Vladimir Putin’s manoeuvres cast a new light on the state of EU-US relations. If you are American you do not have to be Senator John McCain, who wants to arm the Ukrainians, to question the validity of Europe’s fond belief that reliance on soft power fits the bill for the 21st century. Russia, and for that matter Turkey no longer have truck with the European idea (if they ever did) that the rule of democratic law is more important than national sovereignty. The EU’s efforts to apply pressure on Moscow through a mix of diplomacy and sanctions are being watched quizzically in Washington. American scrutiny is informed by a slightly different reading of history and indeed geography.
On a recent visit to DC I was struck by how the Ukraine is seen as an embattled classic nation state on the front line of Western interests. Back in Brussels, it is more normal to see Ukraine as ambivalent border lands – what the Cambridge historian Christopher Clark calls ‘a post-Imperial space’ – for ever subject to the competition of several powers, some more benign than others. After 1945, the future of Ukraine was crafted entirely by the Soviet Union: as Churchill and Roosevelt conceded to Stalin at the Yalta Conference, all territory to the east of the Curzon Line was ‘theirs’ not ‘ours’. Only since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 has an independent Ukraine struggled to assert itself, against the odds, as a modern state governed from Kiev. Both the EU and US have offered help in building up Ukrainian economy and society, but the EU has never seen Ukraine as a defining strategic interest and has never sincerely extended to Kiev – unlike the Baltic or Balkan states – the offer of prospective membership.
Traditionally, the US has been more comfortable with the power politics of NATO than with the ‘technocratic charisma’ of the European Union. It is telling that the focus of today’s Western reaction to Putin’s adventurism is the EU and not NATO where the presence of Turkey is an embarrassment. That Barack Obama’s administration seems content to conduct transatlantic discussions about the Ukrainian crisis with the EU signals growing American trust in ‘institutional Brussels’. But then the President is a constitutional lawyer.
Recent changes at the top of the EU have helped. The tougher language of President of the European Council Donald Tusk on Russia is preferred to that of his emollient predecessor Herman Van Rompuy. High Representative Federica Mogherini is thought ‘competent and fluent’. There is much interest in Washington about the whys and wherefores of the Spitzenkandidat experiment that saw Jean-Claude Juncker elected in 2014 as a more overtly political President of the European Commission than José Manuel Barroso. And the emergence of Germany as the lead player in the EU’s efforts to build a common European foreign and security policy is wholly welcomed.
There will be difficulties ahead if the ceasefire drafted at Minsk crumbles and the EU has no contingency plan. EU-US relations could certainly be closer than they are. Neither Tusk nor Juncker has yet been to Washington, and Obama is thought to be reluctant to hold another summit meeting this summer with the Europeans: he found the laboured duet of Van Rompuy and Barroso at these occasions painful to endure, and the prospect that the Latvians could now climb in on the act by virtue of their term as president of the Council of Ministers risks putting the kybosh on another EU-US summit.
Who’s our Hamilton?
I found nobody in America who believed that the euro can be saved without deeper fiscal integration. Having waxed at a Yale conference about how Jean Monnet was Europe’s James Madison, I was asked to nominate Europe’s Alexander Hamilton (who created the US Federal Treasury). Hmm.
To Americans steeped in presidential politics, it seems odd, not to say absurd, that the EU’s executive is so weak and diffuse. The US experience suggests that without the establishment of strong federal government European solidarity at home and European cohesion abroad will continue to be elusive. Europe’s unification continues to be seen as very much in the American interest, as Churchill, Schuman and Monnet originally testified.
The retirement of the British from the international scene is also a matter of much comment in Washington. The decisive moment as far as the Americans are concerned was the August 2013 decision of the House of Commons not to send British troops to Syria. The coalition government has done nothing since to refurbish the special Anglo-American relationship, particularly after the removal as foreign secretary of William Hague. The fact that Scotland was almost allowed to leave the United Kingdom, and may yet do so, is regarded by most Americans (many of whom take pride in their tartan) as incredible.
Yet the prospect of Brexit has not yet sunk in. If Cameron is still prime minister after the British election on 7 May and then calls a referendum on leaving the EU watch out for truly scandalised Americans.
Andrew Duff’s new book is Pandora, Penelope, Polity: How to Change the European Union