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What Future for the European Project? Interview with Nathalie Tocci

Fall / Winter 2019 Tête À Tête

What Future for the European Project? Interview with Nathalie Tocci

Whither Italy, for that matter? And can Brussels cope with its migrant problem? Trump oblige, is there cause for pessimism or optimism on the Old Continent?

GB: What is the mood – politically, economically and strategically – in Europe today?

NT: The mood is not particularly optimistic. In some respects, it is schizophrenic. If you map the trends over the years, we essentially have endured the Eurozone crisis, followed by the so-called migration crisis (which is not really a crisis at all), and then the annus horribilis election year of 2017. This was a series of national elections – in the Netherlands, Austria, France and Germany. Given that these elections came on the heels of the two major crises – and let us add, for good measure, the consequences connected to Brexit as a third crisis – Europeans have the sense of inhabiting a house with collapsing walls. That was, for all intents and purposes, the mood until May 2017.

Then what happened? Emmanuel Macron gets elected president of France, and we see a complete reversal of the trendline. Suddenly, we Europeans forget our crises. Recall the speech made by Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the EU speech in September 2017. It was all about Europe having wind in its sails. Europe was ready for a reset and restart. There was a general sense of optimism in the Brussels bubble and beyond. And this optimism was not just about Macron. In multiple European cities, we saw young people going into the streets and reclaiming their sense of belonging and belief in the EU.

This was the essential story until the Italian elections. Those elections saw Euroskeptic, nationalist, populist forces score a clear victory, which suddenly reignited pessimism in and about Europe. And this is really where we are now – again, in something of a schizophrenic mode. This is a European schizophrenia that oscillates very dramatically between sheer pessimism and completely unrealistic optimism. Of course, the world must be somewhere between these two extremes.

It is clear that the EU is living in an existential moment, but it is equally true that, when push comes to shove, the EU has demonstrated that it is more resilient than what many thought it was. This means that the present pessimism must be taken with a pinch of salt.

The American factor, oddly enough, has been one of the elements contributing to European optimism. The Trump factor made Europeans suddenly open their eyes and realize that things were not as bad as they thought in Europe, but that they could go very badly indeed.

GB: Does the American factor play into the present pessimism in Europe?

NT: Actually, no. The American factor, oddly enough, has been one of the elements contributing to European optimism. The Trump factor made Europeans suddenly open their eyes and realize that things were not as bad as they thought in Europe, but that they could go very badly indeed. One should not go around voting for populist forces with a light heart anymore because they can actually win. Bref, the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump actually conspired, for some time, to have a positive effect on Europe in terms of rekindling enthusiasm for the European project.

That was the story for the first year of the Trump administration. Now we are in a different phase, because the administration in Washington is seeking actively to undermine the EU – on trade, on security (including in respect of NATO), and on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (or JCPOA, the Iranian nuclear deal). Defining the EU as a foe has, paradoxically, had a positive effect on the EU.

On the other hand, the pressure from Washington must now be fought and countered by Brussels and European capitals far more ferociously, because the threat from the Trump administration is far more concrete than it was until a few months ago. (I use the word threat very deliberately here.)

GB: What about the tensions with Russia since 2014 and their effect on Europe?

NT: This is a complicated story. Let me start with the positive side of things. As we all know, there are clear differences within the EU vis-à-vis Russia and the nature of the challenge posed by that country. Here I use the word challenge rather than threat, because there is, in fact, no agreement among Europeans that Russia represents a threat. Everyone agrees that Russia represents a challenge, but not necessarily a threat.

Of course, the differences between Russia and the EU are there. In fact, they have always been there. But what is interesting is that, from 2014 to this very day, these differences have not prevented the EU from assuming a unified position. This unified position has two dimensions – dialogue on the one hand, and sanctions on the other. Indeed, it is quite remarkable that we Europeans have actually stayed the course with this position far more stably and sustainably than what President Putin likely anticipated back in 2014. Bref, the Europeans remain fairly solid and predictable on this matter.

Now, where is all this going? Will anything change? Can the EU be moved? Let me connect this to the situation in Italy. We now have populist, nationalist forces in power in Rome and other capitals on the continent. These new governments are assuming far more open positions vis-à-vis Russia. Can we therefore imagine that the consensus within Europe on Russia will begin to crack? I am not overly pessimistic in this regard. I say this because what is distinctive about nationalism and nationalist forces is precisely that they are nationalist – that is, they generally do not have much of an interest in foreign policy questions. They tend to be far more domestically oriented. The new Italian government, for instance, would like the Eurozone rules (on fiscal and monetary policy) to be revisited. The same applies to migration policy in Europe. Yes, they would also like sanctions on Russia to be lifted. But because they need to choose their battles, they cannot revisit and revise all three policy areas. And since the Russia question is very obviously an almost pure foreign policy question, it will likely prove less pressing to these nationalist governments than the other two matters. In other words, this is probably not a battle that the present Italian government is going to fight. It would rather stick its neck out on the other major issues.

Europeans increasingly appreciate China’s economic value. We know that the Belt and Road Initiative starts in China but ends in Europe. There is also growing appreciation of China’s importance in the overall safeguarding of the multilateral system – particularly if we think about issues such as the climate.

GB: What about Europe’s strategic, economic and political relations with China today?

NT: This is also an evolving story. Europeans increasingly appreciate China’s economic value. We know that the Belt and Road Initiative starts in China but ends in Europe. There is also growing appreciation of China’s importance in the overall safeguarding of the multilateral system – particularly if we think about issues such as the climate. And this is especially true in light of the Trump factor – that is, given that Europe’s core and traditional partner on multilateralism has effectively gone missing, at least for now. Bref, there is growing appreciation of the need to work with China on a wide variety of issues.

At the same time, there is an equally growing appreciation that we are not talking about a teddy bear with no strategic interests at all. We know, for instance, that the South China Sea remains a challenge of geopolitics and international law. It is also crystal clear, in European minds, that the Belt and Road Initiative is extremely Sinocentric in content and purpose. So yes, in economic terms, we engage with it and with Beijing, but we are acutely aware that we need to engage with it in a manner that seeks to protect European interests and values.

GB: How is the migrant crisis or challenge (as you put it) currently viewed in Italy?

NT: I say that this is not a migration or refugee crisis as such because, first, this is not a crisis of numbers. One could have said that there was a crisis of numbers back in 2015, given that Germany took in over a million people in one fell swoop. But even then, I would argue that a million in an EU-wide population of over 500 million only approximates a crisis. That was 2015.

If we look at the numbers today, we are talking about irregular arrivals by boat. There is a fairly clear indication of a trend of about 45,000 people per year. Again, 45,000 in a Union of over 500 million people is nothing. It cannot be called a crisis – at least not today.

Second, a crisis is, by definition, something short-term and immediate. Here we are actually talking about a structural, long-term phenomenon that will be with us for the rest of the 21st century. This is a story about the African continent, demography, climate change, poverty and war. And, of course, we cannot change our geography. Europe is right next to a huge, demographically young African continent, separated only by a tiny strip of the Mediterranean Sea. Europe is, by juxtaposition, fairly small and ageing. Bref, the trend is structural, and this migration will be with us for the rest of this century – and likely beyond. I would therefore struggle to define it as a crisis.

Now, in what way is this actually a crisis? It is certainly a political crisis, and therefore a crisis of values. This crisis of values turns on the fact that all of the brouhaha concerns a few hundred thousand people who are coming to Europe not primarily to enjoy the culture and good weather, but instead because they are escaping war or have no other means of creating a sustainable livelihood. The reaction that these migrants receive is one of closure. This, then, is a fundamental crisis of values – one that turns on whether the EU should be standing for certain values, including ones enshrined in treaties.

This is also – to be sure – a crisis of solidarity within the EU, with Italy having been left completely on its own to wrestle with the issue. Of course, solidarity is one of the key political features and underlying elements of the European project. But again, however we define the problem, this is something that will stay with us for years and decades to come.

GB: What is the state of politics in Italy at present, and how is the future viewed?

NT: We Italians are on a fairly long wave. I do not expect the current government to collapse any time soon. The tensions within the government are not sufficiently large to bring it down. There are, however, very clear tensions between the Lega Nord and the Movimento 5 Stelle, as well as within the Movimento 5 Stelle itself. Of course, the Movimento 5 Stelle has always played on the idea that it is neither left nor right – that is, that it is post-ideological. But this is rubbish – let’s face it. Everyone knows that it is ideological in one way or another. The party’s left wing obviously feels uncomfortable – indeed, increasingly uncomfortable – about being in government with an extreme right-wing party. Bref, I do not wish to suggest that everything is hunky-dory. No, there are issues there. But this is a government – or a political wave – that is not going to exhaust itself in the immediate future.

All of this is ultimately political. So, at the very least, let us see what happens in the European parliamentary elections. If in those elections what emerges is a situation in which the Movimento 5 Stelle declines slightly in its support, while the Lega increases its support significantly – but still remains short of a majority on its own – then my guess is that the government in Rome will probably last another year or so.

So this is a long wave. Italians just need to weather the storm. Above all – and this is on the other side of the fence – the traditional liberal, mainstream, centre-left parties, and especially Italy’s Democratic Party – really need to get their act together. They really do need to rethink social democracy. To be sure, this is not just a story about Italy. It is a story about France, the Netherlands, Austria and Germany. This is a broader Western, if not global, story about the crisis of social democracy.

On the other hand, there is a real need – particularly in Italy – for the centre-right to reinvent itself. Unfortunately, until Berlusconi – who is at once half-dead and half-alive, but nonetheless still there – cedes the political and psychological space, it will be very difficult for a modern centre-right presence to emerge in the country.

GB: Can you comment on the bridge collapse in Genoa?

NT: It epitomizes, tragically, the state of the country under the weight of bad politics, corruption and bureaucracy. Italy, like the Morandi Bridge, is on the verge of collapse. Unlike the bridge, though, Italy’s collapse is unlikely to happen in one go. It is a slow but accelerating decline that has been underway for the last three decades.

Italy has been badly hit precisely because when the global financial crisis and Eurozone crisis hit, with the migration issue subsequently emerging for good measure, the country was already in an extremely weak position.

GB: What is the mentality of young Italians today in respect of the country, the political class, and the economic and strategic future of the country?

NT: Young Italians are extremely frustrated, disillusioned and pessimistic. The country has really been badly hit. It has been badly hit precisely because when the global financial crisis and Eurozone crisis hit, with the migration issue subsequently emerging for good measure, Italy was already in an extremely weak position. This was not a country that had been growing at four or five percent before the global financial crisis. It had already been going through at least a decade of relative decline. And in the context of this relative decline, the country was hit with a double crisis. Italians began to lose hope in the future. They ended up voting for specific parties out of sheer frustration.

This is not dissimilar, arguably, from what happened in the US with the election of Donald Trump. Frustrated Americans were not necessarily thinking that a billionaire from New York could or would truly improve the condition of the Rust Belt. Instead, not believing in anything or anyone else, they presumed to try to wreck the system.

GB: How do you see Brexit unfolding over the next year? How is this impacting the continent?

NT: The million-dollar question that is still unresolved is whether Brexit will actually happen at all. Although I would still place my bet on it probably happening, in one form or another, we are, more than two years out from the referendum, still in exactly the same position that we were in back then.

The fundamental contradiction is that anything that makes sense in economic terms does not make sense in political terms for the Brexiteers who won the referendum (albeit with only 52 percent of the vote). That fundamental contradiction, which has been there from day one, remains unresolved. It is very clear, from an economic perspective, that it is in the UK’s interest to have as tight a relationship as possible with the EU. Whether ‘as tight as possible’ means being inside the customs union, a Norway-type arrangement, a very deep and structured partnership, a free-trade agreement or some other species of arrangement can be debated. One can define and structure the arrangement in different ways, but it would have to be an interaction that is very strong and very tight. Having said this, politically speaking, any such arrangement does not seem to make sense for those who wish to reclaim far greater control and sovereignty for the UK.

As the clock ticks down to March 2019, which is the official cut-off point for Article 50 and therefore for the UK’s exit from the EU, I struggle to see how the broad contours of an agreement – let alone the details – can be reached in time to allow for a smooth British exit from the EU.

GB: How do you rate the performance of Emmanuel Macron to date? What is his political future?

NT: There was this general sense, following the election of Emmanuel Macron that, after the German elections, the Franco-German engine would be back on track and would really give a massive push to European integration. Then, as we know, the elections in Germany did not go as smoothly as many had hoped. It took many months to form a government in Berlin. Finally, a government was formed with a new grand coalition between the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union. At that point, everyone thought that this would be the moment when the engine would restart. This has not happened yet.

It has not happened in part because of domestic problems in Germany, where the coalition is very fragile and there are emerging tensions within the coalition government – particularly in respect of migration, with the AfD, which is enjoying growing public support, looming in the background. But another reason – to be sure – is the fact that, when push comes to shove, the kind of proposals that President Macron has for the reform of the EU actually contradict, in many respects, Germany’s ideas. All of this is to say that, again, unfortunately, the optimism of Europeans was overinflated precisely because of their schizophrenic attitude vis-à-vis the European project.

GB: Is there an EU future, in defence and security terms, alternative to or outside of NATO?

NT: If there is not a future for European security and defence, then we are all doomed. If one is to look at the trends – not just President Trump today, but long-term structural trends well into the 21st century – then it is very clear that Europeans will have to look increasingly after themselves. Whether this is done within a NATO framework or some new framework, frankly, does not matter. The old debates about competition between the EU and NATO on this front are completely obsolete. To be clear, it is not NATO that is obsolete, but rather the competition or contradiction between the EU and NATO that is obsolete. The story of the future, then, is about Europeans taking upon themselves greater responsibility on security and defence. This is something that can be incentivized within an EU framework. If it happens, it will also be to the benefit of NATO.

GB: What would the future European relationship be with NATO?

NT: I see no contradiction here. For the sake of argument, one can ask: what if, in 30 or 50 years’ time, we end up in a situation where the Europeans are essentially doing everything in NATO because the Americans have disengaged? This might be a NATO in which there is a growing partnership between, say, the Europeans and Canada, and in which the relations with Turkey will remain very complicated. At that point, one could legitimately ask: Is NATO still the right framework under which to conduct the bulk of European security and defence? I do not know the answer to that question, but my point is that the question itself is not really worth asking now. It is, instead, worth making sure that Europeans get their act together on security and defence. Of course, this is something that has been gradually happening, with more significant steps having been taken in the last several years. There is still a very, very long way to go, and it is fraught with hurdles and complications, but the journey has begun.

Now, where that journey leads, in terms of the most appropriate institutional framework, is a second-order question. It is one that is really worth thinking about only once we actually get the context right. And getting the context right means Europeans assuming greater responsibility on defence.

GB: What is the European vision vis-à-vis the Middle East today?

NT: The short answer is that it is all a big mess. First, the region is living through a convulsion that is going to last decades. It is a convulsion that has, at its heart, a very, very serious and fundamental questioning of the Arab states system. This is a story that has emerged as the outcome of the Arab uprisings, stemming from the inherent fragility of Arab states. The story also turns on inter-state competition in the region. One often finds oneself talking about the interference of Iran – as opposed to Turkey, or as opposed to Saudi Arabia – in the affairs of Lebanon or, obviously, Syria, Yemen or Iraq. But this interference takes place precisely because of the weakness of these states. We have a theatre in which regional rivalries, coupled with global ones, conspire to destabilize things even further. We can add to this picture the more macro rivalry between the US and Russia, and increasingly with China as well. Brefthe regional rivalries, overlaid by global rivalries, really thrive on the inherent fragility of the Arab states system.

The Europeans evidently do not have a magic wand to solve this; no one else does either. We are talking about a challenge of historic proportions, with no silver bullet on offer. At the same time, we do not have the luxury that, perhaps, the US enjoys – that is, at some point, to simply pull away. We cannot do this because these states are right next door to us. In short, we have to be there because we do not have a choice, but we are there with the very clear understanding that we actually do not have a magic wand to fix it.

GB: Do you see a continuation or consolidation of what seems to be a contradiction between the internal mission of the EU and the EU’s ability to project or pacify beyond its borders?

NT: Yes. If we look at this through the lens of ‘soft power,’ then we can very clearly make this argument. The fact that the EU itself is, internally, increasingly fragile precisely because there is this fundamental questioning and violation of underlying values – as we discussed in respect of migration, and also the rise of populism – has repercussions externally. We are talking about a continental power that does not have a big military stick for external power projection. Yes, the EU has a big economic stick, but even that stick is, in relative terms, declining – as against China, most obviously. And even if we remove the ‘soft’ element in respect of external relations, Europe does not live up to its own values internally.

GB: What was the precise genesis of the migration phenomenon or crisis in Europe?

NT: It is not as if migration did not happen prior to the present crisis. But there was a ‘social contract,’ as it were, that no one really spoke about. Until 2011, we essentially had a situation in which the flows did not come exclusively from the south. They came from the Balkans, the east and the south. Bref, these flows were far more varied in geographical origin and in intensity than they are today. Because they were varied in geographical origin, there was not an excessive burden placed on individual or particular member states of the EU. We also had a situation in which the governments in North Africa – prior to the Arab uprisings – seemed stable, if not necessarily sustainable. They therefore acted, for all practical intents and purposes, as a cork. They prevented an excessive influx of people coming from the south – even if, again, there was always a trickle coming from the south.

The logic of what is known as the Dublin Regulation is that, in order to avoid so-called asylum shopping, migrants or refugees arriving into Europe wishing to file an asylum application must file that asylum application in the first country of arrival. This was the situation and governing logic until 2011. Moreover, prior to 2011, the fact that the economies of the south – not so much Italy, but especially Greece and Spain – were growing very healthily meant that they actually needed some of the migrant flows coming in.

After 2011, this social contract breaks entirely. It breaks because the cork comes off in North Africa after the Arab uprisings. It breaks because of the economic crisis – meaning that the southern European economies in particular no longer had that absorptive capacity that they once enjoyed. It breaks because the flow from the east dries up – that is, the refugee flow now comes primarily from the south. And now we are in a situation where we have not yet found the right recipe – especially at the intra-European level – to tackle what is fundamentally a structural phenomenon. The cork in North Africa will not be put back on for the foreseeable future. And the flow from sub-Saharan Africa will continue throughout the 21st century. In fact, it will increase, for reasons connected to climate change.

GB: Was the cork primarily Libyan?

NT: Libya was part of that cork. But even if we managed to get Libya back on track as a functioning state – something that I very much doubt – there will be other ways to get to Europe: through Tunisia or even, to a lesser extent, Morocco. Who knows? Maybe the Algerian cork will give at some point also. We should be under no illusion that we can keep sub-Saharan migrants from coming across the Mediterranean simply by creating a belt in North Africa.

I do not wish to convey the message that the whole of Africa is going to migrate to Europe. It is very clear that this is a flow that must be reduced and regulated. But if our politicians sell the illusion to citizens that this is a flow that can be stopped entirely, then they are plainly selling rubbish. Paradoxically, it is this rubbish that will strengthen the populists even further, because all you need is one migrant to create the impression or mythology of a phenomenon that is out of control. If one manages to sell the notion that 45,000 people per annum out of an aggregate population of 500 million constitutes a crisis, then one can probably even sell one refugee, or one crime associated with a refugee, as a crisis. This narrative must change.

GB: Is the pressure disproportionate on countries like Italy and Greece?

NT: Absolutely. If there is a crisis of values on the one hand, then there is a crisis of political solidarity on the other. Nationalists everywhere in Europe, paradoxically, agree on the diagnosis of the problem. But when it comes to the solution, Italy says: “We will be happy to close our borders. We have nothing against migrants, as long as it is Germany and Austria that take them in.” Germany makes exactly the same argument: “As long as it is Italy and Austria.” We could go round and round in circles. Unless this logic changes, we will always be returning to square one, with cooperation among the EU countries very difficult.

GB: How do you see the near- to medium-term future unfolding for the key countries at the EU’s borders – Turkey and Ukraine?

NT: In Turkey, the last elections were the ultimate demonstration that Erdogan is there for the foreseeable future. No one is immortal, but we can expect the man to stay in power for years to come. This means that we can expect Turkey’s de-democratization to consolidate and become entrenched. What can Europe do about this? We can kick and scream as much as we like, but the truth is that, on migration, energy, security, the economy and in a host of other policy areas, the relationship between Turkey and the EU is and will remain an extremely close one. The challenge at hand, then, is to try to channel that inevitable cooperation, which has conflictual elements embedded within it, into a framework that is, to the maximum extent possible, rules- and law-based. Of course, the accession process has been hollowed out. The task now is to find an alternative, rules-based framework that properly articulates this conflictual, complex cooperation between Turkey and the EU.

When it comes to Ukraine, on the one hand, one can make the argument that, as a state, it has actually demonstrated that it is far more resilient than many people thought it was. This is obviously the positive side of the story. On the other hand, it is clear that the kinds of reforms necessary to make Ukraine – quite apart from the stories of the Donbass and Crimea – a fully functional, sustainable state are still a long way off. Bref, this is a ‘glass half full’ story. Every side – the EU, NATO, the US and Russia – has made mistakes in respect of Ukraine. But quite apart from the discussion about who is right and who is wrong, no side has been particularly smart when it comes to its policies vis-à-vis Ukraine.

GB: How do you see the next four or five years unfolding in transatlantic relations? What are the key decision points and potential scenarios?

NT: The first year of the Trump administration was a year of grace. Now the gloves are off, and I expect them to remain off for the rest of the life of this presidency. Of course, the way in which the ‘fight’ will unfold is impossible to predict. Whether it will be about the JCPOA, trade, climate or something else, it is fairly clear that the relationship between Brussels and Washington will be very complicated, conflictual and tense over the course of this presidency.

If this administration lasts one mandate, then we in Europe can weather the storm. I would be far less optimistic for the broader health of the transatlantic relationship if there were to be a second term for President Trump.

In Italian, we say Non fasciarti la testa troppo presto. In other words, there is no point in bandaging your head too early. We are not there yet. At the moment, we simply have to be resilient and try to weather the turbulence.


Nathalie Tocci is Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali in Rome.


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