The year Europe breaks

The year Europe breaks

Another year of an unstoppable refugee flood will tear up the reality of a borderless EU while raising a popular political backlash. And when Europe finally breaks, the world will have taken a dangerous step back into the past.

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By Gerard M. Gallucci

This is the year that Europe breaks, that the dream and nascent reality of a unified European society and civilization becomes undone. It will not be because of the Greek economic crisis or Europe’s weak central financial institutions. Nor will it occur because Britain may leave after its June referendum. It will be the result of another year of an unstoppable refugee flood tearing up the reality of a borderless EU while raising a popular political backlash. The EU political leadership has failed completely to do anything effective to either accept the refugees or prevent them from making the trip. Brussels has no strategy for addressing the conditions that have caused the refugee flow. The splintering of the community’s membership into squabbling nation states each rushing to close their borders means the death of Schengen. Thousands of fleeing persons are already bottled up in Greece, which cannot stop them from trying to cross the seas. Latest estimates put the likely figure of arrivals this year at one million. None of the EU members are anywhere near accepting the necessary quotas to deal with such a flow and some are refusing any. By June, any sensible Brit will be justified in asking why the country should remain in a house falling down.

It might seem fair to blame the Americans for all those fleeing their homelands given Washington’s leading role in the disastrous destabilization of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But in fact, what is happening is what we could term the return of the repressed. It was Europe itself that in previous centuries went into Africa, the Mid-East and Asia as colonial powers and mobilized the populations there who are now trying to return the favor. People living in their traditional societies were dragged into arbitrarily carved-up territories with administrations controlled from afar. After some time and little real nation building or development, the Europeans departed and acted as if they forgot what they had done. What they did was to leave behind half-baked states with diverse populations in the hands of the ill-equipped and usually corrupt. Europe also left behind the dream of living a better life – a Western existence in an ordered, prosperous society – that the local reality has never offered. Those so awakened and brought into History are now trying to get to where the dream lives.

Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan did fall apart after military interventions. But it is not to Europe’s credit that it left behind states that could only be held together by brute force and not entirely the fault of the US for dethroning the tyrants. The essential problem remains global inequality and the West’s failure to develop an approach that would really help people live better lives where they are. Related to this is the international community’s inability and essential unwillingness to deal effectively with failed or failing states.

So what happens when Europe breaks? It may be useful to look at this in two ways. The first is the political result. Peggy Noonan in a recent WSJ piece makes an interesting distinction between the protected and the unprotected. As she puts it, the protected are the ones that make public policy, the unprotected are those who have to live in it. The protected make the decisions, living the good life secure in their own communities. Because they are mostly insulated from any negative effects of their policies, they feel they can impose anything on the rest. The unprotected live with none of these advantages. Noonan credits the rise of Trump in the US with his understanding that the unprotected have given up hope on the usual politics and politicians. This explains the rise of the populists in Europe as well. From the standardization silliness from Brussels, to imposed austerity, the effects on local workers from the free movement of labor and the perceived threat from migrants welcomed by Merkel, the European unprotected are restless.

With the specter of uncontrollable numbers of foreigners – diverse in the most basic ways including religion, traditions and experience of democracy – support for the European perspective will fall further. The focus of national politicians will shift ever more profoundly to their own domestic politics and the EU be dammed. Russia and Turkey understand this. They will press their advantages, trying to drag others after them in their own disputes. The US is as befuddled as the remaining believers in a unified Europe. No help will come from any quarter.

The breaking of Europe can also be considered from the perspective of where and when. The pressure is most acute in Greece. Already deep into enforced austerity, some 2000 refugee arrive daily. Greece appeals for help but gets nothing useful. When Austria holds a regional conference on handling the flow, Athens is not even invited. How long will it take for Tspiras – or someone to his left or right – to stop trying to play the Brussels-Berlin game by simply repudiating Greece’s debt, dropping the Euro and standing back to let the refugees flow north?

The Balkans states are closing their borders. The Hungarians and Austrians too. The refugees will pile up somewhere, maybe in Serbia. Calais-like camps will pop up wherever resourceful and desperate people can get to and Europe will begin to look more and more like the places these people have left behind. This will then feed back into the politics and thus the institutions of the European Union will begin to fail with states even deciding to fall out. Perhaps some core – Germany, France, Italy – will remain but even they will face the rising influence of the new populists stirring the unprotected.

What could be done? Nothing good – making full provision for receiving millions more who wish to escape to a better life or putting troops and resources into the Mid-east and Mediterranean border states to stabilize them and begin rebuilding – seems likely. What will happen? Mass forced-returns, fragmented and disrupted economies, deepened political and national rivalries. When Europe breaks, the world will have taken a dangerous step back into the past.

Gerard M. Gallucci is a retired US diplomat and UN peacekeeper. He worked as part of US efforts to resolve the conflicts in Angola, South Africa and Sudan and as Director for Inter-American Affairs at the National Security Council. He served as UN Regional Representative in Mitrovica, Kosovo from July 2005 until October 2008 and as Chief of Staff for the UN mission in East Timor from November 2008 until June 2010. He has a PhD in political science, taught at the University of Pittsburgh, University of Arkansas, George Washington University and Drake University and now works as an independent consultant.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


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