Is Europe entering a dangerous new era of instability? Since the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union it has not seemed so vulnerable to hostile forces.
The accumulation of external threats and internal divisions, along with a weakened U.S. security alliance, the ruthless Russian overthrow, and China’s power-hungry struggle for Western values are exposing fundamental strategic weaknesses.
Europe increasingly resembles a democratic island surrounded by an anarchic world, where a growing wave of authoritarianism, impunity and breach of international rules threatens to overwhelm it. Some European leaders understand this, especially French President Emmanuel Macron, yet long-term policy solutions are avoided. For example, the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, the use of immigrants to put pressure on the EU is clearly savage.
It worked, however, in the sense that interim German Chancellor Angela Merkel telephoned him for a conversation, ending his isolation after the coup. Her one-sided demarche Understandably angry Baltic states. It was a release for a thug, not a lasting solution.
Speaking of bandits, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s constant threat to Ukraine threatens to spread the flames. The recent border increase of 90,000 Russian troops could be shocking, similar to provocations in the Donbas and Black Sea last spring. If not, Europe will only blame itself. Putin’s importance stems directly from his de facto acceptance of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Instability on the periphery of Europe lies in the Balkans amid fears that Bosnia and Herzegovina is slipping back into conflict 26 years after the Dayton peace agreement.
Revived ethnic nationalism, embodied by Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik, is nurtured by Belgrade and Moscow. A bigger strategic problem is the inability of the EU to fulfill promises closer integration with the region.
Europe’s relationship with Turkey, a key goalkeeper, is also dysfunctional, thanks in part to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, its deeply uncomfortable president. When he threatened EU members Greece and Cyprus last year, Macron sent naval forces to the eastern Mediterranean. The rest of Europe sat in her hands.
Erdogan is also involved in Ukraine and the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict lit up again last week. However, Brussels pays him to keep Middle Eastern refugees away, so he hardly dares to challenge him.
The volatile circle of instability that grips Europe has more to do with an actual or potential armed conflict. One of his biggest dilemmas is migration. Despite the severe Syrian refugee crisis of 2015, the EU still lacks an agreed humanitarian policy. This guarantees more problems on the road. One of the main opponents, ironically, is Poland, which rejects immigrant quotas. Faced with border chaos, however, its right-wing hypocritical leaders, who, like Hungarians Viktor Orbn, are in a fierce battle with Brussels over rule of law and democracy issues, appealed for EU solidarity.
Of concern, too, is the way in which European public opinion seems to have accepted the illegal objections and routine mistreatment of asylum seekers, whether in camps in Libya or on the beaches of Greece, in violation of EU law. This reflects another self-inflicted wound: the growing influence of xenophobic, right-wing populists and the re-normalization of ultra-nationalist politics around 1914 across Europe.
If Europeans are not going to defend Western democratic values in a world dominated by Donald Trump clones and copyists, who will? Sadly, they can not watch from Britain. No longer a trusted friend, the UK under Boris Johnson, sniping and mocking from the sidelines, has become another peripheral conflict area for the EU. Britain is more irritating than an ally.
Defense Minister Ben Wallace used the Belarus-Ukraine related crises last week to advance the Brexit agenda and sign arms deals with Warsaw and Kiev. The UK reportedly sent troops, not humanitarian aid, to the Polish border.
The era of European instability also owes much to events beyond its control. Few predict that Trump will try to blow up what Franklin D Roosevelt called the arsenal of democracy and the Western alliance with him. He can try again.
Likewise, few predicted, as Merkel agrees now, that China would emerge as a dominant, economically aggressive, anti-democratic global competitor.
US President Joe Biden assures Europeans that NATO, even after Afghanistan, is as vital as ever. But his tense video summit with China Xi Jinping last week showed where his real focus lies.
Putin sees this and smells blood. Gas supply in Europe is a pressure point. Covert cyber attacks are another. Russia’s reckless test of anti-satellite missiles, ignoring European security concerns, was the first recorded act of hooliganism in outer space.
Europe’s inability to make Putin pay a serious price for aggression in Georgia and Crimea, the destruction of Russian democracy, his foreign interference in the election, and his deadly attacks on Alexei Navalny and other opponents on European soil, heighten the sense of fall.
In China, there is nothing close to a united front. Such a weakness encourages other predators. So what to do?
Europe, as always, is a divided home. Eastern Europeans continue to believe in Washington rather than Brussels, despite clear signs of another transatlantic rupture if Democrats lose the White House in 2024.
The EU bureaucracy is poorly run, its parliament toothless. Germany lacks a proven leader. In France, Macron faces bad spring elections scrap against the far right backed by Russia.
However, it is Macron’s ideas for increasing European strategic political, security and military autonomy, and a stronger EU, more fiscally and economically integrated, that offer the most hopeful way forward.
EU defense ministers discussed last week a Strategic Compass plan to enhance shared skills. But the agreement on the proposed rapid and similar deployment forces seems far away.
As France prepares to take over the EU presidency, will other leaders recognize this critical moment and support Macron? In a world of scary sharks, snakes and monsters, Europe’s independence, cohesion and values are on the line like never before.
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