The German government is struggling to fill Angela Merkel’s place on the European stage, a task made extremely difficult after Merkel’s legacy collapsed when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. Meanwhile, French President Emmanuel Macron has to deal with a divided parliament that is not the most popular among eastern Europeans, or even southern Europeans. Mario Draghi was widely respected, but his caretaker government collapsed. Eastern Europe may appear to be on the rise, but these countries lack economic clout and are as adept at alienating other EU countries in the west as the French is in the east. So Henry Kissinger’s supposed quip about not knowing who to call when he needs to dial Europe now seems especially true. But another possibility presented itself: Why not just call Ursula?
In September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had a clear message in her annual State of the Union address: “We have brought Europe’s inner strength back to the surface,” she declared. The speech was striking in its moral and visual clarity and clear support for Ukraine. Wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag, she said: “This is not just a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. This is a war against our energy, a war against our economy, a war against our values, and a war against our future. This is about autocracy against democracy. … Putin will fail and Europe will prevail. When Russia decided to invade Ukraine, the European Union moved with shocking speed and force, much to the credit of the European Commission and Von der Leyen’s leadership, they wrote in a commentary for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Max Bergman, Director of the Center’s Europe Program, and Ilke Toigur, Foreign Senior Fellow in CSIS’s Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.
The European Union is certainly showing its strength. Fourteen years ago, when the global economic and financial crisis hit, the European Union’s response was slow, short-sighted, and bureaucratic, and created deep rifts between member states that have not yet healed. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the European Union’s response kept the union united, prevented the borders from rising again, bought vaccines collectively, and took the unprecedented step of borrowing €807 billion to support the economic recovery.
The European Union has spoken and acted with moral clarity on Ukraine and even surprised the United States with its strong response to sanctions. The commission, under von der Leyen, has repeatedly pushed for broader and tougher sanctions, persuading member states to join. It was also the main driving force behind the granting of candidate country status to Ukraine. She rose to the occasion – before there was consensus among member states – to confirm that Ukraine’s future is in the European Union. Without her dedication, breaking the ice on enlargement might not have been possible.
The European Union has also taken unprecedented military steps, using its new Security Assistance Fund to support Ukraine. The European Union provided 2.5 billion euros to support the Ukrainian armed forces, in addition to millions in humanitarian aid. The European Union is now pushing for a military training mission and the adoption of a €500 million fund to encourage EU member states to do joint defense procurement. All the while, Europe hosts millions of Ukrainians fleeing the war in EU member states.
The European Union is also finally starting to take action to address the decline of democracy at home. While the von der Leyen commission has rightly been criticized for its passivity, the new EU recovery funds have strengthened the influence of the European Union. It now has a powerful tool to use to address democratic backsliding. For example, the European Union is withholding funds from Hungary because of its deliberate efforts to undermine the rule of law. Although there is nervousness about a new far-right government in Italy, it will seek to receive the estimated 200 billion euros allocated to it in recovery funds.
In addition, like the United States, the European Union is also seeking to strengthen its industrial capacity in key sectors. Learning from its energy dependence on Russia, the EU is trying to secure its supply chains, including access to critical raw materials. There are new alliances, endless negotiations, and attempts to diversify. How much of this will end up in #MadeinEU remains to be seen. But the European Union takes its economic security seriously.
The commission is now playing a key role in forging a collective response to the energy crisis caused by the shutdown of gas flows from Russia. The tasks facing the European Union are daunting – energy decoupling, rising inflation, and a potential economic recession, all the while it strives to meet its commitments to combat climate change. But far from bringing the European Union to its knees, the union is stronger than many think, and these crises will serve to strengthen it. The response to this crisis is likely to transform and institutionally strengthen the European Union, reforming its fiscal rules, stimulating structural investment, and underscoring the need for a stronger EU foreign and security policy.
The European Union and the United States are also seeking to strengthen their economic resilience by reducing their exposure to foreign supply chains, such as investing in semiconductor manufacturing, securing access to critical minerals, and developing clean energy technologies. These efforts must be coordinated and create various opportunities to increase transatlantic trade. The green and digital revolutions will shape the future of trade policies. This is a real area where dialogue and mutual understanding would benefit both parties.
The European Union is also focusing on building a partnership with the United States while engaging its powerful industries. The European Union, as the world’s leading technology regulator, has opened a new office in San Francisco to improve coordination with Silicon Valley. During his State of the Union speech, Von der Leyen described the EU-US potential and cooperation to counter Chinese global investment, highlighting the European Union’s Global Gateway program.
This follows the pattern of the European Union, which is eager to engage with the United States. During the Trump administration, the European Union proposed a strategic dialogue with China and offered a set of cooperation proposals to the Biden administration. The EU-US Trade and Technology Council has proven incredibly valuable, as has cooperation on climate and sanctions. The Biden administration has recognized the strategic value of European Union engagement. US-EU relations are stronger than ever.
But US-EU relations could take another step forward. As the United States engages with Europe, it must strengthen its ties with the European Commission. This commitment will build on the commission’s policy-making capacity – especially when it comes to trade and investment while raising the profile of von der Leyen. By doing so, the United States can strengthen the role of the European Union in foreign policy making. Sectoral engagement with the European Commission could also break the cycle of endless criticism of defense spending as a mainstream discussion. This could create a more multidimensional engagement between the European Union and the United States. It would better fit the challenges of the twenty-first century.
Focusing engagement on the President of the European Commission will irritate some in the European Council and national capitals. After all, nothing will go ahead without the approval of member states. But the President of the European Commission has shown that he can lead, set a visionary goal and lead the European Union, its member states, and its institutions in a time of war. The United States should support its efforts to strengthen the European Union. In her State of the Union address, she said “the time has come for a European Convention” that would be needed to strengthen the EU’s foreign and security policy. It will also be necessary to reform the way the European Union works before it expands further. The United States should support these efforts and speak to the European Commission.