Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 September 2019

United states of Europe could spell the end of the western alliance

The EU's new leaders regard the creation of a European superstate as a welcome alternative to America’s global dominance

Ursula von der Leyen, the nominated president of the European Commission, with current president Jean-Claude Juncker. Olivier Hoslet / EPA
Ursula von der Leyen, the nominated president of the European Commission, with current president Jean-Claude Juncker. Olivier Hoslet / EPA

The changing of the guard at the top of the European Union, with a new line-up of top officials set to be approved by the European parliament, could well result in increased tensions in the western alliance, as Brussels intensifies its efforts to create a European superstate.

And the emergence of a new EU leadership that is preoccupied with pursuing its own, federalist agenda, could have a profound bearing on its approach to global issues, especially in the Middle East, where its insistence on sticking to the controversial nuclear deal with Iran could increase tensions in the region.

That is certainly the conclusion being reached by many western diplomats following 27 hours of intense summit negotiations in Brussels earlier this week that resulted in the nominations for the EU’s most important posts for the next five years.

Foremost among those to emerge victorious from the brutal power-brokering between Germany and France over who should hold these key positions was Ursula von der Leyen, a close ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a committed European federalist.

Mrs von der Leyen, who for the past 11 years has served as Germany’s first female defence minister, has impeccable European credentials. The daughter of a prominent German politician, Ernst Albrecht, she studied in London before pursuing her own politician career. A fluent French speaker, she has established strong ties with French politicians. Indeed, it was her Francophone outlook that persuaded French President Emmanuel Macron to back her for the top job.

But her emergence as the leading candidate to replace Jean-Claude Juncker has not been without controversy. In response to criticisms that the EU suffers from what critics call a “democratic deficit”, attempts were made to give the European Parliament a greater role in the selection of the candidates, with the so-called spitzenkandidat system, based on the outcome of the recent EU elections.

To this end the main political blocs in the newly-elected parliament came up with their own suggestions for the top jobs, with the veteran Dutch liberal politician Frans Timmermans their preference to replace Mr Juncker.

But for all the talk of adopting a more democratic approach to the EU’s decision-making process, in the end the main EU power-brokers – namely Germany and France – reverted to type and carved up a deal between themselves, which has left these first few tentative steps towards addressing the institution’s democratic failings in ruins, as well as alienating important member states in southern and eastern Europe that were completely excluded from the Franco-German power-broking axis.

It is, of course, blatantly undemocratic and unaccountable conduct of this nature that resulted in the British public voting for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and the unseemly squabbling behind closed doors that ultimately resulted in the emergence of the candidates' list for the top jobs has not exactly helped the EU’s reputation for openness and fairness.

About the only positive to outcome from this sorry affair is that for the first time two women will hold senior posts in the EU’s hierarchy. Apart from Mrs von der Leyen’s nomination as president, the prominent French politician Christine Lagarde, the current head of the IMF, is to take over as president of the European Central Bank.

And with the fallout from what can only be described as the carve-up of the EU’s top jobs likely to rumble on for some time, the other conclusion that must be reached from these appointments is that the EU’s quest for ever closer union is likely to accelerate considerably as a consequence, especially with Mrs von der Leyen in the driving seat.

A long-standing advocate of what she calls “a united states of Europe", Mrs von der Leyen has all the ideological credentials to fulfil the EU’s ambitions.

She nurtures a vision of the EU’s 27 member countries being run on similar federal arrangements to those that exist in countries such as Switzerland, Germany and the US. She is also a strong advocate for the creation of an independent European defence force, one that would seek to protect European interests instead of the continent having to rely on Nato for its defence.

This push for greater European integration, though, is likely to exacerbate further tensions in the transatlantic alliance, where relations between the Trump administration and the major European powers are already strained as a result of Washington’s unhappiness over what it regards as unfair trading arrangements, as well as the failure of most European countries to meet their Nato spending commitments.

Moreover, many European politicians regard the creation of a European superstate as a welcome and necessary alternative to America’s long-standing global dominance.

But if the new round of EU appointments will lend encouragement to those who seek closer European integration, they will do little to improve the effectiveness of the western alliance to deal with global security issues, particularly in the Middle East.

The EU’s new leaders, for example, are unlikely to change direction on the vexed issue of the Iran nuclear deal, where Brussels is still attempting to establish a trading mechanism whereby European firms can continue trading with Tehran without running the risk of being hit with punitive measures from the US.

The EU’s approach, which has already sparked anger in Washington, could find itself under further pressure if Iran persists with its threat to enrich uranium, thereby making Tehran in breach of the terms of the nuclear deal it agreed with the major powers in 2015.

A renewed attempt by the EU to develop its own defence capabilities could also severely undermine the West’s ability to deal with threats from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea. The most likely outcome from any such initiative would be to persuade Washington to withdraw from the Nato alliance, thereby ending an alliance that has for seven decades proved vital to keeping the peace in Europe and the world beyond.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Updated: July 4, 2019 07:10 PM

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