Tomorrow, European officials will vote to confirm the new European Commission. If all goes well, the executive arm of the European bloc will begin its five-year term by the end of the week, just a few days before Nato’s 70th anniversary summit in London.
The sequence of events throws into relief three key policy challenges for Europe. Should aspirations for a European defence pillar still be strongly held within Nato rather than separate from it? Does European stability depend on further enlargement of the bloc, which has not had a new member since Croatia in 2013, and should that be towards the historically volatile western Balkans? And finally, with the US no longer reliable when it comes to diplomacy or values-based leadership, should Europe assume a greater role in the world, one that is consistent with its trade and economic power, its cultural heft and political principles?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions but it is worth getting the most obvious response out of the way, and that is profound disbelief – derision almost – at the very idea that Europe could ever seriously hope to rival the US.
Consider the comment last week by Larry Summers, a former US treasury secretary and president of Harvard University. Mr Summers took part in a simulation of the White House situation room, carried out by Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The make-believe situation discussed was dual national security crises which were as follows: the test of a North Korean missile that could potentially reach the US, and a Chinese digital currency that has dulled the effectiveness of the main US tool for responding to such provocations – that is, economic sanctions. Mr Summers was dismissive of the idea that a rival currency could replace the dollar, saying: "Europe's a museum, Japan's a nursing home and China's a jail".
The perception of Europe as a “museum” – a passive, possibly slightly musty institution that conserves and showcases cultural curiosities – is only slightly worse than the way the bloc was recently summed up by French President Emmanuel Macron. He said: “Europe has forgotten that it is a community by increasingly thinking of itself as a market.” It was a rather despairing comment from the politician who has strongly positioning himself to assume leadership of Europe now that Berlin is in a state of political paralysis, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel ending nearly two decades at the helm of her country and of the European bloc.
But Mr Macron's criticism is meant for Europe to, in his words, "think of itself as a global power" and "to equip ourselves with the grammar of today, which is a grammar of power and sovereignty".
This is the context of Europe's increasingly pointed attempts to defend itself rather than rely on Nato. Ursula von der Leyen, president-elect of the European Commission, has publicly spoken of "bold steps in the next five years towards a genuine European Defence Union". Her commissioner for the single market, Frenchman Thierry Breton, will also oversee the multi-billion euro European Defence Fund. A Eurodrone project is in the works. Earlier this month, the EU decided to invest heavily in the European Border and Coast Guard Agency to patrol its borders easily and efficiently. And Mr Macron last year launched a military project, the 14-member European Intervention Initiative, which aims for a "common strategic culture" and exists outside the bounds of Nato.
But there is a problem. No one, other than Mr Macron, seems entirely sure about the direction in which Europe should head. France’s president wants the bloc to depend on itself for its security, to hold back on taking in new members such as Albania and North Macedonia until it reforms its membership protocols, and to speak strongly and with one voice on a global strategic agenda that is informed by European humanism.
But the Germans are doubtful. Just weeks ago Ms Merkel was scathing about the "huge historical mistake" that prompted France to block EU enlargement into the western Balkans. And just days ago, Ms Merkel's anointed successor as party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who as Germany's defence minister, said her aim was to strengthen Europe's "ability to act" in support of Nato but that the French "are seeking strong European co-operation to replace Nato".
All of this – including the fact that the UK is preparing to leave the European Union on January 31 next year – suggests that European ambition is in a rather parlous state, except on matters of trade and data. The EU sets the global rules for digital privacy. And it now has the largest trade network in the world with 42 trade agreements and 73 partners. That is a sizeable chunk of the world and compares well – if in a different sphere – with the US’s 68 formal political alliances.
On November 21, as a free-trade agreement between the EU and Singapore came into force, the bloc noted that it was the 16th trade deal since 2014 and these include significant bilateral pacts with Canada and Japan. A deal with Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, is awaiting ratification by European governments. There are plans for some sort of an agreement with China and a free-trade deal with India but these could pose problems.
But that may matter less – as, indeed, will the arrangements with a post-Brexit Britain – as long as Europe can agree on a larger vision for itself.
With the international order in flux, it remains to be seen whether Europe can overcome its divisions and its preoccupations to boldly go where it has not before.