The stability of Europe is critical for global equilibrium. After centuries of war, the continent achieved 70 years of peace among its western members, inspired by Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and others for “ever closer union’’, a vision that created first the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, later the European Economic Community and then the European Union at Maastricht in 1993. Up to six years ago, Europe was one of the most prosperous and stable areas on the planet with 28 EU members and others queuing to join.
It is now threatened. Within its borders and neighbourhood, there is a disturbing resurgence of the nationalism that made it a blood-soaked continent for so long. Recent elections to the European Parliament saw a “political earthquake’’ with extremist parties triumphant, among them Germany’s National Democratic Party whose leader declared Hitler a “great man”; the far-right Danish People’s Party doubling members in the Parliament; and both the National Front in France and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) beating all mainstream opponents.
The continent comes with fault lines. The concept of a united states of Europe has never taken root, for whilst federalism birthed the US, the idea of one European nation is inevitably challenged. These are old countries, strongly similar, but each with a depth of history and culture, making coherence difficult. Almost all have had their own language, society and governance for centuries. The closest they have come to deep union is the Euro, pushed by Helmut Khol and Francois Mitterrand, both with eyes on history, but which was a fudge that almost unravelled from the sovereign debt crisis. Besides, the European Commission, though quite powerful, is a soulless bureaucracy that stirs no emotion in the majority of Europeans. Those who relate to it, tend to dislike “Brussels’’. Therefore, paradoxically, success of the far right in European elections has come from their anti Europe platforms.
Also, there are consequences from unprecedented population mobility within the Union where people move freely, seeking opportunity. With the persistent economic slowdown, unemployment, particularly youth joblessness, is very high, especially in southern countries, reaching 25 per cent in Spain. So resentment rises among locals when “others’’ take up jobs and burden housing and social services. Populist parties capitalise on the situation and rail against the diversity that now characterises major European cities. This is “visceral politics”, the stirring of “atavistic prejudices”. For example Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, talks of immigration making parts of England “unrecognisable’’, an approach adopted by Marie Le Pen in France where anti Semitism is also now rampant, and Morten Messerschmidt in Denmark. Compounding the problem are waves of illegal immigrants seeking escape from war, poverty and despotism in the Middle East and Africa.
Then there is nationalism from Russia under Vladimir Putin who, after annexing Crimea, continues to fuel insurgency in eastern Ukraine rattling other countries with significant Russian populations, particularly former Soviet republics, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Putin’s brazenness has exposed a divided Europe. “The European Union, the greatest political and economic power on this continent” can’t deal with him, laments columnist Bernd Ulrich in Die Zeit.
They can’t because Europe has no common foreign or energy policies. Notwithstanding Mr Putin’s militarism, France defies the US and European allies by selling two warships to Moscow, supported by Germany which needs Russia’s energy and export market, whilst England does not want strong sanctions against the Russian financial industry which can hurt “England’s Wall Street’’. And the European economy depends on Russian gas. President Putin obviously wants to maintain that reliance and funds NGOs opposing shale gas, discovered abundantly in the Baltics, France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, and the UK.
What should Europe do? It could follow the lead of Poland which, untroubled by environmentalists as in “older Europe’’, is exploiting its share of the continent’s shale reserves which could revitalise the European economy as it is doing in the US, and ameliorate those conditions that incubate extremism. Shale will also diminish Moscow’s influence on the continent, an objective that could be furthered if Europe pursues the Trans-Caspian pipeline, bypassing Russia, to access resources of major energy producers like Azerbaijan, Turkemenistan, Iran and Iraq. EU nations should also contribute more to their collective defence through NATO which must be prepared to face a nascent anti-western alliance comprising Russia, China and Iran. Then we might return to stability, with no more talk of ‘war in Europe’ as German vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel warned recently.