Ode to what?
Biden might be back, but America? Not really. So where does Europe go from here?
Welcome to the first installment of The Other Continent. Twice a month Benjamin Wolf, who grew up in the Austrian countryside and all over Europe and now lives in Vienna, and Alexander Hurst, a Clevelander transplanted to Paris, will have a brief back and forth about Europe’s place in the world from a transatlantic perspective — with a particular focus on climate and tech. We’d love to get your feedback, so feel free to send us your reactions and thoughts. If you like this post, then subscribe!
Alexander: Well, with the vote-by-mail ballots finally getting counted in Pennsylvania and Michigan, Biden managed to squeak through to win the presidency. Don’t get me wrong, cities in the US erupted in jubilant, spontaneous street parties on Saturday — anything that sends Trump packing is definitely an Ode to Joy. But even though I’ve been a pretty committed Atlanticist, there is an inherent instability in this victory that makes me want to throw my hands up and take it as more evidence that Europe should just chart its own course.
As an American, I was hoping to see the US repudiate Trumpism en masse...and it didn’t. Pretty much every Western democracy is divided, and has an angry radical right minority. The US isn’t remarkable for that. What’s remarkable is how evenly split it is on a nationwide level: it’s not just that Biden won the Electoral College with razor thin margins in swing states, it’s that even the national popular vote is still just 51%-48%. Trump got 70 million votes — more than in 2016. That’s nothing like France coalescing to choose Macron over Le Pen 66%-34% in 2017.
Before the election I was getting carried away a bit, drafting a policy memo to circulate to people I know on the Biden team about how the US should approach the EU about creating a common US-EU carbon market (and requiring participation in it to access the combined market, which is 45% of global GDP — and more when you add in their immediate neighbors, who would surely join). The goal was an Abe-style “three arrows” way for 1) the world to fight climate change, 2) for the West to re-balance its trade relationship with China, and 3) for the US to win back Europe’s trust.
But even if the US were able to ratify a new treaty (a still-Republican Senate never would), would Europe even be able to trust it to remain committed to a new institution and not to pull out in 4 years after the next election narrowly swung back in the other direction? No surprise to hear that skepticism coming from France, but it even seems to be a creeping conclusion in Germany: for the foreseeable future, the US is destructive at worst, and an unreliable partner at best.
Benjamin: I agree with you, Alex, that European hopes for a wholesale repudiation of Trumpism and the prospects of a “New Deal”-like Biden presidency were dashed by this election. It has become commonplace to say America is divided, and it is, but your comparison to the repudiation of Le Pen in France in 2017 points to another crucial phenomenon – partisan identity has become so ingrained in the US, that actual policies and actors only matter at the margin, if at all.
US politics seems like it has stopped being a battle of ideas and has become a battle for survival of one’s own identity, which can only be fought with the means of sheer power. And that fight is almost exclusively aimed at a persistent pocket of swing voters in swing states — putting the core of politics and democracy at risk. If voters don’t “throw the rascals out,” then there’s little incentive not to become a rascal in the first place.
What does that mean for Europe, though? There, I have to say, I’ve seen much talk and little action in these past four years. The continent has all the means available to draft a larger role for itself, at home and on the world stage – it has the universities, businesses, institutional depth and knowledge, global network, skilled population and a currency that could potentially tap into a global pool of savings, ready to be deployed for whatever priority Europe chooses.
Alas, Europe has bound itself to the economic consensus of the late 1990s – public debt: bad; state intervention: bad, unless for social policies; expert leadership: good, please not too much politics – and it is suffering for it. It still lives in Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history,” even though history has moved on. So, the continent currently lacks both the intellectual framework and the political courage to take the next step and craft a vision for itself and the world – and its voters, powerful and reactive in their nations, are woefully powerless in influencing policies on a European level, where the economic and political framework would need a serious and massive overhaul.
My question would be – how to wake up Europe out of its slumber?
Alexander: Europe has started to wake up! The pandemic stimulus and fiscal transfer is a snowball that could very well lead to “own resources” for the EU, maybe in the form of a carbon border tax, or a common corporate tax rate that the EU would collect up to a certain level. And European environmental regulation will continue to be world-leading; given the unreliability of the US, it’s important for the EU not to tie its own policy making to what happens in Washington, and instead be as ambitious as possible, particularly on climate change. I think we’ve only seen the beginning of what kind of foreign policy and economy lever that could be.
And one thing that will help keep the momentum going is that even if he has to be dragged out of the White House, unless Trump ends up in jail, he’s not leaving the scene. He’ll still be loud, angry evidence of how incomparably tribal, freakish, and outlandish the Republican Party has become.
But, while Europe absolutely has the ingredients necessary to become a much more influential and major player, a lot of that depends on a move towards more federalism. Spending the money necessary (which shouldn’t be a tough thing to do in a low, or even negative interest rate environment!), getting rid of unanimity for foreign policy decisions, and giving Europe a more identifiable popularly-elected “head of state”...
But if the US has fallen away from a battle of political policy ideas to a battle for identity, wouldn’t a more federal Europe be susceptible to the same thing? Here’s the conundrum: the more Europe is a project of nation states and negotiations between national leaders (thus protecting national sovereignty), the more it appears to be aloof, removed, and undemocratic; the more federal it becomes, the more democratic it would appear — for example, imagine a popularly elected President of the European Union, directly answerable to European voters! — but the more it necessarily encroaches on national sovereignty. And of course, Eurosceptic parties play both sides of this equation, constantly railing against the EU for being “undemocratic” and also “stepping on national sovereignty.”
If the US can’t avoid political tribalism with one set of institutions, the legacy of a common media landscape (even if that’s disappearing), and a common language, how could the EU possibly hope to avoid political even worse tribalism when it isn’t even starting with those basics?
Benjamin: What you are alluding to is indeed the crux of the matter, and a question as old as democracy itself: What is the right balance? Both the founding fathers of the United States and the founding fathers of the European Union have probably spent more time, thought and effort on these questions of the “right” structures and balance than on any other concrete matter of policy.
And why? Because structures and balance matter.
We see it now in the US with the Electoral College, the Supreme Court, the Senate and practices such as gerrymandering – almost everyone agrees that these institutions are not up-to-date. But caught in the crossfire of culture wars and partisan politics, where the overwhelming fear of losing out on whatever morsel of power someone can hold on to now makes any talk of deeper reform seem deeply menacing.
And we see a similar pattern in Europe. There, the peace project is widely acknowledged, so is the economic union (to a degree) and the Union of citizens when it comes to free movement or mutual support. But once we stray into the field of values, democracy, shared identity or concrete and bold political visions, the fear of losing out and being shortchanged is paralyzing.
How to get out of this? I honestly believe reimagining what and how (self-)government ought to work – and what dēmokratía, “people power,” can mean in the 21st century – is part of the answer.
I’d love to expand more on this, but to say it briefly and provocatively: I think that the US federal state has become too powerful for its own good. Ideally, I’d like to think that both liberals and rational conservatives would see the value in 1) making US federal institutions more democratic (a truly representative Senate, direct election of the president, and no more gerrymandering), while simultaneously 2) giving more autonomy and tax and spending power to states and cities.
Vice versa, the EU needs the opposite. More tax and spending power on the European level (let’s shoot for 5% of GDP), of course also more democratization, and also more power to the regions and cities (citizen’s assemblies etc.).
It’s all about the (right) balance, baby!
Alexander: Hmm, I’m going to rephrase what you’re saying about the US Federal Government being too powerful for its own good in a way anyone who has read Why Nations Fail might recognize: the stakes of holding power in the US have increased as it became less a confederation of states and more centralized under Federal authority.
But one of the problems with just rolling back Federal power in favor of states rights, is that the Federal government has historically been the vehicle for advancing causes of social justice and equality: desegregation, voting rights… But let’s play along and imagine that we could separate out economics from the culture wars and devolve some amount of the social state to regional levels (i.e., coalitions of the willing collaborating on healthcare, or free college via “interstate compacts”) while keeping basic voting, labor, and environmental protections at a national level. That might be a way to decrease the stakes of holding power and stop every election from being existential. But of course, the political divide doesn’t fall neatly along state lines; it’s urban vs. rural.
The EU needs more economic centralization without succumbing to the temptation to issue mandates that inflame a “European elites versus national sovereignty” type culture war. For example, I can’t imagine the EU issuing directives around abortion would be productive. What it should do on the other hand, is be a forceful stickler when it comes to institutional basics in member states, like judicial independence, freedom of the press, academic freedom (cough, cough Hungary and Poland) — all of the mechanisms that ensure that these debates can play out at national levels in ways we all recognize as legitimate and just.
Benjamin: Yes, precisely. People often tend to focus on their preferred political outcomes and how to get there. But an essential part of a well-functioning political system is to make sure that not every election is perceived to be — or is — an existential crisis or a “matter of life and death” for a large part of the citizenry. If the stakes are too high, the result is gridlock, or even worse, conflict and separatism.
In Europe, instead, the “couldn’t-care-less attitude” to European Parliamentary elections show that the institution is neither powerful nor democratic enough to actually enact the grand policies – fighting climate change, driving digital change, pursuing an independent foreign and defense policy – that Europeans expect from the EU. There is a reason the world cheered when Joe Biden became president-elect, but it shrugged when Ursula von der Leyen was tipped as EU Commission President.
I agree with your points on the tension between cultural and economic issues, that drive lots of today’s political divide. And I also support your idea for a shared European carbon border tax (a tax on multinationals would be another good contender) and more strictness on institutional matters (independence of the judiciary etc.).
But you started asking about what the EU could do faced with an ever-more unstable and unreliable US – and what America could do to heal its own divides. As you rightly say, the divides are often not really federal-national/state, but urban-rural, or between those benefiting from globalization and digitalization and those who feel left behind. And it’s there where we need to find new ways of creating community and decision-making.
Ireland, with its citizen assemblies, is a great example. So are initiatives like those in Paris and New York aimed at combating climate change and greening their cities. Power, knowledge and deliberation can be distributed and again be more closely aligned with citizens. The West needs to realize that its current way of organizing their administrative states, political institutions and democracies is neither the all-time gold standard nor a cul-de-sac – we have the capacity to reinvent ourselves.
Trump and Brexit were our wake-up calls. COVID-19 is our Sputnik shock. We better get to work – on both sides of the Atlantic.