PARIS — Europe today finds itself facing a double existential challenge. The first is external and essentially geopolitical in nature. The second is a social and political nature. Geopolitics drives Europe towards more unity, but politics is more difficult than ever. How can this dilemma be solved? This is the question Europeans will need to answer in the coming weeks.
In a world that many still love to describe as a-polar, a new bipolarity is slowly but surely establishing itself. Russia can score points in the Middle East, build ties on the African continent, or support the "legitimate regime" of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, but it still does not have the means to revert to what it was in the days of the USSR. China has taken its place de facto next to the United States. Europe does not figure in the "big league," but does not mean it should not exist in the international arena. In fact, it's the exact opposite.
Today, the two countries pose the most serious threat to Europe when it comes to trade and technology — two crucial fields of activity — are precisely the United States and China. The US no longer provides the strategic protection that it has done in the past.
Precisely the legal domain is Europe's strength. When it remains united in imposing sanctions against Putin's Russia after Crimea's annexation or keeps a unified position vis-à-vis the UK post-Brexit maneuvers, Europe exists. It proves its resilience and shows a real power of deterrence that surprises its adversaries and rivals. You cannot brush it off.
Europe can only exist in the world if it is united.
"There are two categories of small countries in Europe: small countries, and countries that do not know they're small," said former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta. In the era of Trump and Xi Jinping , climate change and mass migration — without forgetting the fight against terrorism — Europe can only exist in the world if it is united. If one is optimistic, one could imagine that the majority of Europeans are slowly waking up to this reality.
The problem is that the first, geopolitical challenge becomes less than the second, internal challenge. Europe can be seen, especially by the British, as a classic alliance founded on common interests. Some would say that it is above all a "union of values." And on this level, there are now two sides in Europe. Proponents of classical liberal democracy are paying for the blindness of their elites to the extent of globalization. The other side, from the extreme right to the extreme left, is driven by a will to transform the EU from the inside, which fails to hide their intentions to destroy it.
It is the simultaneity of these two challenges, external and internal, which makes the situation that we are going through so disturbing, and exciting at the same time. History (with a capital H) is uncertain and things could go in either direction: the reboot or the shattering of the European project. Nothing is written, but everything is accelerating.
There is one reason to remain optimistic and to continue to believe in Europe : the resilience of the Franco-German alliance. Now more than ever, it is the best possible response — if not the only one — to Europe's internal and external challenges. The project's adversaries have understood it perfectly. To go against it, they reproduce the most absurd fake news, such as those relating to the Aachen treaty (known in French as Aix-la-Chapelle) signed in January by France and Germany. National Front (now known as National Rally ) leader Marine Le Pen and her supporters flooded social media with fake reports that France has agreed to share a seat at the UN Security Council with Germany. More fake news claim that the treaty would be seen in Alsace and Lorraine to Germany.
President Macron and Chancellor Merkel at the Aachen treaty — Photo: Lu Wang/ZUMA
"Propaganda is a simple thing. You just have to say something very big and repeat it often," said one of the characters of Jean Anouilh's play The Rehearsal. But Anouilh's characters did not have access to the Internet or to social media to multiply the impact of their lies.
In reality, there's nothing spectacular in the new treaty signed by France and Germany. But its positive significance is not just symbolic. Germany pledged to engage in additional security and defense efforts. To understand German reticence in this domain, one must understand a historical and psychological reality. It is not that Germany is disinterested in the fate of the world, or it does not want to compromise its economic growth with efforts around security and defense.
There is one reason to remain optimistic and to continue to believe in Europe.
This second aspect plays a role, but it loses importance at a time when it is unaccompanied to the United States. The fact is that Germany is, above all, scared of itself. What would happen if it got another taste of power, in the most literal sense of the term: the same passion and talent that brought it to a downfall so recently?
As much as a response to external challenges, the Franco-German alliance is a response to challenges coming from inside Europe. It is far too early to make any predictions about the outcome of the EU elections in May. But it is not unreasonable to be cautiously optimistic. Between the German Greens and the French centrists behind the party of President Macron, the pro-Europe "camp of reason" is far from having lost the game. At worst, populists will have around 160 seats in the next European Parliament. It's a lot but it's not a tidal wave. The European project is not dead. It continues to live, and to resonate.
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