Fragmentation and Polarization in Europe: A Historical Outlook After the End of the Second World War



Period based fragmentations in European history after the Second World War imposes a unique challenge to the states within and without the EU. Throughout the years, European states had confronted challenges mostly among them, at first these challenges were posed by Charles de Gaulle with his intergovernmentalist and nationalist understanding. Between years 1950-1970 there were two poles in Europe: De Gaulle’s France was against the close allies the USA and Britain. However, the most noteworthy polarization between European countries corresponds to after the Cold War époque. After 9/11 attacks and new concept “war on terror” also brought some challenges which have deepened/deteriorated the transatlantic relations. After 2011, the polarization and fragmentation among European states accelerated with the “Refugee crisis”, “Brexit” and “Trump”. In brief this article aims to detect that in all periods of European history after Second World War there can be seen that there are two ideologies that shaped the history of Europe: “Atlanticism” and “Europeanism”.

Key Words: Polarization, fragmentation, European states, Atlanticism, Europeanism



İkinci Dünya Savaşı sonrası, Avrupa tarihindeki dönem bazlı ayrışmalar hem Avrupa Birliği (AB) içindeki hem de dışındaki ülkeler için eşsiz bir imtihan teşkil etmektedir. Yıllar içerisinde Avrupa ülkeleri çoğunlukla kendi aralarında problemlerle karşılaştılar, başlarda problem Charles de Gaulle’ın “hükümetlerarasıcılık” anlayışından ve milliyetçi söylemlerinden kaynaklanıyordu. Hatta, denilebilir ki 1950-70 yılları arasında Avrupa’da iki kutup vardı: De Gaulle’ün Fransa’sının karşısında yakın müttefikler olan ABD ve Britanya bulunuyordu. Bununla birlikte dikkate değer bir kutuplaşma da Soğuk Savaş sonrası döneme tekabül etmektedir. 11 Eylül saldırıları ve “teröre karşı savaş” konseptleri transatlantik ilişkileri derinleştiren ve durumunu kademeli olarak kötüleştiren birtakım sıkıntıları da beraberinde getirdi. 2011’den sonra ise Avrupa devletleri arasındaki kutuplaşma ve ayrışma “Mülteci krizi”, “Brexit” ve “Trump” sayesinde hızlandı. Kısacası, bu makale, İkinci Dünya Savaşı sonrası Avrupa tarihinin tüm dönemlerinde, mevcut dönemin şekillenmesinde başat rol oynayan iki ideoloji bulunduğunu tespit etmeye çalışmaktadır: “Atlantikçilik” ve “Avrupacılık”.

Anahtar Kelimeler: Kutuplaşma, ayrışma, Avrupa devletleri, Atlantikçilik, Avrupacılık

  1. Introduction

European history divided into periods that is called ebbs and tides, basically progression and regression always follow each other, and they are crucial elements of European history (Zweig, 2020, p. 15). According to Zweig, it is highly possible to say that in European history greatest tragedies/catastrophes are followed by the greatest accomplishments. If post-Second World War era is to be examined, one could make deductions concerning this situation. After 1945, the Europe was so divided and polarized to move collectively because of this reason a desire to move collectively is born. In this anarchical environment ignited by the Cold War conditions, Europe has founded European Community (EC) in order to uprising threat of USSR (Açıkmeşe, 2004, p. 17). However, the process that started with Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and Jacques Delors has frequently undermined by France and its famous leader Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle with his policies literally shaped and changed the future of Europe and European integration process (Cicioğlu and Kalkan, 2019, p. 9). De Gaulle’s works to create an intergovernmentalist approach in Europe became France’s priority in De Gaulle era. The Gaullist tradition emerged even after the death of De Gaulle and consistently undermined the European integration. In that point, Zweig states that nationalism and supranationalism emerged as two opposite ideologies destined to decide the future of Europe and European integration (Zweig, 2020, p. 38).

Zweig consistently searched the answer to this question: “Will Europe continue to be its own destroyer, or will Europe choose to unify and make a strong stand?” (Zweig, 2020, p. 38). If European integration and the crucial factors that paved the way is to be understood, one should also clearly absorb and understand the fragmentations and polarizations in European history because without understanding the fractures and major cleavages, it is not possible to make sane judgments about the European integration. In the literature there are a significant number of articles about European integration, however the literature somewhat lacks fragmentations and polarizations among European states acknowledging the role of USA and its effect on the Europe continent since Americans saved Europeans from the Nazis. This article tries to provide a comparative portrait of major fragmentations and polarizations in Europe by acknowledging the strong influence of the USA in continent Europe.

For France, European integration without any doubt means minimum Anglo-Saxon influence over European organization, and it is presumed by leadership of France; and also, France desires a European integration which helps him to bring peace by balancing Germany and drawing autonomous portrait from the USA’s influence (Cicioğlu and Kalkan, 2019, p. 11-12).

Although the European integration started with French and German officials, French always desired to be the leader in the Europe. Certain French presidents conducted a Gaullist rhetoric which can be considered to be closer to Europeanism. In fact, Gaullism and Europeanism have lot in common: “To both Gaullists and Europeanists America’s operating as a European power and its dominant role in NATO limit the prospects for a politically united and strong Europe” (Voskopoulos, 2006, p. 4). In general picture there are lots of factors that affected the relations within the Europe or in transatlantic relations. Even today there are problems within the EU states; while some of these challenges caused by individual European states to each other, the other challenges mostly caused between these two poles mentioned before: “Atlanticists and Europeanists”.

  • Nuclear Weapons Issue and the First Polarization within the Global Structure

After the end of the Second World War, there has been a new world order which respects and abide by the International Law and embraces rule of law and democracy as supreme values of new world order that wanted to be created. In that new system the USA is the most influential actor even in the Europe; one could say that the reason why the USA gained so much power in Europe is because the USA saved its allies from Nazi invasion. Although the UK could not be invaded by Nazis, for France situation was too complex and controversial. France needed the USA to deal with Nazis, of course this condition will bear new ideologies and new approaches in a couple of years to these two so-called allies.

French President Charles De Gaulle could be considered as an antagonist according British and American viewpoints. The sources of De Gaulle’s anti-Americanist rhetoric could be traced back to Second World War, Americans’ victory against Nazis proved that the USA is not a temporal ally but a strong and persistent ally in the region. De Gaulle had a relationship on edge with Churchill, both parties had considered each other as means to success. “Every time I have to decide between you and Roosevelt, I will always choose Roosevelt” (New Europeans, Web Page; see also: Beevor, A., D-Day: The Battle for Normandie). De Gaulle understood that the UK will stand with its transatlantic partner rather to make an alliance with France. The rift between France and UK was so deep in the De Gaulle era which is why; “De Gaulle vetoed UK’s accession to European Community in 1962 and 1967” (Akşemsettinoğlu, 2011, p. 6). In the 1960s, France under the De Gaulle administration made independent policies both with the European counterparts and the USA (Belkin, 2011, p. 1). While Kennedy was the US president further problems have risen. The problem was that Europe and the USA were becoming more and more polarized. TIME Magazine (1962) states that Western Alliance is on edge today because of the widening rift between John F. Kennedy and Charles de Gaulle.

According to Belkin (2011, p.7), “France, like the United States, believes that it has a special role in the world”. Perhaps because of this France consistently saw itself as primus inter pares. “In the 1960s, France began to develop its own nuclear deterrent force” (Belkin, 2011, p. 2). France was the fourth nation that reached nuclear capability. The first was the USA, then the USSR and after then the UK. After the Second World War, major powers of Europe were defeated by Nazis and they suffered a national humiliation (Voskopoulos, 2006, p. 7). France by far is the one who felt this humiliation to the bone. It would not be wrong to say that this national humiliation French felt in Second World War, in the future created nuclear ambitions for France to follow. The idea of nuclear weapons may make a nation free and independent still exists and in France’s constant strategic culture (Tertrais, 2007, p. 251). Even today for France this judgment keeps its validity.

De Gaulle’s speech about nuclear weapons literally draws the general idea of France and French people especially after living the horrible times in the Second World War. “As long as others have the means to destroy her, [France] will need to have the means to defend itself” (Tertrais, 2007, p. 251). Even when De Gaulle decided a withdrawal from NATO’s military branch in 1966, he made his perception according to his best interests: “De Gaulle thought that France must have its own moderate nuclear weapons in order France to decide its own fate” (TIME Magazine, 1962). Another factor why France needs nuclear weapons could be understood as: “Possessing nuclear weapons might be the only way for a country to become truly independent” (Trachtenberg, 2012, p. 82). When the international arena is to be examined, De Gaulle’s ambitions to have nuclear weapons far from the influence of other actors could be justified at some point, De Gaulle saw that after 1945, the international system was becoming bipolar, and he wanted to be somewhat independent from both sides even though France is one of the important states in Western Bloc. Therefore, one could say that in De Gaulle era France having some dilemmas and these dilemmas and the feeling of being trapped between the two poles of the world inherited to De Gaulle’s successors.

However, although all of these fragmentations between France and USA, there is one common fear that both the USA and France afraid of, of course it is about the nuclear capability of former aggressive state Germany. De Gaulle since the end of the Second World War had feared that Germans might one day becoming a full-sovereign power and reach nuclear capability (Ibid, p. 82); furthermore, not only the French was worried also the Americans were worried: U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk said that the day will come when the Germans do as they wish in nuclear area and no one will be able to prevent them to do so (Ibid, p. 82).

1960s are turbulent years which proved world that on nuclear weapons issue full cooperation among states was not possible yet. 1960s witnessed the famous Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968 and other important development was France’s withdrawal from NATO in 1966. France did not sign the NPT because it was thought that the treaty was part of a system which allows two superpowers to dominate the system (Ibid, p. 89). For De Gaulle nuclear sovereignty is highly crucial and for French to be truly independent there could not be any integration into the NATO system and for this France needs nuclear weapons (Ibid, p. 88). Another desire of France was its somewhat liberation from USA’s protective umbrella, for this purpose France should have move swiftly in the system. France did not want to be a part of integrated NATO command system. However, France found a way to use this for its interests; according to France FRG (West Germany) should be a part of this integrated NATO command system under the U.S. command (Ibid, p. 89). Thus, one could say that France would feel better if West Germany would have checked by the USA. It is clear that although in Europe, France and Germany working together under the umbrella of European Community there was lack of trust between these two states. And now France was all alone in Europe at some point.

When it comes to Britain, it could be considered as the main supporter of Atlanticism in the EU. And also, Britain’s support for Atlanticism originated from sharing the same cultural and strategic values with the USA; furthermore, Britain has considered Europe as a junior partner of the USA and as a free market area (Voskopoulos, 2006, p. 5). Because of the USA’s and the UK’s approach to Europe and France, paved the way for France to consolidate its place in the global system by acquiring more nuclear weapons and by withdrawing from integrated NATO command system. Because of France being paranoid and wants to ensure its interests, it chose a path which has major differences from Atlanticism. In essence it is said that France’s nuclear weapons do not target any specific state; like De Gaulle said repeatedly their nuclear deterrence had an all points of the compass (tous azimuts) orientation (Yost, 2001, p. 252). France’s policy and foreign policy concerning nuclear weapons could be considered as an insurance policy all over the world. And also, France with frankness told everyone that an attack on vital interests of France would bring a nuclear response as retaliation (Tertrais, 2007, p. 253; see also: Chirac’s 2006 speech). It appears that for France and for the rest of the world nuclear weapons issue is still a lingering issue and French policy still favors using of nuclear weapons as deterrence policy according to Chirac’s speech in 1996: “Nuclear deterrence remains the fundamental element of our strategy” (Yost, 2001, p. 253).

  • Support for USA on “War on terror”, further fragmentations in the global system

1991 Gulf War was one of the legal wars that authorized by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC, Res. 678, 1990) which paved the way to a war. After 9/11 attacks in the USA’s heart, President Bush declared the concept of “War on terror” for the first time while he was addressing to Congress (“Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People”, 2001). After 9/11 attacks there can be seen a USA without any chains, by judging the concept of war on terror and the doctrine of preemptive war. While USA becoming more individualistic and literally a lone wolf in its policies, its relations with major European forces started to deteriorate in that point. Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense in G.W. Bush administration used a term to describe the states which are cooperating with the US after the Second World War, Rumsfeld called these states as “Old Europe”, these states tend to disagree with the US policy concerning Iraq; however, the Central and Eastern European countries were named as “New Europe”, and these states were supporting the US policy concerning Iraq in contrast to the “Old Europe” (Duric, 2005, p. 57). Therefore, there exists the necessity to investigate these relations step by step.

  • United Kingdom, United States, and Iraq War

Natapoff (2004, p.12) argued that Tony Blair was the first British PM to take European Union seriously. Furthermore, if Britain’s traditional Transatlantic policy is to be examined, it will be seen that Blair was the right person who could have find the common ground between Atlanticism and Europeanism. However, between EU states Britain, France, and Germany the already created unprecedented harmony over Europe’s future has been extinct because of the Britain’s decision of supporting USA and going into war (Natapoff, 2004, p. 12).

Firstly, it would be good to clarify that although Tony Blair supported G.W. Bush, the USA, and its war in Iraq, the two statesmen differentiated in some respects. These minor differences are: Before Bush era there were minor problems between Clinton and Blair; in contrast to USA, Britain spent considerable time in the strategic regions which located in the EU in order to stabilize these regions; Britain has embraced a different viewpoint in Arab-Israel conflict; Britain -in contrast to USA- has done nuclear negotiations with Iran under the umbrella of E3 bloc[1] and lastly Britain has embraced a different approach concerning China, it was desired to make strategic alliance with China by removing arms embargo (Kocamaz, 2011). Moving from this point, saying that Britain always follows USA’s lead would be wrong; for instance, Britain since 1990s had constructed a new mutual policy with Iran and at the same time Britain has adopted EU’s policy which is called “critical dialogue” (Ibid, p. 196).

According to Kocamaz (2011), Blair’s decision to support USA was a turning point for British Foreign Policy because Natapoff (2004) also thinks that with Britain’s skepticism over Europe, it has decided to choose a special relationship with the USA. This special relationship was originated from Blair’s high support for international interventionist policy and Blair’s religious beliefs which helped him to realize this is a war between the good people and bad people (Kocamaz, 2011, p. 202-203). In another aspect it could be said that Britain’s support for the USA can be explained by bandwagoning strategy by standing with the future winner; even though this support was merely a political tool for Britain the bandwagoning strategy had jeopardized the EU’s integration process (Ibid, p. 204). On the other hand, Blair explains his own justification for supporting the USA in Iraq War as “Making Britain stronger in international arena like Thatcher and Churchill did before me” (Ibid, p. 206). After 9/11 attacks the USA and Britain made an exemplary solidarity just like they did in Churchill and Roosevelt’s era (Ibid, p. 208). However, with the rising Anglo-American solidarity in the international arena, the condition in the EU became intense.

  • Iraq War and the Intense Political Rift between Atlanticism and Europeanism

It would not be wrong to say that between 2001-2004, USA was having problems with two dominant state (“old Europe” in Rumsfeld’s term) in Europe: France and Germany. In the mid-1990s French and German desires to establish an EU security policy far from the influence of NATO and USA had started and evolved in this era (Belkin, 2011, p. 2). Is that effort still active after Iraq War and disagreements with the USA?

France and Russia, among other countries, made clear that they were not prepared to give U.S.-led war the legal blessing of the United Nations, The Security Council thus took no further action” (Felton, 2008, p. 489). Although Tony Blair gave his word to G.W. Bush to convince European partners into supporting USA, this did not happen because of Schröder and Chirac’s different perceptions in the political system (Kocamaz, 2011, p. 212). Kocamaz (2011) argues that after 9/11 attacks, USA was sure of its transatlantic partner Germany’s support, however Germany has embraced a critical aspect concerning Iraq War: therefore, opposition to the USA somewhat unified France and Germany. Solidarity between Germany and France meant other than just cooperation in the global system, but they now had a chance to work with each other in the EU (Ibid, p. 212). Kocamaz (2011, p.213) strongly believes that Franco-German solidarity were undermined by other EU states which expressed their clear support for the USA; firstly Britain, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, and Czech Republic expressed their support with a letter and then with second letter Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Albania, Macedonia, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia expressed their support for USA intervention. One of the opposing parties to Iraq War Jacques Chirac said:

“In today’s world, no one can act alone in the name of all, and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules…Multilateralism is essential…It is the [U.N. Security Council] that must set the bounds for the use of force. No one can appropriate the right to use it unilaterally and preventively” (Belkin, 2011, p. 8).

       While France and Germany came together in an ideological context, it was undermined by the other states of the EU. Now France and Germany will have to settle for less influence in a bigger and livelier European Union (Duric, 2005, p. 68). As for Central and Eastern European countries their clear expression on USA in Iraq War without doubt originated from desire for NATO membership, one could clearly say that NATO may provide its members unique conditions and with “one for all and all for one” principle it keeps its validity as an elite alliance. Grigorescu et al. (2006) states that, at first three countries expressed their support for the USA and then additional ten countries expressed their support; their main purpose was to support one another in order to gain the membership of NATO. In 2003, while some European states supporting the USA, some kept their distance and from now on the challenges for the EU has officially started.

  • New Challenges in the Recent Past, Brexit, Refugees and Trump’s America

One of the noteworthy challenges between Atlanticism and Europeanism happened after the Arab Spring. Altunışık (2013) argues that there can be seen a strong USA after the Cold War which desires to shape Middle East and other regions all by himself; however, the criticization of policies of the USA has created an opposition to USA from its allies. The instability created by the USA since 2003 in the Middle East eventually paved the way to an immigration of masses. In that point, it would be right to say that with refugee crisis since 2015 fragmentation between European states increased with great impetus.

Massie (2015) argues that the refugee crisis could be count as the greatest humanitarian crisis that Europe has faced in the last 50 years. Massie also states that European conscience concerning refugees has developed after an incident which occurred with a death of three-year-old baby Aylan Kurdi on Turkish shores (Massie, 2015). Once this issue become popularized in Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel adopted its open-door policy however, right after that there were questions concerning/criticizing this policy. Merkel’s open-door policy even though it is criticized later, were managed to prevail against the current refugee crisis. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also said, “no country can refuse to do its part” and argued that the EU should accept at least 200,000 Syrian refugees (Hill, 2015). However, cooperation did not happen among European countries. While Merkel has an open gate approach the other countries refused to follow suit (Postelnicescu, 2016, p. 205). The major opposition came from Central and Eastern European countries. Viktor Orban from Hungary became literally the voice of the opposition to Germany (Ibid, p. 205). Postelnicescu (2016) also argues that after 2015 in Europe right wing parties like FPÖ from Austria, PiS from Poland and Le Pen’s party from France became incredibly popular in Europe. Van Der Brug and Harteveld (2021) argue that refugee crisis changed citizens’ views of immigration and created a national identification. Van Der Brug and Harteveld (2021, p. 4-6) also found that in Western Europe while right-wing citizens have negative feelings towards refugees, the left-wing citizens have increased support for immigration however, in Central and Eastern Europe left and right-wing parties/citizens had developed an anti-immigration approach. For instance, European Free Alliance (EFA) in European Parliament is a left-wing party, and they have an incredible tendency to support immigration.

With the open-door policy Merkel has started many European countries seem to be uncooperative and this challenge bear in the mind that cooperation in Europe became a tricky issue. Postalnicescu (2016, p.207) argues that the rift between Eastern and Western Europe resurrects. Now, there is a debate about two-speeds Europe or, even worse, à la carte Europe, where any cooperation is too difficult, and members gives and takes as much as they want.

Another issue is Britain’s campaign for leaving the EU. It has shaken the EU and has deepened the rift between Atlanticism and Europeanism. Aras and Günar (2018) argues that Britain’s process of Brexit is not a surprise because of their four policy throughout the history: “Catch up, opt-out, cop-out and leaving EU”. Aras and Günar (2018, p.93) also argue that Churchill’s words could be used while explain the process which evolved into the Brexit: “We are with Europe, but we are not a part of it”.

Aras and Günar argues that while Britain is in the process of leaving the EU, the relations with EU states have become crucial to understand. For France and Germany Brexit would be a good but necessary action to take, while France hoping to transform the EU into a French model organization, Germany by sacrificing Britain desired to save Eurozone and further integration efforts, on the other hand Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania frightened whether or not the Brexit would have a negative influence on them (Aras and Günar, 2018, p. 97).

A significant number of economists in Britain thought that Brexit will have devastating effects on Britain’s economy (Ibid, p. 99); however, it is doubtful that this would be the case. Theresa May explained new vision as “Global Britain” because now that Britain has liberated itself from the EU, it could make new bilateral or even multilateral trade agreements (Ibid, p. 100).

By year 2020, after Brexit happened successfully and Britain officially transformed from differentiated integration to differentiated external disintegration which helps him to overcome the difficulties of being outside the EU (Schimmelfennig, 2018). After Brexit there is the possibility of “ever closer” US and Britain, it would be important to see commonwealth under a stronger US influence. Even though Britain is more economically free from the EU and in a closer circle with the US, there are the political impact which can affect both the US and Britain; Marsh (2018, p. 287) argues that after the Brexit there exists a loss of British influence in the EU, however, he also concludes that this situation paves the way to a stronger bilateral relation between two countries.

Having sad all these rifts between two blocs, one could say that the latest challenge corresponds to Trump era (2016-2020). Trump’s policies concerning all areas seems to be less coherent with those of Europe. Until Trump era, British and American policies were somewhat coherent and there were not vast rifts, however, Marsh (2018, p.288) argues that Trump’s policy “America first” is less coherent with “Global Britain” when it is compared with Obama’s policy which is based on multilateralism, international institutions, and free trade. After the Second World War there were sides/poles within the international system, however Trump era is crucial to understand because America has lost its allies including Britain at some point.

Kocamaz (2020) argues that there are major fragmentations between the USA and its European allies:

Erosion of the common values system, problems in NATO concerning the contribution to NATO budget by European countries, European desire of taking the control back in security policies, disagreements between USA and Europe on the nuclear energy issue concerning Iran, polarization of USA and Europe on the Israel-Arab conflict and disagreements on Syrian Civil War, uncompromisable economic and trade policy” (Kocamaz, 2020, p. 229-246).

 There were many issues between the USA and Europe, in fact there were questions about whether Trump has destroyed the ideology that prevailed the Cold War (Schwartz, 2018). If the relations between Trump’s America and Germany is to be examined, it could be understood. Trump’s lack of cooperation, his aggressive methods towards Russia, China, Iran and also his aggressive accusations to his allies in the context of NATO budget. Merkel and Macron made their speeches; Merkel said: “We must take our fate into our own hands, and must fight for our future” (Kocamaz, 2020, p. 237). As for Macron, he said, “EU could no longer rely on USA on defense policy” and he gave signals to promulgate PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) (Ibid, p. 237). Also, Macron’s words: “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO” (The Economist, November 7th, 2019) are highly crucial for showing the ever larging polarizations between “allies”.

  • Concluding Remarks

The polarization and fragmentation in the politics exist for more than 60 years. Since the end of the Second World War, there has been a bipolar system in the globe, so was in the Europe. European policies were decided and implemented by the politicians who embraced more Europeanist approach or more Atlanticist approach. European politics as we know owes its existence to these challenges and disputes. Atlanticism and Europeanism became Europe’s pushing and pulling factors, one could call these “yin and yang”. Thinking and understanding the European integration and European fragmentation would be impossible without understanding Atlanticism and Europeanism means for Europe.

Batuhan GÜNEŞ

European Studies Intern / Avrupa Çalışmaları Stajyer


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[1] E3 bloc consists of representatives from three different states: Germany, France, and Britain. E3 bloc and Iran has reached an agreement on 21October 2003, and Iran assured the others that it would abide by the IAEA additional protocol and suspend all uranium enrichment activities.


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