The attack near the UK Parliament on March 22nd this year by 52-year-old Khalid Masood that killed four innocent people and injured over forty innocent people is a stark reminder of the deteriorating situation in not just UK, but in Europe at large. The continuing episodes of terror strikes in the streets of London, Paris, Brussels, Frankfurt and elsewhere in Europe are not the only burning issue haunting policy makers in Europe.
The continent seems to be firmly in the grip of multiple deep impacting forces that can change the face of Europe forever. The rise of Islamic terror, prolonged economic downturn, Euro-skepticism and the potential breakdown of relations with the US could push the continent over the edge. And quickly. This is cause for concern.
Some historical perspectives on Europe is in order. Europe has long set the global standards for state welfare programs and has been a beacon of liberal thinking in a post-world-war-II world. Minimum wages, state funded health care, subsidized/ state funded education, open borders, ban on capital punishment – you name it and Europe was leading the way in liberal welfare economics and thought leadership.
But the developments in the recent past seem to have put the Europe of yore to shame. With calls for stopping immigration, border walls, restricting intra-Europe labor movement etc., it seems to be unmistakably altering course. As long as the economies were strong and resources were aplenty, European liberalism and altruism had thriven. Not anymore.
Unemployment in European Union has been running high for the last several years following the recession of 2008-2009. In fact, unemployment at some EU member nations like Spain, Greece, Italy – to mention just a few – have been at never seen historical highs. With tanking economies, all surplus and generosity have vanished and now self-preservation seems to overshadow everything – from immigration, to economic and strategic policy decisions. Many of the recent social and political turbulence are symptoms of this deeper economic malaise. With this trend, in just a few years, Europe will slowly but unmistakable lose its sheen.
Radical Islamic terror is another menace that Europe is confronted with. Not a day passes without some report of an act of terror or police action against the terrorists. That the terrorists are able to strike periodically, despite the best counter-terror investments speaks of the magnitude of the problem. The following pic (courtesy: Express.co.uk) highlights the toll of the spread of the scourge of radical Islamic terror across the continent.
Radicalization and high unemployment among local youth as well as the recent influx of Muslim immigrants under the age of 35 has only acerbated the problem. The high incidence of crimes against women in Sweden and Germany has shocked all. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has stressed the need for the immigrants to respect local laws. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party has, although belatedly, called for stricter rules for Islamic preachers and a ban on foreign funding of mosques.
Unfortunately, Europe cannot wish away terrorism. Experience of countries like India suggests that it is a war of attrition and states have to be vigilant over the long haul. Europe needs to remain united and share intelligence and expertise to win. However, recent statements by Prime Minister May suggests otherwise. She has linked the issue of terror cooperation with Brexit and has already sent alarm bells ringing in Brussels.
Thirdly, Europe has always been a lead player in projecting military power across the world. Together with the US, Europe has been part of the prime military and economic leadership - the so called ‘West’. The NATO alliance is central to this power manifestation that has successfully policed the world and determined strategic outcomes, regime changes and what have you.
With Trump in office in the US, the future of NATO is on the negotiating Table. Trump has openly called on Europe to pay its fair share of the cost of upkeep of the alliance. Although, Trump has since clarified that he supports NATO, it is anybody’s guess as to what the future will hold. But more important from Europe’s point of view is where it stands in the pecking order in the alliance. One thing seems to be certain. It will not be business as usual and Europe will have to pay to stay, at the very least.
The EU was again in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission spoke of breaking up of the US. This unbelievably shocking statement came at a time when the US President Trump has openly stated his disdain for the Union and actively encouraged Britain’s exit. It is the worst diplomatic faux pas a senior functionary of that rank can commit. You don’t mess with the world’s sole super power and get away with it. The fall out will be keenly watched.
Whichever way this is looked at, it is indeed the rock bottom of relations between two important and powerful bodies in the world. It is very difficult, under the current climate, to see improvement in relations between them. In this clash with the titan, there will be only one winner – and it is the mightier US. The loser in the bargain is obviously the EU. In the coming months, one can expect a frosty pond that will widen the chasm between the allies.
In another disturbing development, Turkey vent its anger against Denmark and Germany in a manner that has startled the diplomatic corps world over. Upset over the ban imposed by Denmark in preventing its ministers from meeting expatriate Turks, Turkey called them “racists” and “Nazis”. These epithets are rarely used and heard in diplomatic exchanges, whatever be the provocation. What equally surprised observers was the almost effete response from Europe. The Europe of a decade ago, would have called for sanctions against Turkey at a minimum, if not military strikes. But that points to a weakening Europe and Turkey definitely seems to have sensed this.
Europe is a huge economy and a major military power – individually and collectively and most certainly may have the resilience to withstand choppy waters. But the deep impacting forces that are acting in confluence will indeed be a test of every fiber of strength and ingenuity the Union possesses. The biggest worry is the continuing weak economy that could prove to be the tipping point. Europe desperately needs help and must stay united to survive.
Every nation, alliance and trade grouping constantly faces problems. But it is the ability to resolve them that will determine their longevity. The deep impacting problems described above, by themselves, may not be an existential threat. But what is really disconcerting observers is the absence of statesmanship and the inability of European leaders to reach out -bilaterally and multilaterally – and hammer out policy prescriptions that will meet the changing aspirations of newer generation that has suddenly discovered its nationalistic pride. It is equally important to reach out across the pond to the US and partner the Trump administration, rather than confront it. But what we are hearing are shrill jingoistic dialects that create mores fissures and unite none.
While it is too early and almost churlish to predict the demise of the EU in the short term, it definitely does not seem to have a great future even beyond the medium term.