains Jones. Short-sighted Italian politics could still commit the monumental mistake of ending Draghi’s time as prime minister. 

Macron has expanded his footprint as a global leader, but it came at the cost of losing his popularity at home. With the national elections coming up next year, everyone is wondering whether Macron will get a second term or will the rightwing populist Marine Le Pen win. Or, could there be a new player at the table? [Macron] had fewer than a quarter of the [electoral] vote, but he managed to become President because he was better than the only remaining alternative who was Marine Le Pen. His challenge going into the next round of elections is not to be popular, it’s just to be more popular than anybody else. If he can get into the top two, he’s pretty much assured to win. If he can’t, then we have a real problem because Marine Le Pen is actually becoming more and more popular as time goes on. And she represents a very different pattern for the French government, which would have huge implications for Europe,” comments Jones. Can Macron make a comeback?

After 15 years in office, Merkel has decided to step down as German Chancellor and make way for new leadership. New parties such as the Greens have made headway in recent elections, but Merkel’s Christian Democrats should not be underestimated.  “There are lots of places where Christian Democrats disappeared altogether. Just look right next door at the Netherlands. But the Christian Democrats in Germany seemed to be doing a lot better than their critics might have expected. It’s fair to assume that they’re going to be part of any coalition that emerges out of the next round of elections. If they are, what their election manifesto makes clear is that they’re not going to tolerate lots of changes at the European level in the way economics works, or at least the way macroeconomics is governed…That’s a little bit unfortunate because we need much more creative, much more inventive leadership at the European level. We need Mario Draghis,” says Jones.

Want to learn more about the future of Europe and what a welcomed return back to Transatlantic relations will look like? Find out by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

Image Source: Kevin Liptak//CNN//Host TV 2

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