Since the Second World War, the United States has held itself up as the leader of the ‘free world’, the defender of democracy and the stronghold for liberal ideals. However, we can no longer rely on America to maintain this position of leadership. The presidency of Donald Trump has signalled the end of his country’s assumed position of ‘free world’ leadership, with protectionism, isolationism, an admiration for authoritarian leaders and a rejection of multilateralism defining his rule (and Twitter feed). Across the Atlantic lies a bloc able to able to pick up the mantle. It is imperative that it decisively do so.
The beginnings of the European Union are found in the wake of World War II, when European countries began to unite politically and economically. The European Coal and Steel Community (1950) and the European Economic Community (1957) lay the foundations for an integrated continent, established to secure lasting peace through liberalism and multilateralism. The Union as we know it today emerged in 1992 with the Maastrich treaty, with a central mandate to promote peace, freedom, security and justice throughout the continent.
This historical triumph of integration politically, economically and socially should not be understated or forgotten. After all, intracontinental wars have been common-place in Europe since humans first set foot on the continent. The EU has demonstrated the great potential of regional multilateralism, demonstrating how a governing and ideological framework characterised by democratic institutions, the rule of law, free markets and the spread of liberty can promote peace and prosperity. In fact, its commitment to ‘peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights’, won the EU the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
Recognising this, despite the shambolic state of the Europe at present the EU has enough historical integrity and resilience to take on the opportunity that the present context is offering. No state or bloc has risen to the role of global defender of human rights, democracy, and the rules-based-system. Taking on the role as the symbolic leader of the liberal world would be extremely fitting for a bloc underpinned by a strong commitment to the values of human dignity, democracy, equality, rule of law and human rights.
European leadership has already been demonstrated in times of need throughout the year, in the very instances where the United States has turned its back. Stepping up to the plate, the Union has remained strong on climate change, refusing to sign new trade deals with countries that have not ratified the Paris Agreement, and has continued since June to salvage and protect the Iran deal. Further, the EU has taken measures to hit back on trade tariffs and assert economic sovereignty, placing duties on €2.8 billion worth of US goods in retaliation against Trump’s aggressive trade war. The European Parliament’s rulings this year to advance digital copyright rules and introduce unprecedented privacy law, to the dismay of Facebook and Google, further signpost the EU’s important role in ensuring the protection of its citizenry and of wider democracy. These instances are all examples of Europe’s defence of rules-based international institutions and multilateralism. Promisingly, moves to act against Hungary’s breach of core Union values signal an attempt to reclaim the Union as a bastion of democracy and freedom, at a time when concerns of the bloc’s splintering dominate discourse.
The lack of a shared vision for Europe poses an overarching existential threat to the Union, however in this regard, the presidency of Trump has placed the EU in a unique position. Anti-Trumpian political sentiment and American self-imposed isolationism may just provide the momentum needed to propel the EU to the position of ‘liberal world leader’. The collective oppositional stance of Europe toward American bullying has the strong potential to unify otherwise discordant Europeans. As the Union works hard to alleviate its many beleaguering problems, such as the rise of ‘Eurosceptic’ parties and a lack of solidarity on the issue of migration, there is also space for the EU to continue to assert a defence of the liberal world order on the global stage, as it has done throughout this year. Ultimately, should European leaders seize upon this rare opportunity take on the symbolic position of the world’s liberal leader, this may provide the bloc with the rejuvenating vision it sorely needs.
We are living in a time of flux and uncertainty, as the carefully constructed international order is unravelling before our eyes. In a world of climate change, refugee crises, #MeToo, and the rise of populism and polarised societies, now is not the time to be complacent about the security of democracy and individual freedoms. With global confidence in US leadership at a historical low, we need a genuine leader that actually believes in the values that underpin its foundations. In the European Union this leader can be found. The world is waiting.
Dayna Santana is a Master of Peace and Conflict Studies student at the University of Sydney, having graduated from a Bachelor of International and Global Studies degree in 2016. She lived for three months last year in New York interning for the Permanent Mission of Afghanistan to the United Nations, where she advised on and attended UN consultations on a daily basis. Having volunteered in refugee camps in Greece which led to the beginnings of her small non-for-profit, Dayna has developed an interest in immigration policies worldwide and how the rise of populism, particularly in Europe, is affecting this. Her other interests are International Human Rights Law, Middle Eastern affairs, and the European Union.
Dayna is currently undertaking an internship with the AIIA NSW.