President Trump with Prime Minister Theresa May of England in July. His recent trip to Europe was confusing, contentious and counterproductive, as he continued to criticize countries friendly to the United States. (CREDIT: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The horrific carnage of the wars that ravaged Europe in the 75 years before World War II is fast fading into ancient history. But the relative peace that has reigned since is not luck — it is the product of institutions and alliances painstakingly created in the aftermath of the great wars. These institutions, and in particular the formal bonds of friendship between the United States and Europe, remain as vital to global safety and stability today as they were six decades ago.

After World War II, the Western democracies, led by the United States, helped Germany, Italy and Japan rebuild and become durable democracies. They created international institutions whose goals were peace, stability and prosperity: the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and, crucially, the European Union. They sought to prevent a repeat of the past by promoting increased trade and collective security. They have been largely successful.

The European Union’s critics point to its deficiencies, some of which are serious and must be addressed. But the drawbacks are decisively outweighed by the expansion of individual freedom, stability, trade and prosperity that Europeans have enjoyed.

It is in the interest of the European Union member states to confront and correct the union’s shortcomings, not to end it. They must find a way to rein in its excesses and address the now-obvious gap created by entering into a monetary union without the necessary political underpinning. It won’t be easy. But surely it is not beyond the grasp of a continent so rich in history, talent, material and moral resources.

Soldiers from European and North American countries, participating in an annual Saber Strike joint military exercise, watch a fighter jet fly over a Latvian base in 2015. Outside provocations from countries such as Russia, and the lack of a common identity, threaten both the European Union and NATO.
(CREDIT: Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

One of the first — and perhaps most important — steps in ensuring the continuance of the union is a smooth and successful Brexit. Despite their anger and frustration, union leaders should extend themselves in negotiations with Britain. A hard Brexit is in no one’s interest, especially with respect to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The union and British government have publicly promised that there will not be a hard border, and they must keep their promise. I believe that Brexit eventually will negatively impact the British economy, but the initial fallout could be to encourage other unhappy European nations to leave the union. A weakened and divided Europe would mean the loss of a valuable democratic ally for the United States in its dealings with large hostile powers and the massive upheaval that is likely to continue in Africa and Asia.

Second, while I strongly support the continuation of the European Union, I also recognize that there is room for improvement. A central issue confronting the union remains one of identity.

In 2013, the Dutch government came up with an alternative to the phrase “ever closer union,” which is found in European Union treaties. It said the new standard should be “European where necessary, national where possible.” That standard has to some extent taken hold, with the European Commission initiating a process of reviewing European Union legislation and repealing those laws that no longer serve a purpose.

But this notion is difficult to apply when confronting the conflicts arising over monetary union and immigration. The massive challenge of dealing with millions of migrants from Asia and Africa has tested the very concept of unity. In the absence of a common policy, geography is decisive, and the burden falls heavily on the union members least able to bear it. Fears over immigration contributed to the Brexit vote and have led to continuing unease among other member states. At the same time, however, free movement of labor is important to economic growth in Europe, as it is in the United States.

The fiscal crisis in Greece and the flood of migrants into Italy and other European Union countries have thrust this debate on the Europeans, and they must continue the debate, even intensify it. They must decide on their ultimate objective and then adjust their organization and its institutions and powers to that goal. A continuing mismatch between ends and means will complicate the union’s future, and may even threaten its existence.

Antonio Magnani and his three sons, all Italian immigrants, gaze at lower Manhattan from the Ellis Island ferry dock in 1950. (CREDIT: Eddie Hausner/The New York Times)

The United States has a huge stake in the outcome. In little more than a year in office, President Trump unwisely has stalled a trade agreement with the European nations and has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, the agreement with Iran on its nuclear program and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In addition, the president has sought to resolve trade disputes with China and European countries through tariffs, rather than through the trade-dispute mechanisms of the World Trade Organization.

His recent trip to Europe was confusing, contentious and counterproductive, as he continued to criticize our friends and praise President Vladimir Putin of Russia. I respectfully but strongly disagree with Mr. Trump. Cooperative efforts with our historic allies are not harmful to American interests. To the contrary, these recent agreements and the post–World War II institutions have been beneficial to those who participated in them, including and especially the United States. Any American who thinks the world is unsafe now should contemplate a world in which there is no NATO, no European Union, no World Trade Organization, no U.N. In that world, constant trade wars could lead to real wars, and the United States, as the dominant power, invariably would be called upon to lead alone.

Our ties with Europe predate the establishment of our country. We gained our independence from England by revolution, but we retained England’s language, the spirit of its laws and many of its customs. Although our early relations were hostile, over time the two countries formed what remains a “special relationship.”

As our nation grew to settle a vast continent, we welcomed millions of immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Scandinavia and many more. As a result, we share deep bonds of blood with Europe, not just legal relationships.

While we compete in many ways, we should not think of Europeans primarily as adversaries. They also are our partners and our allies. Although they do not always agree with us, or even among themselves, for the most part they admire our country and share our values and interests. It is in everyone’s interest that we do all we can — politically, economically, militarily and otherwise — to help the people of Europe remain democratic, united, free and prosperous.

George J. Mitchell was a United States senator from Maine from 1980 to 1995 and served as Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995.