With Hungary censured for a strongman Prime Minister, Poland’s judicial system coming under political influence, and a populist front gaining power in Italy, fissures are showing in the European Union that Russia would like to turn into outright breaks.
But former Admiral James Stavridis, who headed NATO, said ties to the defense alliance, even from growingly euro-skeptics EU members, are an antidote to growing influence from Moscow and that the United States has a key role in keeping together its critical trade partner and ally.
Stavridis said a year of traveling in Europe, and a visit to Budapest, with architectural symbols remaining from the Austro-Hungarian Empire that fell after World War I, showed him that the EU is at risk of also crumbling.
In an opinion piece for the Bloomberg financial news agency, he wrote that the EU is “under extreme centrifugal forces of its own, threatening to pull apart the dream of unifying the continent, which has mostly brought prosperity to members.
The EU has 28 countries with a population of 510 million and despite economic crises in Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus – and with Greece still trying to emerge from eight years of austerity – it has been able to stay intact despite other woes, particularly runaway corruption that has even reache into the Council of Europe, and a growing spate of money-laundering scandals involving some of the bloc’s biggest banks.
Waiting in the wings for any signs of dissolution – and trying to create it, said Stavridis – is Russian President Vladimir Putin, particularly trying to disrupt NATO. Greece’s anti-nationalist Prime Minister and Radical Left SYRIZA leader Alexis Tsipras made a deal to rename the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), opening the door to NATO and EU accession talks.
That was done with UN envoy Matthew Nimetz, an American lawyer who failed for two decades to find a solution, getting new traction from the US to squeeze Greece to get FYROM admitted to the defense alliance as a bulwark against Russian interests in the Balkans.
Greece booted two Russian diplomats it said tried to undermine the deal and US Defense Secretary James Mattis said Russia is also trying to defeat a Sept. 30 referendum in FYROM asking voters whether they want to go along with the agreement.
Stavridis said he’s seeing signs of the Russian bear in the region, with Hungarian Premier Viktor Orban having a cozy news conference in Moscow with Putin, the memories of the 1956 Soviet invasion and tanks rolling into Budapest apparently forgotten.
Stavridis said he talked with Hungarians, from shopkeepers to government officials, and found many leaning toward Russia, not the EU, which said Orban is trying to undermine political opposition. “The sense of engagement with Moscow came through strongly,” he said.
Combined with the United Kingdom, the world’s fifth-largest economy, set to break away completely in 2019, these are tremulous times for the EU.
“All of this is bad news for the U.S., which benefits greatly in the international system from a Europe pulling together. A unified continent has the largest economy in the world, a highly capable military with the second-largest defense budget after our own, and a shared sense of the values that truly make nations great — democracy, liberty, personal freedoms, gender and racial equality. Americans will never have a better pool of partners,” wrote Stavridis.
He said French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps the world’s most powerful woman, are keeping the EU centered and together for now that that the role of NATO and the US are essential for the bloc to survive.
“The forces tugging at Europe seem to be growing. Russia, of course, is the principal beneficiary, and will do all that it can — in subtle and direct ways — to accelerate the process of decomposition,” he said.
He recommended that the US should use the purchase of remaining good will it has in the EU, despite President Donald Trump’s aversion to Europe, to increase its influence in ways that don’t show bullying or braggadocio.
He said American officials should more fully engage with EU institutions, leaders and its peoples, expand trade and cultural missions, coordinate economic policies through the Washington, DC-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and reach out more.
NATO – which he headed as Supreme Commander – should take bigger role too he said, although it has stayed out of tensions between Greece and Turkey and said nothing about growing provocations in the Aegean around Cyprus.
“Anything the U.S. can do to support NATO ultimately supports the idea of a unified continent. Even in Hungary, where the EU is viewed with increasing skepticism, NATO remains very popular,” he said.
Even Tsipras, who vowed to take Greece out of NATO and remove any American military presence in Greece, opened the way for FYROM – which would be called North Macedonia – to get into the alliance and he wants to let the US expand military operations in his country.
Stavridis said pro-NATO attitudes offset anti-EU sentiments in countries where tension with Brussels is growing and that the alliance should step into the breach, conduct more exercises in member states and tie itself to the Trans-Atlantic bridge.
“A few days among the ghosts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire reminded me not only that unwieldy political structures are prone to collapse, but that they often do so at inopportune moments. The EU is anything but an empire, and this is hardly the chaotic end of World War I. But the cracks in Europe’s structure are becoming evident just as Russia is looking to regain its former glories. The U.S. can help hold Europe together, and it is strongly in our interest to do so.”