Apparently, editors of the Oxford Dictionary could not come to an agreement on how to describe the nature of the current European crisis. They just picked two words from European headlines as an easy way out: Grexit and Brexit. Grexit is about Greece’s inability to repay its financial debt and its threat to quit the eurozone if Europe doesn’t pay its bills. Brexit is about Britain’s perennial dilemma on whether to remain within the European Union. Both questions remain unresolved. Actually, Europe’s crisis is much more serious than what a journalistic coinage can describe. The Oxford Dictionary cannot translate what the body of a little Syrian boy, in a red t-shirt, washed ashore the Turkish coast conveys. Aylan Kurdi, in his silence, has certainly shaken the world’s conscience.
Europe, however, seems to be fairly divided on whether to admit more immigrants from West Asia and northern Africa. The immigration debate in most of Europe is more serious than realised at the moment, and its ramification can threaten the liberal and democratic values that post-war Europe has been trying to evolve.
In many European countries, rightwing groups have sprung up to oppose immigration, particularly the entry of Muslims into predominantly Christian Europe. Many in Europe are worried that immigrants will bring down wages or that local people will lose jobs to them. Even if governments succeed in tackling the flow of immigrants, their settlement will take a long time and the resultant social tensions might upset political stability in vulnerable European countries.
Over the years, as the EU has evolved, Germany has undoubtedly emerged as its leader. This is mainly because of the size of the country and its economy. It is on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s word that many other countries have agreed to admit some refugees, even with trepidation about tensions developing among their people.
At another plane, the emergence of Germany as the EU’s leader scares Britain more than a continental embrace. What Britain wants is a leadership role in the EU, which France and Germany will never agree to let it have. Britain, on the other hand, doesn’t want to get submerged in Europe simply as a voting member. If the present trend of immigration to Europe continues, Britain could, by referendum in a couple of years, decide to remain outside, thus closing the doors to incoming refugees. Few people in Europe will shed a tear, though, if Britain leaves the EU. Most Europeans feel that Britain’s heart is in the US and can never think European.
Will Jean Monnet’s dream for creating one Europe without borders survive? Greece’s exit from the eurozone is not of great consequence, but Britain opting out will have wide repercussions. One reason will be the re-emergence of Germany as the sole leader of the EU or Europe, a prospect that Britain has never relished. A silent watcher of the European scene is Russia, which, under President Vladimir Putin’s leadership, is making efforts to revive its image. The message of Putin’s recent foray into the Ukraine cannot be lost on European nations, big or small.
The US overtook Europe after the latter went through two world wars. Now, Europe has to contend with a rising China as well as an upcoming India. Europe, as a continent, has to worry that its place in world affairs is not as prominent as it used to be. Is Europe a declining power? This is the question many have been asking in world capitals lately.
Its civilisational impulses are still intact, but for Europe to matter more in the 21st century, it needs more than a vision. It needs leadership and political will.
The writer, a former editor in chief of ‘The Indian Express’, is an MP in the Rajya Sabha and advisor, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi