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Europe on knife edge of uncertainty, maybe catastrophe

21 Comments

March 2017 is an uncomfortable time to be a European. Almost wherever you look, traditional certainties are unraveling in the face of a perfect storm of crises.

This week Britain will trigger Article 50, firing the starting gun on its departure from the European Union. A second referendum on Scottish independence will likely follow, with speculation growing that Northern Ireland might now be more open to leaving the UK and joining with the Irish Republic.

In Holland, right-winger Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party may get the largest share of the vote in the general election, even though the collaboration of more mainstream Dutch parties will likely keep Wilders out of power. In France, Marine Le Pen and her National Front will almost certainly finish second in the first round of presidential elections this spring, although centrist Emmanuel Macron looks set to beat her in the second round.

Further east and north in Europe, worries about an increasingly assertive Russia still dominate. Sweden this month announced it is reintroducing conscription – abolished in 2010 – to bolster its military against the perceived threat from Moscow. Finland – which has maintained it throughout – is conducting military exercises aimed at pushing back against hybrid warfare techniques. In the Baltic states, NATO is in the midst of its largest European deployment since the Cold War.

Nor has the crisis for the European single currency gone away – indeed, having struggled along ever since the financial crisis of 2008, it may be entering a new and volatile stage. The next Italian election – perhaps as soon as June – could well hand the balance of power to political parties hostile to remaining in the currency bloc, which many Italians blame for years of slow growth and rising unemployment.

Not everything is collapsing quite as fast as naysayers might suggest. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party has certainly grown fast, particularly in parts of the deeply frustrated East. But it still seems unlikely to grab genuine political power in the German federal election in September. The latest polls predict it winning barely 11 percent of the vote, compared to 34 percent for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and 32 percent for her rival Social Democrats and its challenger for the chancellorship, Martin Schulz.

It’s a reminder of just how much Europe’s hard right is struggling. Europe's left remains in disarray – witness the travails of Britain’s Labour Party. Still, only two European countries – Hungary and Poland – have governments that could be described as seriously right-wing. And even they have often struggled to win battles many thought would be easy. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called a referendum on banning further migrants from outside Europe in October last year, he failed to get a high enough turnout to make the results binding.

Europe may not be unraveling, but it does seem in a state of semi-permanent crisis. For almost a decade, European “crisis summits” – in which leaders convene over a weekend to talk over issues such as the single currency or EU reform – have been the norm, and few have produced particularly incisive results.

Much seems a matter of leadership. At both a national and regional level, Europe’s leaders appear to be suffering a crisis of confidence, popularity and – at worst – political legitimacy.

Europe’s state of uncertainty is something Russian President Vladimir Putin has been more than happy to exploit. There are plenty within the national security establishments of both Europe and the United States who believe Russia’s intervention in Syria was partly designed to ramp up the refugee crisis, straining Europe’s politics to its limits. At the very least, Russian-backed media outlets have been happy to fan the flames of instability and extremism, sometimes making up stories, sometimes merely exaggerating them and exacerbating already growing tensions.

Events in the United States have arguably added to that uncertainty. In an interview with Reuters last month, President Donald Trump surprised some Europe watchers by expressing his support for the European Union and its institutions. That’s a view shared by much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, if only because they fear the consequences if the EU unravels. Some of those around Trump, however – particularly the ideologues such as chief strategist Steve Bannon – view the EU as anathema to their worldview, and would love to see it fail.

The rest of the world isn’t helping, either. The growing row between the Turkish and Dutch governments over a canceled Turkish political rally in Rotterdam – which saw Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan compare the Dutch to Nazis – is seen to have only strengthened support for Wilders. Terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, Berlin and elsewhere – or even simply reports of suspected potential attacks such as one in Germany this week – fuel a sense of division wildly out of proportion to the threat.

The real question is whether that narrative becomes entirely self-fulfilling. Right now, Europe’s institutions have the distinct smell of collapse around them, but their resilience – so far at least – remains striking.

The various European projects now under pressure – the EU, NATO, the single currency, even the basic political institutions and establishments that administer each country – are imperfect. But they have also delivered some remarkable results, not least keeping the peace on the continent for more than six decades and – broadly, at least – delivering effective welfare and rights to their people.

European liberal democracy is often hypocritical, and sometimes ineffective. But by and large, the citizens of EU countries have spent recent decades protected from some very bad things, in particular excesses of state power, something not true of Putin’s Russia – let alone the fascist regimes of the thirties or Soviet-dominated governments that ruled Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.

Europe is certainly becoming a less friendly continent, particularly for those who are different – as refugees now held in increasingly horrific conditions in the EU border states such as Serbia have noticed. So have migrant communities across the EU.

It’s hard to say where things go from here. While the institutions of European integration offer the best hope, countries can hardly be blamed for taking matters into their own hands when it comes to defending themselves. An article in the Economist last week asked whether Germany might be willing to break one of its last and greatest taboos, and launch its own nuclear weapons program to protect itself against an ever more uncertain future.

Somehow, Europe has to convince itself things are not quite as bad as they look and find some optimistic route forward. Otherwise they might get worse than anyone is willing to contemplate.

© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2017.

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

21 Comments
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How dare citizens try to use something as crazy as democracy to choose their own future.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

garbage article.. chill on the war mongering there

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Northern Ireland SHOULD be back in the Republic and i'm an Englishman. Scotland however, voted to remain part of the union and there were no conditions set for the outcome of the EU ref, they didn't even try to set their original indyref after the EU ref, so i'm afraid you should live with that Scotland. SNP desperation!

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Scotland will always be better off with the UK than a separate nation.

Not to be too pedantic about this but I have to point out that Scotland is already a separate nation. As are the other 3 nations that make up the UK. It's just not a fully independent sovereign nation. This is why the 2014 referendum question was carefully drafted to ask: 'Should Scotland be an independent country?' rather than simply 'Should Scotland be a country?' or 'a separate country?'

As far as always being better off in the UK, I'd say that depends on whether oil reaches $150 per barrel again.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Finns and Germans I speak to regularly, all believe that UK will remain in the EU, the membership will be subject to some realignment, but one way or another from a economic standpoint the union will not collapse. I don't subscribe to Peter Apps pessimism. I believe political ideology has become polarised because politicians have taken the electorate for granted.

Look at the way David Cameron handed a life peerage to Douglas Hogg (Lord Moat), or Labours Jacqui Smith's who thought nothing of declaring her sister spare room as a main residence, so to claim expenses on the family home.

EU, that all 28 member states are being dealt a well deserved kick up the backside, and the challenge is to sit up and take notice and stop the cheap rhetoric, make good on some of the pledges and promises.

As for Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, economically Scotland is dependent on subsidies from the UK tax payer as much as the UK is tied economically and politically to the European Union and visa versa. Once the negotiations begin it will all become painfully obvious and both will have to fudge there way out of it.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

or the chaos around scandal-hit French socialist presidential challenger François Fillon.

Fillon isn't the socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon is. (Fillon is a conservative/ traditional right candidate).

Very poor article, full of clichés.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Europe’s state of uncertainty is something Russian President Vladimir Putin has been more than happy to exploit.

"Happy?" How would this person know? And exploit? How? Oh....

There are plenty within the national security establishments of both Europe and the United States who believe Russia’s intervention in Syria was partly designed to ramp up the refugee crisis

So the happy exploitation is basically the opinions of a few unnamed stooges and spies (i.e. professional liars). And the author considers that enough? This kind of rubbish is all too typical of news these days. And while it may be an opinion piece, it is read as factual by many. Just reaffirming existing stereotypes, and adding a dash of big bad Russia (without a dash of evidence).

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Have to admit I particularly took offense at this "Europe is certainly becoming a less friendly continent, particularly for those who are different – as refugees now held in increasingly horrific conditions in the EU border states such as Serbia have noticed. So have migrant communities across the EU."

Am not saying good ol' Europe's treatment of refugees has been spot on but overall I think they have done a pretty good job (ppl rescued at sea, shelter/food/money/assistance provided, $ for those who later decided to go home, legal assistance, a new adoptive country for some etc). Not bad for a continent which has its on pbms, for countries (all south Europe) with double digits unemployment figures etc.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

There is no let up in an oil price spike for Scotland....

Oil at $40 No Problem as U.S. Drillers Snub OPEC With Hedges

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-03-14/oil-at-40-no-problem-as-u-s-drillers-snub-opec-with-hedges

1 ( +1 / -0 )

@Zichi

Indeed. Nato membership is a good point (but thankfully the Scots are such nice people that they have few enemies)

I'm of Scottish, Irish and Welsh descent, no English blood, a pure Kelt.

I'm not Scottish (or English) myself but I'm a big fan of Scotland after spending many years living in the UK. If the financial case makes sense and the Scots want it, I think you should go for independence. The long history of Scotland as an independent nation pre-1707, the rich cultural legacy, all the great Scots like Adam Smith, and the huge Scottish diaspora (which identifies solely as Scottish rather than British) seem to be crying out for an independent nation. There's a certain sense of inevitability to it. Of course, the relationship with the UK would probably continue to be incredibly close, much as the unique relationship between Ireland and the UK. The only practical consequence the UK would face from an independent Scotland would be a new like-minded friend to vote with them at the UN and other international organisations. A win-win in my opinion.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

@zichi

You can have entirely English blood and still be a pure Celt. South-east England's chock-full. The Thames has a Celtic name.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

@Zichi

That's certainly true, but you'll have to forgive me if I no longer trust the polls. SNP support is still quite high and I think that also counts for something. I wonder how many of the people answering 'No' in the latest polls are actually saying 'No, not now'. That would be very understandable in the current chaos surrounding Brexit.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Fair enough. I was confusing Ancient Briton with Celt. Still, my surname's French, so I've no axe to grind ; )

1 ( +1 / -0 )

What a load of hysterical nonsense.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Northern ireland might now be more open to leaving the UK and joining with the republic of ireland.

There would be riots if that happened.

Things would go back 40 years to the bad old days.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

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