Europe ill-prepared to face instability

Friday 19/02/2016

The European project was set up on the basis of exporting stability not import­ing instability.
This principle, though, has been under attack since at least 2004, when Cyprus was admitted as a full member of the European Union without the conflict on the island having been settled. On that occasion, a mixture of a grubby deal over eastern expansion, together with the egoism of Europe’s leaders determined to be the ones responsible for a glorious ten-country expansion, carried the day. Arab elites and public opinion also need to be mindful of the self-preoccupation of their leaders.
As for the European gravy train, it just keeps chugging along.
It has been against such a backdrop that the European Union’s problems have multiplied — whether it is the prospect of increased Russian military expansionism in Ukraine, a continuing sluggish continental economy or Greek dysfunctionality in governance. Now, of greater interest to the Arab world, add the newer challenges of a trans-Mediterranean migration (with London security sources predicting a doubling in numbers in 2016) and an armed, jihadist movement lining up defiantly against a secular Europe.
The continent, the European Union and all that it stands for are under an existential threat.
The tragedy for Europe is that it has never been so poorly placed to try to face down such wide and persistent challenges. Europe’s one leader of longevity and stature, Angela Merkel, has partially squandered her deftness of touch at home by making the suggestion last summer that Germany admit an extra 1 million migrants, a majority assumed to be Syrian.
Germans are a conservative people, wary of unexpected change. That applies in particular when population flows are involved, especially if they are not ethnically German. Such a move appeared more akin to a piece of national, economic opportunism: Exploit the position of poor Syrians and others to rejuvenate the German economy with cheap labour. Even Britain’s sneaking respect for Merkel has been damaged by this self-inflicted political wound.
With Merkel distracted and weakened, that ought to leave more to do by way of interim European leadership to Britain and France, whether judged on the basis of population size, battle-hardened experience or on the ability to project force beyond their borders, whether we are talking about Syria or Afghanistan.
For those naturally sceptical, it is well to remember that the St Malo declaration, forged by Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac in December 1998, set out the terms from which intra-EU military cooperation might be forged. There is no doubt that the murderous events in Paris on November 13th have brought the two countries closer together and with it a St Malo-style potential for enhanced cooperation.
But there have been more warm words than institutional responses over the last eight weeks. With an EU referendum on continued British membership in the bloc due within the next two years — but expected in June 2016 — British Prime Minister David Cameron has been marching his troops in the wrong direction. It took the prime minister more than two years to persuade the British parliament to endorse his bombing of the Islamic State (ISIS) headquarters in Syria as well as Iraq and that was after most people agreed that fine distinctions between the boundaries of the two former Ba’athist powers had to all intents and purposes disappeared.
With Cameron having let it be known that he will step down well before the next scheduled election — in May 2020 — his authority was beginning to drain away even as he won the election in spring 2015. Britain is a diminished actor, at least on the diplomatic and security arenas.
The situation in France is even more uncertain, even precarious. In which direction will its unpopular and ineffectual head, François Hollande, now seek to lead his state and what of the country’s much vaunted bureaucratic elite?
All Hollande has had to show for the intervening period of diplomacy has been a series of portentous, high-level visits to the major capitals of the world, calling for a “war against terror”. The early signals from the French establishment are that Marine Le Pen and the French National Front still remain a bigger threat than a bunch of local hoodlum jihadis.
What are France’s choices for the next 12 months? Three spring to mind: One, make the country even more defiantly secular and face down the Islamist terror threat, even at the cost of more spasmodic attacks. Two, conciliate any further attacks from ISIS out of concern for whether the French people have the stomach to resist further violent waves of outrage. Three, muddle through politically, while trying to get to the end of 2016 without there being a comparable attack in Francophone Europe. Unlikely but not impossible. After all, there was no follow-up to the al-Qaeda attacks of 9/11 in the United States.
But to simply brace oneself and hope for the best sounds very European Union: a strategy based more on luck than judgment.