Will Europe speak up for cooperation?

A year ago Chinese President Xi Jinping offered his vision of the world, one in which China plays the lead role in trade and other world affairs.

That speech was the keynote address at last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

This year President Trump will speak Jan. 26 at this annual forum of world leaders, sharing his views on international cooperation, informed by his oft-stated “America First” philosophy.

Will Mr. Trump define the place of the United States in the world narrowly, emphasizing that the US will act only if and when its national interests are clear and the benefits immediate? If he leaves that impression, other democracies will be left to wonder who will take up the mantle on behalf of all Western democracies against those with other agendas, such as the economically powerful but undemocratic regime in China, and the political and military maneuverings of Russia, which under President Vladimir Putin has shown willingness to use military might (Ukraine, Syria) to project its power and covert propaganda via social media to influence elections in democratic countries. 

Will Western Europe’s democracies provide alternative leadership and a broad, long-range vision of cooperation with the aim of preserving democratic principles, even when immediate individual national interests aren’t always served?

For some, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been offering that voice. As head of the largest and most dynamic economy in the European Union, she has looked to lead on thorny issues such as immigration by balancing the need for order and stability with the moral demand to help immigrants fleeing oppressive states. Rather than promoting a “Germany First” perspective, she’s made the case that EU states working together can create a better, stronger, freer Europe than when each state acts only in its own interests.

But 2017 was not a good year for Ms. Merkel. German elections strengthened opposition parties and have made forming a new governing coalition headed by her center-right Christian Democratic Union difficult. A first attempt to find other parties to join her CDU in a coalition failed in November. Now in mid-January a new effort to create a coalition of different partners looks as though it could succeed.

If the coalition holds, Merkel may yet appear at Davos, presumably to continue her message of mutual cooperation.

With her standing at home wobbling, however, Merkel may not be able to play her role as effectively. That task now may fall to a fresh face, French President Emmanuel Macron, whose speech at Davos will be closely watched to see just how broad his vision is of Europe and the world. 

Together with Merkel’s Germany, Mr. Macron’s France forms the vital core of the EU. He and Merkel seem to recognize that their close cooperation now is the key to not only EU stability, but world stability as well.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair continues to lead an effort to reverse Britain’s decision to leave the EU – that country’s cry of “Britain First” – scheduled for March 2019. A revote on “Brexit” is unlikely, but polls show that if it took place Brexit could lose. European Council President Donald Tusk recently told Britain the EU would welcome Britain’s return. “Our hearts are still open to you,” he said.

Britain’s strong pro-EU sentiments show a recognition that its fortunes will always be deeply entwined with those of brethren across the Channel. 

Complaints that the EU has taken unfair advantage of Britain, just as complaints that the US has been the victim of “bad deals” in the past with the rest of the world, need to be heard. But Benjamin Franklin’s counsel that “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” may offer a deeper wisdom and a higher view.

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