The European Union is often eulogized as history’s greatest peace project. That sounds beautifully idealistic and enlightened, and I’m all for it. Now, though, the continent is at war again — not within the EU, admittedly, but right at its edge. What future, if any, does the greatest-ever peace project have in this harsh new era?
This is a question I’m asking myself as I move back to the US after 11 years of living in Berlin and covering Germany and the EU. Europeans, a German foreign minister once said, are vegetarians in a world of carnivores. How long can herbivores survive when the predators start feasting?
Germany was a good vantage point to observe the messianic naivete with which some (mainly western) Europeans used to insist — before Russian President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine — that “we’re surrounded by friends nowadays.” Europe, in their telling, had transcended its old militarist mentalities and was on its way to becoming a different kind of superpower — of commerce and regulations, values and civilization.
Not all Europeans indulged in such phantasms. The relatively new members in central and eastern Europe that used to be under Moscow’s heel — places like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — have long been agape at their western neighbors’ willful blindness toward the Kremlin’s aggressive potential. They were irate as Germany spent two decades hugging Putin and making itself dependent on his hydrocarbons.
This fault line between east and west, long before Putin’s invasion of 2022, cleaved the EU one way, while a different rift, exposed by the euro crisis, was pulling apart its north and south. The north (which included the UK until it exited the bloc) tends to be more market-oriented, economically strong, fiscally conservative, and culturally Protestant. The south leans more corporatist, spendthrift and culturally Catholic or Orthodox. In some ways, the ancient Roman Limes still divides the continent.
Europeans, it turns out, built their common abode atop creaking and grinding tectonic plates. The deepest of these faults today runs between members who equate the EU with liberal democracy and others — notably Hungary and Poland — who increasingly undermine the rule of law to build mini-Kremlins of autocracy.
Ultimately, the problem is that no master narrative about Europe — not even the one about irenic transcendence — has ever captured the imagination of Europeans as much as their national storylines. And those frequently clash.
Such frictions were there from the beginning. The postwar West Germans, for example, viewed European integration as a way of re-entering Western civilization after their Nazi crimes. As part of their post-nationalist atonement, they were not only willing but eager to cede sovereignty to “Europe.” (Whether they still are is another matter.)
The French, by contrast, saw “Europe” as a way of continuing to project Gallic national power via Brussels to the world, at a time when they were losing their empire and global status and economically falling behind Germany. This is still the subtext today whenever French President Emmanuel Macron talks about European “autonomy” but really means French-led independence from the US.
Ah, the US. It’s an often overlooked irony that America has done more for European integration than any other country. During the Cold War, its military and nuclear aegis — in the form of NATO — scared away the Kremlin, so that the western Europeans could reconcile and build something new. And that’s still true today. Uncle Sam has been the father figure in whose benevolent presence the squabbling European kids learned to play nicely.
That’s why the presidency of Donald Trump came as such a shock to Europeans. It frightened them more than the Brexit referendum in 2016; more than the refugee crisis happening around the same time; more than the euro crisis which had not yet quite ended; more, even, than Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea two years earlier and the hybrid warfare he was already waging in eastern Ukraine. Each of these crises exposed a different vulnerability of the EU. But having Trump or somebody like him in the White House — back then or again in 2025 — could wreck the bloc.
Trump refused to play that old paternal role. It was understandable that he was fed up with paying to defend Europe when the Europeans, and notably the Germans, were often freeriding. But Trump’s reaction was so transactional, it undermined the alliance. With his trade policy and rhetoric, he treated Europeans such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel as foe more than friend. Simultaneously, he approached Putin more as friend than foe.
Trump made clear that he saw no intrinsic value in NATO — and, by extension, “the West.” He cast doubt on his commitment to the alliance’s mutual-defense clause and was even thinking of pulling the US out of NATO altogether. For the first time since World War II, Europeans had to contemplate a continent without an American presence. Suddenly, the European herbivores remembered that they had molars but lacked fangs.
The next big shock came when Putin launched his genocidal war of conquest against Ukraine. At a stroke, he took Europe back to an earlier and darker age. Gone was the consensus to honor rules, norms and borders. In its place was once again ruthless and anarchic imperialist aggression.
To some extent, Putin’s assault made both Europe and the West pull together. Finland is now part of not only the EU but also NATO, and Sweden will, I hope, follow. Germany has — at least rhetorically — abandoned its long demilitarization and promises to re-arm. Countries like Italy that used to be cozy with the Kremlin have lined up against Russia.
But the EU is far from united. Putin still has sympathizers there who regurgitate the Kremlin’s disinformation. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a Putin epigone, blocks or slows EU sanctions on Russia whenever he can. If the war in Ukraine is protracted, Europe will start wobbling.
Putin’s invasion has also exposed Europe’s vegetarianism. Despite recurring talk since the 1950s of a “European Army,” it’ll never come to anything — unless you count various technocratic schemes to pool military procurement. But that’s a far cry from war-waging.
Instead, in supporting Ukraine, Europe has once again ducked under that old American aegis. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz actually made that a condition: He only agreed to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine if the Americans also sent their own M1 Abrams. If the US were ever to waver in backing Kyiv — in a second Trump term, say — Europe would lose heart.
This is the reality as I leave the continent, and as the EU confronts various dilemmas that may seem abstruse but are germane.
One question is whether Europe should try to return to its professed path of “ever closer union,” by ceding more powers from the capitals to the center. A hot-button issue in this category is how countries vote in Brussels. Members including Germany want almost all decisions to be made by “qualified majority” as opposed to unanimity, so that no country — Hungary, for example — can block policies on Russia, China or whatever. Other nations, including Poland, object, fearing that without veto power they’ll be dominated by the large countries, above all Germany.
A second and related controversy is about enlargement. The EU has grown from six founding members in the 1950s to 27 today. Another eight are official candidates to join, and two more (Kosovo and Georgia) are considered potential candidates.
The prospect of so many new members puts the EU in a bind. The club is already difficult to manage. Without a drastic rewrite of its treaties (including that change to qualified majority voting), how could it avoid breaking down in dysfunction? It appears that the EU can, in Brussels argot, either deepen or widen, but not both.
Moreover, the EU has in recent years noticed that it has sway over the governance of countries while they’re candidates, but not once they’re members. Several nations, including Bulgaria, still tolerate far too much corruption. A few, notably Hungary, are moving from democracy to autocracy. The fear now is that countries such as Serbia, Albania, Moldova or indeed Ukraine could also “backslide” after they join, dragging down standards in the whole bloc.
Yet the geopolitics of this new and post-pacific era seems to demand that the EU expands. For the remaining Balkan countries, membership may be their best, or only, way out of ethnic strife and toward prosperity. If they were rejected, they could take up arms again against one another or throw themselves into the geopolitical embrace of autocratic Russia or China.
For Ukraine, the aspiration of integrating with western Europe was what started the enmity between Kyiv and Moscow in the first place. That EU dream is now one reason why Ukrainians are continuing to resist so bravely and fight for their independence. Ukraine’s NATO membership may prove elusive for the time being. EU membership, by contrast, is something that Europe feels it owes the Ukrainians.
Instead of “ending” after the Cold War, history appears merely to have paused and then restarted with Putin’s invasion. But this was just the opening salvo in our neo-nationalist, neo-imperialist, neo-anarchic era of great-power rivalry. For if Trump and Putin were shocks number one and two, Chinese President Xi Jinping is lining up to be three.
It’s been said that Russia is the storm, China is climate change. For years, Beijing has been throwing its weight around not only in Asia — from the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea and beyond — but also in Europe. It has bullied EU members such as Lithuania and spread its financial and diplomatic tentacles into the Balkans and beyond. And now it’s formed a “no limits” friendship with Moscow as a way of staring down the West.
Europeans are just beginning to notice that they’re at risk of chaining themselves economically to China just as they depended on Russian energy until recently. As they ponder the consequences, though, they’re still splitting hairs. Should they “decouple” from China, merely “de-risk” or just “diversify”?
Those among Europe’s friends who are watching this most closely and nervously are once again the Americans. They’ve long been hoping to “pivot” their attention and resources from the Atlantic to the Pacific, on the understanding that the Europeans would take care of their own neighborhood. Instead, the Europeans seem as far away as ever from stepping up on their continent and still iffy in lining up behind the US in Asia.
One fear that runs through capitals from Brussels, Paris and Berlin to Washington, New Delhi, Jakarta and Brasilia is that the new era of power politics will demand wrenching strategic decisions. Faced with a Chinese attack on Taiwan concurrent with Russian aggression in Europe, which would America do most to stop? Would the Europeans be there for a fight in Asia too? Would the rest of the world — the so-called Global South — finally choose sides?
The sad reality is that the epoch we’ve entered is one that Thucydides might recognize more readily than the founding fathers of European integration would. In this world, ideals mean little, might once again makes one right, the strong prey on the weak, and only the strongest can set limits.
No member state of the EU will be among those mightiest powers, nor the bloc as a whole. In theory, Europe could be a superpower, by becoming a United States of Europe. But I don’t see that happening. The EU will instead remain a confederation masquerading as a federation, and possibly revert to being a mere trade area.
Nor, after so many decades, will Europeans suddenly grow fangs and turn into carnivores that keep away predators. This means their fate, ultimately, may be decided elsewhere — somewhere between Washington, Moscow and Beijing. The world’s greatest peace project, which has inspired me and others for so long, may end as just that — a project, like so many we read about in history books.