Europe is preoccupied with the rise in immigration, the threat of militant Islamism, the lurking perils in the banking systems of some of its key countries and the details of the negotiations between the European Commission and Britain on the latter’s exit from the European Union.
These concerns are crucial to Europe’s political-economic landscape. But they reflect Europe’s internally-focused perspective, a derivative of the three objectives that have preoccupied European leaders in the past six decades. The first was moving the continent from the acute hostility and violence that marked its experiences in the first half of the 20th century, towards a harmonious existence, in which yesterday’s bitter enemies get integrated into an ever closer union. The second was bridging the gap, in socio-economic conditions, between the continent’s east and west. The third objective has been preserving for European citizens the relatively comfortable lifestyles they enjoy.
The pursuit of these objectives over the past decades, however, meant prioritising welfare over all other demands on resources. That was possible during the Cold War years, when European leaders were able to rely on the US to attend to the one risk that seriously challenged the European project: that the Soviet Union would dominate Europe. Europe was able to continue prioritising socio-economic development in the past quarter century, since the end of the Cold War, because the Soviet risk disappeared, the American protection guarantee remained and because the end of the Cold War triggered illusions about the arrival of a new order of perpetual peace and prosperity.
Europe achieved a stunning success. Yesterday’s enemies in Europe have now become the closest of allies. Socio-economic conditions in almost the whole of Europe range from the, arguably, best in the world (for example in Scandinavia and small countries, such as Austria) to the relatively good (even in large countries suffering from high unemployment, such as Italy and Spain). The expansion of the European Union in the 1990s and 2000s not only enlarged the project to almost the whole of the continent; it also widened the notion of the European ideal. Europe, arguably, has arrived at the pinnacle of social contracts humanity has ever known until now.
But the acute channeling of resources towards social betterment and economic development has reached its end. Europe can no longer rely on American protection only. Today’s America sees a new power (China) rising. And though America realises that its resources (and arguably its liberal, capitalist model) are superior to those of the new challenger, America cannot be sure or complacent. At this geo-strategic moment, America does not want to shoulder many legacy burdens, such as protecting allies that it deems rich and mature enough to carry a lot of that burden themselves. America also reckons that the key political (and potentially military) confrontations at this delicate historical moment will be in Asia, not Europe or the Mediterranean. The rhetoric and positions of the Trump administration aside, this view is here to stay, irrespective of whether the White House resident is Republican or Democrat.
The default European answer to the security question has, for almost a decade now, been an emphasis on the European project. The logic goes that the stronger the union, the more entrenched European values are, the more secure peace will be in the continent, the more prosperous Europe will become, the stronger its soft power will be. This soft power, the argument goes, will allow Europe to draw its neighbours (on one side, Russia and the countries that revolve in its orbit, and on the other side, Turkey and the Arab world) towards the European way of doing things.
Security here is also based on greed. A prosperous Europe constitutes the wealthiest market in the world. All rational neighbours, the European thinking goes, would want access to this market, and so would play by European rules.
From this perspective, many in Europe’s decision-making circles continue to focus resources and energy on confronting developments that disturb the continent’s socio-economic arrangements. And so, they see Brexit and immigration as key threats to that vision of secure, prosperous Europe.
Brexit is not such a threat. Trade relationships will settle down weighed by interests. European competitiveness will suffer, but to a limited degrees, because the industries that Britain has always excelled in (science, media, and the creative sectors) had traditionally low levels of integration with Europe. The main British economic integration with Europe in the last few decades was in industries that benefited a lot from European subsidies. Europe can well survive without a high level of integration there. Politically, that a major country such as Britain chooses to orient its future away from Europe is a blow to the union. But in reality, Britain’s exit from the union could strengthen it. Britain was always a reluctant member who assessed its membership through a transactional lens. Without Britain in, Europe can unmistakably define its union on the foundations upon which it was built: a common vision of the future and identity.
Immigration is also not an unmanageable problem for Europe. Between 2013 and 2016, private yet credible sources estimate the arrivals in Europe from the eastern and southern Mediterranean, to be about two million. A colossal number, but going down rapidly, to less than 150,000 in the first half of 2017. The panic and major incentives that drove hundreds of thousands to risk their lives to leave their homes will subside if the situations in Syria and Libya persist. Plus, the rise in right-wing parties across the whole of Europe will substantially reduce the avenues of legal, and the incentives for illegal, immigration.
The real peril facing Europe is in continuing with the mindset of the previous decades in the face of a world in transformation. Rising above the socio-economics of the here-and-now and taking ownership of defending Europe transcends European defence mechanisms, the future of Nato and bilateral military and security agreements. Defence here means developing a unified European vision about Europe’s desired place in this changing world.
The key question is: what’s Europe’s vision of its global position amid the rise of China and the US’s responses to that rise. Linked to that vision, Europe must articulate the objectives of the relationships with the two giants on its east and south: Russia and Turkey, two countries with major ambitions, historical grievances, and significant resources. Europe also needs to see the Arab world with a wider lens than that of the fear of migrants. Europe’s old neighbour is undergoing its biggest transformation since the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. The repercussions of that transformation will reach Europe, and no tactics of mitigation and isolation would work. Europe needs to engage with that transformation, for it presents threats and opportunities.
Such vision, objectives, and engagements will be the pillars of Europe’s new grand strategy. That strategy will, certainly, be markedly different from the currently dominant parametres of semi-cooked sanctions, accession agreements that bridge to nothing, and trade schemes of narrow scopes and potential.
This evolution of Europe’s approach to defence and foreign policy will prove difficult. Segments of Europeans will oppose it because it will mean less resources available to social support programmes. This evolution could even trigger more exits from the European Union, because they will truly test societies’ commitments to the “ever closer union”; it will force societies to think whether or not they see their futures as part of that union.
But this strategy and evolution of the continent’s approach to global positioning and defence is now a must. Without it, Europe will find itself a receiver, rather than a shaper, of events and realities with major influence on its security and future. And here, not only will Europe be threatened, but its union would have missed its true calling at a major historical moment.
The worst mistake Europe’s leaders could do now is to settle in the current comfort zone of thinking that preserving the continent’s wealth and way of life will shield it from the tornadoes of a global change. Students of the arts of self-defence learn early on that generating momentum gives you far more advantages than sustaining inertia.