The recent terrorist attack in Berlin and the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey add to the worries of the already struggling European policymakers. Europe has been dealing with a series of crises in the last eight years — they include the Greek economic crisis, the Eurozone troubles, the war in Ukraine, refugee influx and Brexit. Terrorist attacks in Belgium and France earlier this year — last year as well — and now in Germany show that Europe can no longer isolate itself from the insecurities in its neighbourhood.
The EU still has high levels of productivity and fairly high per capita incomes. Till 2008, the EU was seen as a very successful project. Almost every country in Central and Eastern Europe wanted to be a member of the EU; that was seen a sure ticket to prosperity and social security. The EU still plays a significant role in institutions dealing with global governance and climate change. However, the debt crisis in Greece, which later exacerbated into a crisis for the broader Eurozone, exposed faultlines in an institutional structure based on a single monetary policy. After austerity measures were implemented, there has been a decline in growth and rise in unemployment in many EU countries. This has led to both right-wing and left-wing populism across the region.
The EU has been a pioneer in regional integration. The Ukrainian crisis in 2013, however, exposed the limitations of the EU model of integration. The EU failed to secure an association with Ukraine but ended up damaging its longstanding strategic alliance with Russia. Russia may not be an “enemy” of the EU now but it’s certainly not a “strategic partner” either.
Europe, along with the US, was also involved in wars in West Asia and Afghanistan. Apart from destabilising regimes in Iraq, Libya and Syria, these wars produced millions of displaced people and created a refugee crisis. Europe has traditionally accepted immigrants, but the region’s current economic difficulties make them less welcome. A Pakistani was wrongly arrested for the Berlin attack. A rejected asylum seeker from Tunisia is reportedly a suspect. Such incidents will pressure pro-immigrant leaders like Angela Merkel and strengthen anti-immigrant sentiments in the region. At the same time, social and economic marginalisation has radicalised hundreds of Muslim youngsters in the continent. Many were attracted towards ISIS and have fought in Iraq and Syria. These radicalised young fighters are becoming a serious security threat.
There are also fears that a few radical fighters might have sneaked into Germany. Europe’s model of multiculturalism is under serious threat. Many European politicians hold the liberal approach towards immigrants responsible for the security crisis. But the real security challenge comes from home-grown radicalised youth. The spread of radicalism among the descendants of immigrants is a fallout of the failures of European societies to integrate them. Integrating immigrants into a liberal social and political order should be a long-term project. But most of the emerging populist leaders have no inclination for such projects.
There has been a distinct swing towards right-wing populism in Hungary and Poland. Populist parties have good prospects in the forthcoming elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands. After Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US, the right-wing National Front under Marine Le Pen is optimistic about its chances. There is also uncertainty about how Britain’s exit from the EU will be managed. A poorly organised deal will hurt both Britain and the EU.
After trying for almost two decades to forge an alliance with the EU, Turkey is now forging new friendships. Russia and Iran are its new allies. These developments will make resolution of security and refugee issues for Europe a little more complicated. If what was happening in Europe and its neighbourhood was not enough, the political changes in the US have created new uncertainties about the Transatlantic alliance. Donald Trump’s friendship with Vladimir Putin could strain EU’s traditional ties with the US.
The EU’s institutions, as well as its member states, have shown enough resilience in the past. The EU, after all, did manage to find a way out of the Greek and Eurozone crises. The rise of populism and the changing security situation, however, pose a different order of problems. They make rational policy choices very difficult. This was evident during the Brexit referendum and the debates that followed.