American Visions for the European Question

On 8 April 2016, the Project for Democratic Union, McCloy Fellows at Harvard University and European Horizons hosted the event ‘American Visions for the European Question: A Transatlantic Debate’. 

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Europe stands at a crossroads between revolutionary integration and incremental implosion: refugees, Daesh, Putin, Brexit, Grexit, the German Question and an ongoing economic and institutional crisis. The European Union, the United States’ closest and most important ally, may well be facing the most severe challenge of its existence. And yet, past crises have often seen Europe emerge stronger and more unified than before. Adding uncertainty, American power no longer seems willing to protect the ‘European paradise’. In fact, the American political debate seems oddly detached from this potential geographical earthquake – which would affect key U.S. strategic interests.

On the event’s panel, chaired by Constanze Stelzenmüller, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Jane Harman, president of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Bruce Jackson, president of the Project on Transitional Democracies and David O’Sullivan, ambassador of the European Union to the United States, discussed this historical juncture and asked which role the United States can play in its solution both as an actor and as a role model. The following aspects were seen as particularly important.

First, Europe and the U.S. are currently going through the same crisis of democracy and populism, as the elites have not delivered. ‘Washington’ and ‘Brussels’ have become the main target of populist unrest. Institutional change is hard to achieve in the short term due to an overarching institutional deadlock.

Second, in spite of challenges like the Syrian and Libyan crises, transatlantic relations are actually better than they have been for decades as demonstrated by the Iran deal or the common policy towards Russia. However, the rise of isolationism and changing demographics in the U.S. as well as the fact that the U.S. remains chiefly a bystander in the Syrian conflict and in the refugee crisis, suggest that in the long run strategic interests between the U.S. and Europe may increasingly diverge. Europe will have to acquire more independent diplomatic and hard power to solve local and regional crises by itself.

The third theme was that “America is the indispensable partner” (of Europe), as its leadership, backing and advice were crucial not only for Europe’s relations with the rest of the world but also for its internal integration. At the same time, Europe will remain central to U.S. security concerns. A fragmented Europe could therefore raise fundamental questions, such as how to deal with nuclear weapons and how to maintain transatlantic free trade.


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