Europe’s plan to forget Britain and unseat the US as leader of the free world

Federica Mogherini is vying for Rex Tillerson’s place as chief diplomat for the free world’s leader.
Federica Mogherini is vying for Rex Tillerson’s place as chief diplomat for the free world’s leader.
Image: AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool
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Brussels, Belgium

It was September in New York City, and Federica Mogherini had a big stage.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, the great and the good of business and politics had gathered at the Bloomberg Global Forum in Manhattan’s ritzy Plaza Hotel to decide what to do with the world. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Blackrock CEO Larry Fink had to content themselves with being part of a four-person panel. Apple CEO Tim Cook split his stage time with the conference’s billionaire organizer Mike Bloomberg. IMF managing director Christine Lagarde apparently didn’t make the cut as a speaker, and had to moderate a panel of four men.

But Mogherini, the EU’s ambitious 44-year-old foreign affairs chief, got the spotlight to herself: a in-depth interview on the future of the Europe.

She used it to make a bold statement of intent about the EU’s global role. The day after Donald Trump gave an isolationist speech that mentioned “sovereignty” 21 times (third in word count only to “America” and “United States”), Mogherini was eager to profer America’s replacement as leader of the free world.

“The rest of world is now looking at Europe for leadership. And we can do it,” she said.

As Quartz’s series on Brussels after Brexit has shown, the EU is enjoying a rare moment of confidence in the wake of the Brexit vote. Losing Britain means losing a perennial thorn in the side of those pushing for greater cohesion and integration. And the exit of Europe’s biggest financial center and most powerful army is throwing open debates over how the continent’s internal economics should develop, its levels of security integration, and how to maintain—or grow—its geopolitical stature.

Europe’s path to world leader after Brexit

Despite all the excitement in Brussels, it’s hard to spin Brexit as anything but a knock to the EU’s global stature. Among EU member states, Britain’s diplomatic heft is matched only by France. The two are Europe’s most effective and far-reaching diplomatic services, its only nuclear powers, and UN Security Council permanent members.

Should the EU want to impose sanctions on a country or person, losing the City of London, its financial capital, takes away some financial bite. If Europe is making a major lobbying effort at the UN or elsewhere, having Britain put forward different talking points—or ignoring the issue altogether—gives each country they’re talking to less motivation to listen.

Most people in Brussels tell me these things hurt, but they’re far from fatal. The EU’s foreign policy power was and always will be rooted in its economic brawn, they say. Britain and the EU still plan to work tightly on security matters, and their foreign policy will always be closely aligned. France can pick up the slack on directing the Security Council’s attention to EU priorities (and Britain is likely to vote the same way it always did, anyway). US-EU relations have frayed under Trump but ties are long and deep enough that losing the British “bridge” to America may not matter much in the long term.

“The EU is doing absolutely the right thing; trying to step into the void left by the US [under Trump] in terms of world trade by signing up more bilateral trade agreements—that’s terrific,” says Tony Gardner, former US ambassador to the EU, citing planned trade deals with Japan (paywall), AustraliaNew Zealand, and Latin America’s Mercosur bloc (which includes Brazil and Argentina).

If the EU wants to continue as a democratic trading bloc with large but not enormous global influence, it can do so with few noticeable differences. But if Mogherini is serious about her desire to step into America’s shoes as leader of the liberal world, Europe needs every scrap of influence it can muster. That includes foreign aid and development.

Many in the Brussels NGO world worry that the EU’s commitment to international development will fade post-Brexit. Mogherini has paid lip service to the soft power that foreign aid provides, but Britain has historically been the main driver of Europe’s international human development policy.

It’s an area that “a lot of member states couldn’t give two hoots about,” according to Jacqueline Hale, head of advocacy in Save the Children’s Brussels office. “I think we’re really going to struggle to keep a principled approach,” she says. Instead of actively fighting global poverty, she worries the EU will shovel funds meant for humanitarianism towards preventing migration to the EU, and use development funding as aid for European businesses.

The current level of dysfunction in Westminster means it’s not just the EU losing influence, however. “What the UK is doing is not taking away its share of the EU’s clout—it’s taking away its share of the EU’s clout and pissing it up a wall,” says a longtime British official at the EEAS, the EU’s foreign service. “It’s hard to see the UK, as it is at the moment, wielding much influence in the world—which is a real shame.”

A united European security front

Britain deciding to go its own way on security matters would have been calamitous for the EU. “It’s hard to imagine how you provide for European security without Britain. It’s too big, and by virtue of its size it is indispensable,” says Tomas Valasek, a security expert, director of Carnegie Europe, and former Slovak ambassador to NATO.

Fortunately, what Valasek calls “the most powerful armed force in Europe” has no desire to go it alone. In fact, Britain’s white paper on defense relations after Brexit “reads like an application to join the EU,” says Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a think tank. “I think the Brits have suddenly discovered that they want to cooperate on these matters with EU partners which is really a paradox.”

Nonetheless, Brexit (alongside Trump’s disdain for NATO) has propelled other member states to push for levels of security integration that would have been impossible with the UK. This drive took a big symbolic step on Nov. 13, when 23 states signed what Mogherini called a “historic” defense pact.

At present, the pact is more of a statement of intent. An intent to become less dependent on US firepower, to sync the continent’s armies on a deeper level, and to grapple with the wasteful practice of 28 armies buying kit from 28 different suppliers. It’s far from the “EU army” that British tabloids love to decry, but could certainly sharpen the continent’s security and make it a beefier actor in more restive parts of its neighborhood, like the Western Balkans.

So far, security experts are not blown away by the idea. As Judy Dempsey, editor of Carnegie Europe’s Strategic Europe security blog put it, “We’ve heard all this before.”

What does it mean to be a member of EU?

But to set an example for the rest of the world to follow, the EU first must get things in shape within its own borders.

In the last few years, Brussels has faced what Gardner calls “a perfect storm of crises.” It’s been confronted with a debt crisis, economic stagnation, the biggest wave of migration in Europe since WWII, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, and now the departure of its second-richest member.

“I can’t tell you how many times I got calls from Washington asking when the wheels were going to come off the bus,” Gardner remembers.

Yet, one way or another, the EU has kept those wheels on. Given the few years that have gone by, it’s looking astonishingly resilient. Brussels’ current level of buoyancy is rather jarring given its normal status as a city of gloom; more used to a harried crisis mode than one where it can take stock.

Now that it has that chance, there are major decisions it has to face about its future. Does Europe want and need a highly integrated defense force? Do euro zone countries want to be tied into a shared budget? Should the EU integrate at the speed of the slowest actors or the fastest? Can it sustain a system where the less enthusiastic actors pick and choose what they sign up to? Just how does it strike the balance of moving forward as a project while making sure the forces of populism are kept at bay?

Most people interviewed for this series said Europe’s powers-that-be have overcome the complacency that riddled its structures over the past 10 years or so. They say there is some actual introspection going on; an awareness that these things need to be thought about. It’s one thing to be aware of that and another to act on it, though.

“The reality in Europe is that people don’t like to discuss these issues,” says Pierre Vimont, former secretary general of the EEAS. “They prefer to spend hours talking about quotas for migrants or the need for more financial perspective.

“They don’t like to talk about the heart of the matter, about what solidarity means today: What does it mean to be a member of the EU? What is a perspective which we can all share?”

This is the final story in Brussels after Brexit, a four-part series exploring how the EU is preparing for life without Britain. 

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