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The EU Is Holding Together but Only With the Weakest Glue

President Donald Trump is heading to Europe next week, with a NATO summit, a long-delayed visit to Britain, and a long-anticipated meeting with Vladimir Putin on the itinerary. Trump is likely to use the opportunity to take some shots at one of his favorite targets: the European Union.

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Last week, the Washington Post reported that Trump had urged President Emmanuel Macron to pull France out of the EU in order to get a better bilateral trade deal with the U.S. He also said at a rally in North Dakota that the EU was “set up to take advantage of the United States.” Trump’s attacks aren’t only inaccurate, they are also, as Stephen Walt notes, contradictory.
If Trump wants to reduce U.S. defense commitments in Europe, as he often says he does, then a prosperous and politically united Europe is to America’s advantage.

Of course, the union is anything but united right now. The EU may not be a body devoted to ripping off America, but at the moment, it’s becoming a lot harder to articulate just what it is—beyond a trade bloc that it’s extremely difficult to leave.

The freedom of movement within the bloc, a core principle of the European project, is under greater threat than ever. Germany’s teflon Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to have survived yet another threat to her leadership after reaching a deal with her coalition to introduce tougher controls at Germany’s border with Austria, including “transit zones” to process migrants. This compromise is short of the police controls along the border proposed by German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, but they’re a major step toward establishing airportlike border controls within Europe’s passport-free travel zone.

The promotion of small-L liberal values would surely be on any shortlist of the EU’s core principles, but that’s a little hard to square with the news of Denmark designating 25 immigrant neighborhoods as “ghettoes” with more punitive criminal laws and requirements that children in them receive “mandatory instruction in ‘Danish values,’ including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language.”

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The EU’s greatest legacy may be the promotion of the rule of law and democratic institutions in formerly authoritarian countries in southern and central Europe—but that legacy is also under threat. This week, Poland’s government carried out a sweeping purge of the country’s judiciary, forcing the retirement of 27 of the 72 Supreme Court judges, many of whom the ruling Law and Justice party has long derided as obstructionist. The EU has been trying to push back against the party’s consolidation of power and undermining of the rule of law for more than two years now, to little avail. Poland appears to be following Hungary down the road toward illiberalism and one-party rule.

These tensions have been growing for some time now and were particularly scrutinized after the U.K.’s 2016 Brexit vote. At that time, it seemed like more countries might follow Britain’s lead, hastening the complete breakup of the union. That seems less likely today, if only because Britain’s experience has been so discouraging. London is facing a Gordian knot in its Brexit negotiations over the issue of Northern Ireland: There’s no evident scenario that keeps the north’s border with the Republic of Ireland open while satisfying the demands of Brexit proponents that all of the U.K. be removed from EU regulations. In the meantime, Britain’s economy is stalling amid uncertainty about just what Brexit will actually look like when it finally takes effect in 2019. Few countries seem anxious to follow Britain’s path. When Italy’s new populist government tried to appoint a euroskeptic finance minister in May, the choice was vetoed by the country’s president. It looks now like the EU will stay together, if only because it’s extremely expensive for any country to leave it. That’s not exactly inspiring as a call to arms for the European project.

European leaders would no doubt like to take the high road and brush off Trump’s attacks next week. (The president’s apparent belief that he could pick off Macron, one of the most staunchly pro-EU leaders on the continent, betrays a deep misreading of European politics.) But it would be a lot easier for them to defend the union from Trump’s caricature if it were more apparent what the purpose of the union actually is these days.