Britain will be America’s pet peeve. But Europe’s future is at stake

The EU risks irrelevance if it does not seek a new purpose – and it will not find it in the power fantasy projected by the G7

Britain will be America's pet peeve. But Europe's future is at stake

Beneath the taut goodwill of the G7 summit lies a visceral fear: Joe Biden’s attempt to forge a democratic alliance to stem the authoritarian tide led by China and Russia will split the world in two, leaving Europe, betrayed by Boris Johnson’s treasonous Britain, to play the pig in the middle.

Despite public applause for Biden’s key message – that the US is “back” after Donald Trump’s xenophobic hyper-nationalism – European leaders seem far from convinced. They fear that the EU could be dragged into a second, borderless cold war and that Biden, who will turn 82 in 2024, could be ousted by a “belligerent” Trump or his clone.

The message for Europe, with which Johnson enthusiastically embraced Biden and America at the weekend, was clear. Like a whipped bulldog craving favour, Brexit Britain will be Washington’s obedient, needy pet. Johnson is no Winston Churchill. But, like Churchill in 1941, he is desperate for US support.

Biden will seek to hold the transatlantic alliance together, which for him means all European democracies, including Britain. But the anti-European trajectory of the Johnson government, evident in the latest dispute with Brussels over Northern Ireland, threatens his vision.

Last week’s decisive preemptive intervention by senior US officials suggests that London will eventually be forced to compromise, if only because Johnson would not dare jeopardise the wider relationship with the US. Nevertheless, the antagonism between the UK and the EU looks set to deepen. In the future, Biden will have to tighten the leash again.

Fears about Europe’s future in a hostile world are reflected in a new comprehensive survey of EU states conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations. It reveals what its authors call “a widespread lack of confidence in the ability of the United States to return as the leader of the West”. Most Europeans believe that America’s political system is broken.

In addition, although the public wants the EU to do more, confidence that it will do so is low – not least because of its mistakes in Covid-19. “Disillusionment with EU institutions has emerged from the periphery and become mainstream,” notes ECFR.

In France, Emmanuel Macron, who has no illusions about Johnson or US altruism, regularly calls for European integration financially, economically and militarily. However, the president’s eloquence has not helped him at home, where last week he received a literal slap in the face. In any case, he is increasingly distracted by the uphill battle for re-election in 2022.

In Italy, the rise and rise of far-right parties such as the Italian Brotherhood, fed by fears of immigration, is inspiring ultra-nationalists, xenophobes and bigots everywhere. Brothers leader Georgia Meloni’s ideas about identity and globalist conspiracies make her a natural ally of Trump rather than Biden or Brussels.

Meanwhile, those looking for strong EU leadership are looking for it in vain. If the union were a real democracy, Ursula von der Leyen, the commission chair, would have been ousted over the vaccine fiasco. But that is not how the EU works, and that is part of the problem.

Europe has a choice: be an independent player on the world stage – or risk becoming a quaint cultural museum for Chinese tourists and the subject of jokes by Trump and Johnson.

The Guardian

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