Who Should the United States Call in Europe?

Since the war has started, leadership of Europe is in question. The German government has struggled to fill Angela Merkel’s shoes on the European stage—a task that became exceptionally more difficult as Merkel’s legacy collapsed when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. French president Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, has to deal with a divided parliament, is not the most popular among Eastern Europeans, nor even Southern Europeans. Mario Draghi was widely respected, but his caretaker government collapsed. Eastern Europe may seem ascendant, but these countries lack economic heft and are just as skilled as alienating other EU states to their west as the French are to the east. Thus, the supposed Henry Kissinger quip of not knowing who to call when he needs to dial Europe seems particularly true now. But another option has emerged: Why not just call Ursula?

In September, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen had a clear message in her annual State of the Union speech: “We have brought Europe’s inner strength back to the surface,” she proclaimed. The speech was striking in its moral and visual clarity and its clear support for Ukraine. Wearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag, she said, “This is not only a war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine. This is a war on our energy, a war on our economy, a war on our values and a war on our future. This is about autocracy against democracy. . . . Putin will fail and Europe will prevail.” When Russia decided to invade Ukraine, the European Union moved with shocking speed and strength, with much credit due to the European Commission and the leadership of Von der Leyen.

The European Union is certainly showing its strength. Fourteen years ago, when the global economic and financial crisis struck, the European Union response was slow, shortsighted, bureaucratic, and created deep rifts between member states that have still not healed. But when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the European Union’s response kept the union together, prevented borders from being reerected, purchased vaccines collectively, and took the unprecedented step to borrow 807 billion euros to support economic recovery.

The European Union is speaking and acting with moral clarity on Ukraine and even surprised the United States with its strong sanctions response. The commission under Von der Leyen’s leadership has repeatedly pushed for sanctions to get broader and tighter, cajoling member states to come along. She was also key driving force behind granting Ukraine candidate status. She went out on a limb—before there was a member state consensus—to affirm that Ukraine’s future was in the European Union. Without her dedication, breaking the ice on enlargement might not have been possible.

The European Union has also taken unprecedented steps militarily using its new security assistance fund to support Ukraine. The European Union has provided 2.5 billion euros for supporting Ukrainian armed forces, in addition to millions for humanitarian aid. The European Union is now pushing for a military training mission and the adoption of a $500 million fund to incentivize EU member states to make joint defense procurements. All the while Europe is hosting millions of Ukrainians who are escaping the war in EU member states.

The European Union is also finally starting to take action to address democratic decline at home. While the Von der Leyen commission has rightly been criticized for its passivity, the new EU recovery funds have strengthened the leverage of the European Union. It now has a powerful stick to use to address democratic backsliding. For instance, the European Union is holding back funds to Hungary for its deliberate efforts to undermine the rule of law. While there is nervousness about a new far-right government in Italy, it will be desperate to receive the roughly 200 billion euros allocated to it in the recovery funds.

Additionally, like the United States, the European Union is also moving to strengthen its industrial capacity in key sectors. Taking lessons from its energy dependence on Russia, it is moving to secure its supply chains, including access to critical raw materials. There are new alliances, never-ending negotiations and attempts of diversification. How much of this will end up in #MadeinEU remains to be seen. But the European Union is taking its economic security seriously.

Now the commission is playing a pivotal role in forging a collective response to the energy crisis caused by Russia cutting off gas flows. The tasks in front of the European Union are daunting—energy decoupling, soaring inflation, and potential economic recession, all the while it seeks to maintain its commitments to fight against climate change. But far from bringing the European Union to its knees, the union is actually stronger than many think, and these crises will serve to strengthen it. The response to this crisis will likely transform and strengthen the European Union institutionally, reforming its fiscal rules, prompting structural investments, and highlighting the need for a stronger EU foreign and security policy.  

The European Union and the United States are also both seeking to strengthen their economic resilience by reducing their exposure to foreign supply chains, such as by investing in semiconductor manufacturing, ensuring access to critical minerals, and developing clean energy technology. These efforts should be coordinated and create distinct opportunities to increase transatlantic trade. The green and digital revolution will shape the future of trade policies. This is a genuine area where dialogue and mutual understanding would be beneficial for both sides.

The European Union has also focused on building a partnership with the United States while engaging its powerful industries. The European Union, as the world’s leading tech regulator, has opened a new office in San Francisco to improve coordination with Silicon Valley. During her State of the Union speech, Von der Leyen described potential EU-U.S. cooperation to counter Chinese global investment, highlighting the European Union’s Global Gateway program.

This follows a pattern of the European Union eagerly seeking to engage with the United States. During the Trump administration, the European Union proposed a strategic dialogue on China and has offered a menu of proposals for cooperation to the Biden administration. The EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council has proved incredibly valuable, as has the collaboration on climate and sanctions. The Biden administration has recognized the strategic value of engaging the European Union. U.S.-EU relations are stronger than before, which admittedly is a low bar.

But U.S.-EU relations can take another step forward. As the United States engages Europe, it should strengthen its links with the European Commission. This engagement would be based on the policymaking capacity of the commission—especially when it comes to trade and investment, while also elevating Von der Leyen’s profile. By doing so, the United States can strengthen the European Union’s role in foreign policy making. Sectorial engagement with the European Commission could also break the cycle of never-ending criticism on defense spending as the core discussion. This could open a more multidimensional engagement between the European Union and the United States. That would fit better to twenty-first century challenges.

Focusing engagement on the European Commission president will ruffle some feathers in the European Council and national capitals. At the end of the day, nothing would move further without the approval of the member states. But the European Commission president has shown that she can lead, put out a far-sighted objective, and bring the European Union, its member states, and institutions along in times of war. The United States should back her efforts to strengthen the European Union. In her State of the Union address, she said that “the moment has arrived for a European Convention,” that will be needed to strengthen EU foreign and security policy. It will also be necessary to reform how the European Union runs before it enlarges further. The United States should support these efforts and talk to the European Commission.

Max Bergmann is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ilke Toygür is a non-resident senior associate with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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Ilke Toygür
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
Max Bergmann
Director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program and Stuart Center