European Union is facing a number of formidable, in some cases unprecedented challenges. The ongoing global economic crisis, the influx of refugees, the emergence of extremist populists across the continent, increasingly aggressive Russia, Brexit and the arrival of Donald Trump all have to be dealt with. Such difficult times evidently call for clarity and unity, but which is certainly easier said than done.
To begin with, European economy is, surprisingly, doing somewhat better than expected. This must be a source of some relief for governments and business leaders, but it must be built upon. What needs to happen, and with some urgency, is for the relatively good numbers to filter through to ordinary people and mean something in terms of jobs and wages. But even if the EU economy were completely stagnant, the member states’ governments could still initiate a cycle of investment that would at least partially address glaring social problems and palpable popular discontent with things as they are; if only because such discontent can – and does – convert itself into votes for the assortment of populists ready to exploit the misery of others.
As we have seen, European far right is consolidating and cooperating. They have clearly been emboldened by the success of Donald Trump and by his nationalist rhetoric, and they are hoping to emulate and probably outdo him in Europe. In good times, their politics belong to a lunatic fringe but these are difficult times and these people and their appeal must not be underestimated.
The question of refugees has been politically sensitive and morally depressing. European Union as a whole has not covered itself in glory. Most member states have been far too reluctant to comply with their international obligations towards refugees. We have all seen the disgraceful images of refugees camping out in freezing conditions. Angela Merkel acted honourably when she agreed to take in one million people but she may yet pay a heavy price at the next general elections in Germany, scheduled for September. As mentioned, other EU states have been much less willing to give protection to people fleeing the unspeakable tragedy of Syria. This is quite shameful but also, given a genuine threat of a tiny minority of potential terrorists infiltrating the refugees, perhaps not entirely unexpected.
The latest information suggests that while the number of refugees arriving has fallen sharply, people are dying in greater numbers in the Mediterranean. This tragedy is likely to continue until there is some sort of viable outcome in Syria, which seems far off unfortunately. The resolution of the Syrian conflict clearly depends on a variety of international players, but EU and its member states do need to be more assertive because they have been thoroughly sidelined by the likes of Russia and Turkey.
Russia seems to have become a permanent headache for EU. This is a great shame because the two could and should one day have a close relationship, one that appears both natural and mutually desirable. However, the reality is that some EU member states in Eastern Europe now see Russia as a direct threat to their national security and have resorted to NATO for help. What is more, Russia has become increasingly aggressive in its cyber warfare and attempts to interfere in European politics, so much so that Europeans have decided to act to prevent further damage.
Unless there is a genuine paradigm shift, which is quite unlikely but not altogether impossible, it seems there is little that can be done to improve the relations between EU and Russia as long as President Putin’s priorities stay the same and his approval ratings so high. Russia has reasserted itself as a global power but that has come at a cost: the country is under sanctions by the West and the economy has taken a hit. One strategy pursued by Russia is to prop up pro-Putin politicians and parties in EU, but it remains to be seen how effective this approach can be unless some of his friends win power in a member state, especially somewhere like France or Italy.
Brexit is yet another huge challenge. The British government has finally revealed a plan, or at least a wish list, of how they see the future relationship with EU. It has been widely seen as misguided and unrealistic, both in Britain and in the rest of Europe. It seems unlikely that Britain will secure all it wants from EU and the two may even revert to WTO rules on trade. Hopefully it won’t come to that because both the EU and Britain would suffer consequences. However, in the aftermath of Brexit Britain stands to lose much more than EU in terms of economy, the country’s standing in the world and its reputation as a free, open and tolerant society.
Donald Trump represents a different sort danger to the EU, not only because he is the President of the United States for at least four years, but because of reprehensible values that he advocated during the election campaign, which are more than likely to outlive his tenure in the White House. But like everyone else, Mr Trump will ultimately be judged on what he does rather than what he says. There is a chance that he may, at least temporarily, make the world a bit less unpredictable by improving ties with Russia. Having said that, if Mr Trump means what he said in an interview for The Times and Bild newspapers, he is an enemy of Europe (including Britain and its long-term interests), of common security and common decency. He is also not the world’s best diplomat, which may cause further difficulties in the future. Mr Trump and his administration are likely to significantly change the role of the US in international relations. The new president is a nationalist who shows little interest in liberal international order, and who will always ‘put America first’. He has openly shown contempt for EU so there is at least no chance of misunderstanding.
What should the EU and its member states do with so many issues at hand? For starters, it is encouraging that there has been a strong reaction to Mr Trump’s barbs by some European politicians. Europe basically has no choice but to stand together and find its own way in these difficult times. It would be great folly to do anything else, which Britain may eventually and unfortunately find out.
What does it mean to stand together? The EU should stand up to President Trump whenever necessary, but always be clear about the long-term importance of the relationship with the US. Moreover, the organisation should continue to engage with Russia but maintain sanctions until a significant change in Russia’s foreign policy occurs. The political pressure stemming from the refugee crisis may be alleviated if European leaders make it clear that the current arrangement is temporary and that the majority of refugees will eventually return to Syria. As for Brexit, EU needs to wait and see what Britain actually wants – which is not yet clear, and work out its strategy. At the same time, EU should continue essential work to improve its economy and reform itself into a more streamlined, less bureaucratic entity which is much more in touch with ordinary citizens. There have been some encouraging noises in that vein but more needs to be done.
All of the challenges facing EU are tough and perhaps daunting, but everything mentioned here can be done. Let us hope that it does.