2024 is going to be a crucial electoral year for Europe and the United States as they each face not only internal political issues but also the pressure of growing international tensions. The outcome of the elections will be the first major indication of whether the two shores of the Atlantic will continue to act in tandem, with no center or guide, in a manner marked by what has been defined “the age of the polycrisis”, or if existing divergences will widen further.
The end of globalization, or at least its profound revision, is challenging the West with new questions. The 2008 downturn held consequences for the United States and its global projection because it marked the moment at which China, convinced of the decline of American power, began to impose its agenda more forcefully. However, the more fragile situation now appears to be that of Europe. The reaction to the pandemic signaled an advancement in European cohesion, but today difficulties plaguing the common project risk making the Union too weak to remain a credible partner to Washington. A new economic agreement between the two shores of the Atlantic will be pivotal in restoring strength to the West in these uncertain times.
Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon Europe to recuperate credibility, first and foremost from the standpoint of foreign and defense policy, where the inefficiencies caused by members’ fragmentation and their various defense systems are manifold. The choices to be made call not least for an adequate industrial policy, yet delays may well impede the process: this would distance the EU from the US, leaving it exposed to far too many crises near its borders, such as those of Ukraine and the Middle East.
All this as the Old Continent faces three transitions that are nothing sort of revolutionary: the geopolitical and geoeconomic transition, as the China/US rivalry threatens the relevance and well-being of Western, and particularly European, middle classes, also caused by a loss of competitiveness as compared with the American economy; the climate transition, with its major effects not only being felt on European soil but also fueling migration flows in the Mediterranean; and finally, the digital transition, with the adjacent uncertainties surrounding Europe’s capacity to ensure itself the essential raw materials it needs.
Thus, a scenario of continuing transformation and uncertainty, together with the need to guarantee strategic autonomy for Europe (autonomy that is neither autocratic nor isolationist but, more importantly, maintains a global industrial, economic and technological foothold). That means looking not only to the horizontal axis of world politics, which locates the Paris/Berlin axis midway between the Washington/Beijing rivalry, but also to a vertical axis that must be built on increased collaboration between Italy and France. The goal must be to confront the issues that arise in Mediterranean Europe but also necessarily involve the African continent. In that sense, the Union’s enlargement eastward remains fundamental but cannot work without a strategy involving the even closer countries along the southern Mediterranean shores.
Jean Monnet’s prediction that Europe would be “forged in crisis” has its historic validity, but today’s “polycrisis” scenario lands the Union at a fork in the road. At only 70, it is still a young actor on the world’s political stage; in order to be a strong, credible partner to the United States it must begin to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. It could choose to opt out of the game and become a sort of global Switzerland; on the other hand, it could choose to make up the distance in terms of the leadership, competitiveness and autonomy that separate it from the other side of the Atlantic. The EU could thus contribute to the construction of a new and complex order that is sure to emerge from the transitions and crises under way.