G20 gathering will showcase the EU’s many challenges

Europe’s Future: Hamburg summit comes amid Trump chaos and Russian aggression

1,000 actors dressed as zombies take part in a performance art piece in Hamburg ahead of the G20 summit on July 7-8. Video: Reuters


If German chancellor Angela Merkel wanted a signature tune for her two-day G20 gathering of world leaders in Hamburg, which starts on Friday, one timely choice would the rock classic Stuck in the Middle With You.

With clowns to the left of us and jokers to the right, Europe in 2017 is, literally and figuratively, stuck in the middle. Uncertainty is now the only certainty in the EU’s key international relationships as, amid the growing expectations placed on Germany, Merkel hosts a veritable rogues’ gallery: US president Donald Trump, Russia’s Vladimir Putin – whom Trump will meet in person for the first time – and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The gathering comes as the EU’s Nordic-Baltic countries look nervously east, concerned a restless Russia’s land grab in the Ukraine was just the beginning. Meanwhile, in the bloc’s southeast, Bulgaria borders a Turkey that is reinventing itself as an authoritarian state that is more preoccupied with locking up critics than joining the EU.

To the south, entire generations are being lost either to the Mediterranean or to a new, uncertain life in Europe – where shared migration policy remains a radioactive issue.

And things are anything but quiet on Europe’s western front, as Donald Trump tears up the transatlantic rulebook and flushes it down the toilet. After Trump’s performance during May’s G7 debacle in Sicily, Angela Merkel’s post-summit words of warning could serve as the EU’s new mantra for the 21st-century: “It’s time for Europe to take its fate into its own hands.”

European officials expect Trump to try to sow discord in the EU

The G20 meeting is a crucial outing for the EU on the international stage, but how effective can it be given the bloc’s 27 major cogs and countless wheels within wheels?

EU leaders insist the UK’s departure from the bloc will unite and not divide them, even before Brexit talks test that mettle.

This insistence on unity was visible when Merkel noted last week that European policy differences with the US were now “so obvious that it would be dishonest to try to cover that up”.

The EU also stated that it is “more determined than ever” to make a success of the Paris climate accord, abandoned by the Trump administration. What’s more, Europe is open for business for partners who feel the same way.

In any case, as host in Hamburg, Merkel is in a delicate position. She can choose between a lowest common denominator summit agreement that appeases Washington, or isolate Trump and pull in as many other attendees as possible behind the European position on trade, security, migration and the environment.

Stormy weather

As leaders arrive in Germany’s rainy second city, the diplomatic weather forecast is stormy. The US, furious over the EU’s €2.4 billion fine against Google, is threatening to hit European products with tariffs if the EU maintains its ban on US meat containing growth hormones.

The Trump administration may also use Hamburg to vent other gripes: with cheap Chinese steel or international initiatives on tax avoidance and regulation of banks.

A major Trump test of European unity takes place on Thursday, with the US president’s first European stop: not Berlin or Paris – but Warsaw. After the US boosted Nato troops stationed in Poland, to Warsaw’s delight and Moscow’s fury, European officials expect Trump to dust off the “Old-New Europe” diplomatic game plan of the Bush-Rumsfeld era in a bid to sow discord in the EU.

To do that, Trump simply has to squeeze Europe on its unresolved migration-security debate. While the refugee crisis has dropped from headlines, the numbers arriving in Italy are already up one-fifth on last year.

Real refugee burden-sharing among EU states is still a work in progress: front-line countries like Italy are threatening to refuse to accept further boats of refugees, while central European countries like Poland, far from Europe’s southern coast, reject current EU proposals on the issue as a “utopia of open borders”.

On the refugee standoff, Trump is likely to encourage Polish truculence, given that the Washington and Warsaw administrations have both embraced the political expediency of linking immigration and terror attacks – even attacks carried out by home-grown terrorists.

On Europe’s Russian policy, in particular the EU’s unresolved energy standoff, Trump sees the benefit of coming out behind Warsaw and its central European neighbours. They are furious with Berlin for building a new Baltic Sea gas pipeline that will bypass them and allow Russia to play energy games at their expense.

On the other hand, Europe’s recent renewal of economic sanctions against Russia shows the bloc’s general unity over Moscow’s Ukrainian tactics, amid ongoing concern over Russia’s strategic ambitions when it comes to its neighbours.

Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – warn that, following troop build-ups and disinformation campaigns, Russia is gearing up for a repeat of its Crimean land grab, this time in the EU. Even Sweden – which is not a traumatised ex-Soviet satellite state – is reintroducing military conscription for teenagers next year, a move its defence ministry links to “changes in our neighbourhood” and “Russian military activity”.

The summit also comes at a time when the EU’s relations with Turkey are marked by ongoing concerns over the human rights situation there.

Yet, for strategic reasons, the EU continues to accelerate support for refugees in Turkey, with almost €3 billion spent in the last two years to improve the conditions of Syrian and other refugees there.

Hamburg’s G20 meeting will be crucial, too, to see how EU leaders and officials respond to China’s growing ambitions to supplant the US as the global partner of choice.

Neighbourhood policy

European policy analysts say the EU’s neighbourhood policy needs to become as fluid as the main challenges it needs to address: trade, migration and security. They also argue that EU leaders need to show that they have learned a key lesson from the euro crisis - that divisions between domestic and foreign policy have evaporated.

Europe’s new security debate will increase pressure on non-Nato EU countries like the Republic to rethink its red lines

Shaping the EU’s new neighbourhood policy debate is the realisation that its 500 million Europeans can no longer rely on others.

However, as important as new investment in European security is creating public support for measures to meet the new challenges. Fail on that front, analysts warn, and the continent’s populists will seize the opportunity.

“We need to find ways of knitting alliances together by framing issues in ways that appeal to citizens in this new environment,” writes Mark Leonard, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

That is the starting point for Europe’s new security debate, one that will increase pressure on non-Nato EU countries like the Republic to rethink its red lines.

As Finnish foreign minister Timo Soini said in Dublin this week, this process requires explaining that common defence is not about tanks and Nato back-doors. In the post-economic crisis era of global terrorism and stretched budgets, it is about EU countries doing more together for less, for greater shared security.

As Simon Coveney settles into his foreign affairs brief, one of his primary challenges will be to explain to voters how, in the EU’s new neighbourhood, no country is an island – not even an island like Ireland.

In an emerging world order that, by previous standards, looks very disorderly indeed, it’s worth recalling those who shaped European foreign policy from chaos in other eras.

As West German chancellor Willy Brandt, the father of Ostpolitik, once remarked: “Without realism, foreign policy becomes the field of dreamers. But a realist without imagination is an idiot.”

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