It was not that long ago that scholars and analysts confidently foretold the imminent arrival of a new Europe, whose economic weight and population would all but ensure that the continent would be a global leader and a counterweight to the United States not just in economic but also geostrategic terms. To read such forecasts today is to be reminded yet again of how myopic such grand projections of the inevitability of systemic change can be. Today the common European project is in serious trouble; the past enthusiasm for ever-deeper federalism and supra-nationalism is fast giving way to warnings of nationalism, the breakdown of authority, and the deepening public rebellion against the elites.
In the third of Europe’s defining ballots of 2017, Germany has now revealed a more fractured political scene; its election results are of a piece with a larger trend across Europe toward political fragmentation and realignment (as in the Netherlands and France). Likewise, judging by the early returns, the Austrian Right is poised to create the new government, not just because the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by 31-year old Sebastian Kurz, appears to be the clear winner but also because the nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ) is on track possibly to become the ÖVP’s coalition partner for the first time in 17 years. Subject to the final vote count, the FPÖ could become the second-largest party in the parliament, eclipsing the Social Democrat Party. As winter approaches, Europe’s policy choices going forward are forming into an interlocking azimuth that, once set, will define the continent’s political landscape in the next decade.
Four key currents, now in plain view, are reshaping Europe and redefining not just the grand vision that once underpinned the European project, but also the continent’s security, politics, ethnic composition, and culture.
First, the vision of a federated Europe that only a decade ago was celebrated as the way of the future is no more, having been replaced with various and sundry plans for a “multi-tiered Europe,” as though changing the way we talk about the European Union project will help to preserve the consensus on its essential components. This is the most significant development to watch in the coming decade, as it represents the sum total of several factors impacting the continent, including deepening economic fissures across Europe, MENA migration, and the re-nationalization of political discourse, with the attendant concerns, especially in Western Europe, about structural shifts in ethnicity and culture. The customary elite invocation of “more Europe,” heard especially in Germany and France, in fact speaks to the political establishment’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to accept the reality that resurgent nationalism across the Continent is no longer a fringe factor but rather an increasingly powerful public sentiment. At the same time, the electorate in these two countries, which have traditionally served as the engine of the European project, is anything but satisfied with business as usual. The Christian Democrats’ poorest performance since 1949, the implosion of the SPD, and the emergence of the Alternative für Deutschland as the third largest party in the country, a party which only a few years ago did not even exist, speaks volumes about how fluid traditional German politics has become. In France, the election of the non-establishment Emmanuel Macron as the country’s President and the doubling of public support for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the last balloting are further indicators of the deepening crisis of traditional elite politics.
Second, no issue has redefined Europe’s political future in the next decade more than the the surge in MENA migration in 2015-16. Its effects continue to ripple across the Continent, bringing into view long-term changes in European culture and politics, including the bifurcation of the European Union into western and eastern halves when it comes to immigration. Europe’s largest migration wave since World War II—and one whose arrivals are for the first time overwhelmingly from outside the continent—will become an increasingly urgent factor as the Continent’s indigenous populations continue to age and diminish in number. The politics of the immigration crisis in Europe isn’t just marked by the rise of the AfD and the continued anti-immigrant backlash at the state and local level. In a sign of what lies ahead, Chancellor Merkel was compelled to accept a 200,000-person annual limit on immigrants coming to Germany just to keep the CDU’s sister party, the Bavarian CSU, on board. While Merkel’s approach to the continued inflow over the past two years has been the positive “Wir schaffen das!” (“We can manage!”), the last election results mark a clear end to the Wilkommenskultur of yesteryear.
Germany is only the most recent focal point of a longer process of migration into Europe from outside the Continent. Various European cities, and increasingly towns and even villages, have become home to largely un-acculturated “suspended communities,” even as the gap in labor market participation between those migrants born in the EU and those outside last year continues to grow (according to Eurostat). Despite the concurrent rise of terror attacks across Europe and migrants’ shifting entry points into Europe (plug one border leak and another springs up elsewhere), Europe’s governments appear unable to devise a broader strategy to address the issue at its source—namely, in the MENA region. The unacknowledged reality is that Europe’s southern border no longer runs along the Mediterranean Sea but through the Sahel and beyond, deep into Africa. More importantly, given that the rate of deportation for migrants whose asylum claims have been turned down is lower than 30 percent on average, the Continent is faced with the prospect of a large and rapidly growing illegal diaspora that is likely to remain in the gray zone of E.U. economies for some time.
One development in intra-E.U. politics that has been driven by the immigration policies of individual governments has been the emergence of a de facto “gray fault line” between the West and the East. The majority of new E.U. members in Central and Eastern Europe have refused to allow any resettlement of new waves of immigrants on their territories. As there is no indication of any significant compromise on the issue, this bifurcation within the E.U. is likely to become the new normal in the coming decade, especially if E.U. Commission President Jean-Claud Junker’s vision of a “two-tiered” Europe becomes the reigning strategy. The end result of this approach is likely to be a “Europe of clusters.” States will align differently on issues related to national security and economic priorities, and regionalism and bilateralism will increasingly become the default option. This trend will be further aggravated by Brexit, as the departure from the European Union of its second-largest economy will dramatically upset the already tenuous balance between the Eurozone and non-euro members of the European Union, taking down the non-euro states to a mere 11 percent of the European Union’s total GDP.
Third, the return of state-on-state conflict along NATO’s periphery is about more than simply Russia’s bid to reassert its influence in the post-Soviet sphere. It has forced Europe to revisit fundamental questions about the utility of military power and, by extension, the role of European militaries going forward. The question of whether Europeans will in fact generate meaningful military capabilities is becoming ever-more important, as Brexit will lead one of Europe’s key militaries to refocus on NATO and, by extension, on its alliance with the United States. Notwithstanding the various and sundry declarations by European NATO members that they will meet the NATO requirement of 2 percent of GDP, there are precious few indications that Europe is likely either to generate meaningful military capabilities or to change its overall military posture. The issue is not only the unwillingness of the majority of European governments to redirect resources to defense, but also the overall public attitude toward the use of military force. Only the so-called eastern flank countries such as the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania have demonstrated that their societies are willing to prepare for the possibility of an armed conflict.
A subset of the problem of Europe’s increasingly exposed borders is the growing crisis brewing along the southern flank. In the south, a key challenge for Europe’s future will be the ongoing decomposition of Atatürk’s legacy in Turkey and potentially the progressive Islamization of this key NATO ally and gatekeeper of Europe amid rising migration flows. The deteriorating relations between Turkey and several key European states, especially Germany, are not likely to be mended any time soon in the coming decade. This is especially so if the Kurdish question is put on the agenda of a larger regional settlement. Turkey has been determined for decades to prevent the formation of a Kurdish state, which it sees as a direct threat to its territorial integrity and national security. How relations between Turkey and Europe evolve in the coming years will be decisive for European security in the long term. Most important of all, it will be a key variable in determining how MENA migration into Europe evolves over time.
The fourth challenge is the rising tide of nationalism and separatism across Europe, foreshadowed by the recent referendum on and struggle over Catalonia’s independence. Decades of multicultural policies across Western Europe, pushed by large segments of European elites, have not resulted in the formation of a pan-European identity but rather have generated a backlash that has pushed ethno-nationalism again to the forefront of European politics. The net outcome may very well be a push for the progressive fragmentation of European states; as central governments push back against these movements, it seems doubtful that the relative domestic tranquility Europe has enjoyed on the national front will endure. This pattern of internal fracturing and potential instability is likely to affect Western Europe more, in part because this is where the multicultural experiment has played itself out the most, and also because the region today is fast becoming a place where distinct cultures and religions, both indigenous and those of immigrant communities, are competing for space and recognition. The strain between Europe’s Muslims, on the one hand, and its Christian and secular population, on the other, is bound to accelerate as Muslim immigrant numbers continue to grow over the next decade. This phenomenon may in turn further accelerate the process of Europe’s bifurcation between West and East.
The path that the European project has travelled since the end of the Cold War appears to be at an end. The idea that a treaty-based organization originally rooted in the idea of a shared economic space can be transformed into a quasi-federal superstate of sorts that can both “widen and deepen” the continent’s integration has all but run its course. It has not done so as a result of external pressure, war or an economic calamity, but because the notion that a centralized bureaucracy in Brussels that lacked a popular mandate could replace the national interests and priorities of each and every E.U. member state proved to be as fantastic as the idea that one could implement a common monetary policy across the Eurozone while leaving fiscal decisions to individual governments.
The key challenges outlined above have yet to fully register with Europe’s political leaders. Hence, in the absence of strategic engagement by Europe’s capitals aimed at addressing rather than merely contemplating the problem, the coming decade is likely to generate more conflict and fragmentation. The next decade is shaping up to become the most demanding and complex yet, and Europe’s capitals remain as reluctant as ever to move beyond a reactive, crisis-management style of governance.
The twilight of a “quasi-federalized Europe” does not mean that Europe cannot have a common future. The need for a common European market, for increased trade, and for the pooling and sharing of resources on security and defense is as vitally important today as it was in 1951, when the Treaty of Paris launched the larger European idea. But to get there will require more than mindless repetition of the mantra of “more Europe”—and more than admonishments of those who question the policy course set in Brussels. Rather than clinging to a formula that is increasingly being rejected by the citizenry, the managers of the European project need to embrace genuine give-and-take negotiations between E.U. member-states about the principles the project should be based on. This discussion should be built on the foundation of respect for national sovereignty and state interests, yet it should also unabashedly confirm the idea of a Europe that is greater than the sum of its parts.