The explosive news that the U.S. Supreme Court is to roll back abortion rights greeted Europe’s eastern edge at dawn, and reverberated across the Continent throughout the day: Once again America was plunging itself into a partisan, inward-looking culture war on an issue most of the Western world regards as a private health matter.
Only this time, it was happening with a real war raging in Ukraine — at a moment when the world, especially Europe, could hardly afford Washington to be distracted.
“My first thought was: Back to the Dark Ages,” said a senior government official from an Eastern European country, a woman who, like most officials and diplomats contacted for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid roiling transatlantic relations.
“Great day for far-right in U.S. and in Eastern Europe; gloomy day for women’s rights and progress,” the senior official said. “This is the key message.” But the same official said she had contacts celebrating on social media, including one who posted: “In this decision alone, having Trump as a president paid off.”
Sophie in ‘t Veld, a liberal member of the European Parliament, shared the news on her Twitter feed before most of her constituents had their first cup of coffee.
“Women’s rights thrown back by a century,” in ‘t Veld wrote. “Conservative judges carrying out the Trumpian agenda of restoring patriarchy. And have no illusions: the anti-choice movement is on the rise in Europe as well. Our hard fought rights must be defended vigourously!”
Not long after, European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, a center-right conservative from Malta, where abortion is illegal, gave an interview on French radio station RTL, in which she insisted that the EU’s position, in favor of abortion rights, is settled.
“We can discuss the U.S. position,” Metsola said. “But here in Europe, there is no discussion.”
In fact, there are still some very serious discussions about abortion in Europe.
Metsola’s own record of voting against abortion rights was the main controversy over her candidacy to lead the Parliament. A 43-year-old mother of four, Metsola sidestepped the issue in part by stressing that Brussels does not set rules on abortion in the EU, where health policy is overwhelmingly handled by national governments.
There is also a fierce and divisive debate over abortion in Poland, where the government adopted a near-total ban on abortion with limited exceptions in the cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life. Poland’s abortion ban has created additional complications for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the war, including victims of sexual assault by Russian soldiers who cannot easily provide documentation that they reported a crime.
Some officials in Europe were quick to condemn the impending U.S. court decision and to voice support for women’s rights.
“London stands with women across the United States today,” the U.K. capital’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted early Tuesday. “Roe v Wade enshrined women’s fundamental rights over their own bodies and access to healthcare. That cannot and must not be undone.”
For many EU officials and diplomats, the Supreme Court news was an alarming reminder not only of former President Donald Trump’s legacy in reshaping the judiciary in the U.S., but also of the very real chance that he may return to the White House in 2025.
And it was also a reminder that the U.S. is entering — or has already entered — a high-stakes and contentious mid-term election campaign. Republicans have long been expected to win control of both chambers of Congress, though the abortion-rights fight could now play an unpredictable role in congressional races across the country.
In any case, the starting gun on the U.S. political season suggested that President Joe Biden’s much-trumpeted return to the world stage — far from being a restoration of proactive, internationalist U.S. foreign policy — could end up being an extremely short-lived 18 to 24-month cameo appearance, to be followed by a Trump sequel: Make America Great Again, Again.
“A taste of what is to come in two years’ time,” said a diplomat based in Western Europe, whose first reaction to news of the abortion ruling was an exclamation about sacred feces.
This diplomat said that for Europe, the abortion controversy provided “a harbinger of the dilemma we’re facing: Are we content to be the appendix of U.S. foreign policy or do we actually invest in some European capacity to hold our own in the contest between rule of law and rule of autocracy?”
At the same time, this diplomat said, the fact that Trump and his tens of millions of supporters remain a powerful political force in the U.S. could create momentum for the EU to get its act together, particularly on security and defense.
“So far the U.S. is probably the biggest beneficiary of the war in Ukraine,” the diplomat said. “The U.S. being distracted might give some pause just in time … for leaders to actually have a serious discussion on our own capacity. The answer to the aforementioned dilemma will shape the discussion for years to come.”
Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.