Europe must take control of its own destiny in 2017


Picture of Robert Cox
Robert Cox

Senior Advisor to the European Community Humanitarian Office (1993-1998) and former European Commission Representative to Turkey

The end is in sight for the Atlantic alliance as we have known it for 70 years. The European Union, both with and without Britain, must now prepare for the new multipolar world and decide whether it is in control of its own destiny.

In the days after the United States presidential inauguration, one cannot better the following Washingtonian commentator on the new administration’s international outlook: “[Donald Trump] has no mental map of the world, no strategy, no ideas but only irresistible and changeable impulses.”

It is foolish to believe that President Trump’s messages are purely rhetorical. Despite soothing commentaries to the contrary, he will make it clear that his campaign threats are for real. Europe can expect a sharp decline in American interest in its future welfare and prosperity. Washington will have less time for Europe’s security concerns. NATO, says Trump, is “obsolete”.

Meanwhile Russia, in its current imperial, nationalist mood, will seek opportunities to cause trouble in central and western Europe, providing compensatory distraction from economic failure at home. A (perhaps hypothetical) meeting of minds between Moscow and Washington will be at Europe’s expense.

But Europe continues to mess its own nest. Three important elections this year augur no good. A strong populist showing in the Netherlands in March, ushering Geert Wilders into a government coalition, will send a negative message throughout Europe and weaken the traditionally strong and exemplary Benelux component of the EU.

In May François Fillon seems most likely to enter the Elysée Palace, unless the outsider Emmanuel Macron beats him to it. But two factors could tip the scales in favour of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen in the second round: centre-right voters choosing the real right-wing over a light version, and a high abstention rate among centre-left and left-wing voters. Whatever the result, a new president could face substantial unrest spilling onto the streets.

In Germany, the era of ‘Super Merkel’ is over, although she will probably remain as Chancellor. The political scene will harden to the right. As elsewhere, the nationalist ‘wir/nous/us/noi’ phenomenon will gain further strength.

Europe continues to mess its own nest – three important elections this year augur no good

Throughout this period we can also expect intensified interference in the European political process through falsehoods, as has happened in the US. Part of this will be generated by RT (formerly Russia Today) and its adjuncts. Part will be of American origin, notably through Breitbart, now expanding activities in Europe and influenced by its former executive and current Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon.

On top of this comes Brexit, which is turning into an appalling distraction from more important business. Speculation about ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, or Swiss, Norwegian or other so-called solutions remains largely a waste of time. Brexit risks becoming ‘hard’ by default. Mrs May’s rambling, repetitive discourse of 17 January, tinted with jingoism, failed to address one fundamental point: how has EU membership prevented Britain from seizing the opportunities presented by being a member of the international community?

Other factors, currently understated, will add to the tension: growing irritation among continental partners blaming Brexit for their poor economic performance and falling investment; difficult domestic politics in other European countries resulting in little patience for British foibles; and irritation that Brexit crowds out the other important issues on the European agenda. All of this while eurozone woes continue; while bank weaknesses threaten growth and stability; while Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic further downgrade their commitment in Europe; and while NATO is undermined and Europe’s military is overstretched and incoherent.

Brexit must not be allowed to dominate Europe’s agenda to the detriment of everything else. There are other things to be done.

Immigration and inequality are two issues that will condition politics in Europe in the months and years to come.

Immigration alone will fill Europe’s demographic gap and provide the wherewithal to sustain its economy, its welfare system and the pensions of its ageing population. But ironically, it is older people who primarily resist it. Immigration has happened too rapidly and on too large a scale for economically stagnant Europeans to stomach it. Less discussed is that many immigrants are from the generation needed to engineer development prospects in their origin countries – which should be the priority of Europe’s neighbourhood policy.

With Trump’s words now meaning actions, it’s wake-up time for Europe

That same factor of economic stagnation draws increasing attention to inequalities. Swathes of Europeans feel the pinch of frozen or declining incomes, with accompanying losses of self-esteem and expectation, for themselves and for their kin. Meanwhile the media highlights corporate tax evasion, indecent wealth (be it of footballers or bankers) and indulgent consumption by those who can afford it. Many Europeans sense an ‘establishment’, economic and political, which is not bearing its share of social responsibility.

Neither of these two major threats lends itself to quick-fix solutions.

Could all this amount to a wake-up call? Or will the alarm clock fail and Europe sleep on?

There some urgent steps that Europe can take:

1. Re-evaluate defence infrastructure, while saving the assets of NATO after US withdrawal.
2. Pursue the Banking Union to tackle Europe’s banking weaknesses.
3. Accelerate renewal of inadequate infrastructure – through the Juncker Plan, national (particularly German) efforts and information technology investment.
4. Step up practical measures to make an Energy Union a reality.
5. Set up Erasmus II to foster artisan exchanges.
6. Make a start on the road to fiscal union by stepping up action against tax fraud and evasion.
7. Step up a programme to enact greater “subsidiarity” in the workings of the EU.
8. Spell out the realities of unity in diversity in the EU.
9. Plan for some dual-mandated national and European parliamentarians in the next European Parliament.
10. Pursue immigration policy with firm selectivity but backed by European efforts and better spending to integrate immigrants into European society (in areas such as language skills and technical training).
11. Renew efforts for development of neighbourhood countries economically, security-wise, particularly in the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East.

None of the steps above require treaty amendments, and all of them are practical objectives which people can understand.

Perhaps, as the EU’s history shows, it takes ‘external threats’ as now to bring Europeans to their senses. With Trump’s words now meaning actions, it’s wake-up time for Europe.

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