It is not just Brexit – Europe faces even more serious problems, or so Dr Ian Kearns, author of Collapse: Europe after The European Union believes. Kearns, a former specialist adviser to the Joint House of Commons/House of Lords Committee on National Security Strategy delivered his chilling assessment in a recent talk to the RSA in London on the theme ‘Can the EU Survive in the Age of Trump?’
Kearns’ thesis is that because of recent geopolitical trends there is a realistic prospect the EU could collapse and that it is possible to identify certain trigger scenarios. Such a collapse would be a disaster, leading to economic chaos, nationalist scapegoating, protectionism, and the destruction of NATO. This would lead to a major increase in the influence of Russia and China, and a big advance in the politics of reactionism and authoritarianism.
The threats to the European Union come first from the East, from a resurgent Russia, which has been branded a rogue state by senior politicians following its reckless use of deadly chemicals to attack its enemies and its criminal cyber warfare activities in Britain, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Added to this there is the potent threat from the South to European unity, from the mass migration of individuals from poverty-stricken countries in Africa and the war-torn Middle East. This has put a strain on the politics of countries across Europe struggling to cope with the influx, leading to the rise of anti-immigrant right-wing groups almost everywhere.
Just as importantly, Kearns outlines, there are threats from the West in the form of Trumpism. Under the 45th president the US commitment to NATO and its allies has come under its most severe questioning since the end of World War Two. Trump, Kearns notes, is openly hostile to the EU, regarding it as a vehicle for German interests that compete with those of the US. The possibility that the US could pull back from the defence of Europe is, therefore, now a real one.
Just as damagingly, his foreign policy has been incoherent, with a failure to plan adequately to deal with the turmoil in the Middle East, leaving a vacuum into which Russia and other regional players, such as Turkey and Iran, have stepped. Trump has also shown himself hostile to a range of international institutions, such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), preferring to fall back on a protectionist agenda. His hostility to the WTO, creating the real risk it could be side-lined, poses a special threat to the UK, Kearns argues, as Britain hopes to rely much more heavily in its post-Brexit future on WTO rules.
The EU has hobbled itself, according to this view, by adopting Eurozone straitjacket rules and regulations that have forced austerity on weaker members. As a result, the centre ground in European politics has been hollowed out, with populists on the right and left saying the same – that they alone are offering a solution that is different and will work.
In this perilous situation the EU has baulked at introducing the reforms needed to ensure it can take more effective action economically and politically, and in defence. It has not been able to achieve internal agreement on, for example, sanctions against Russia, or on how to deal with the migration crisis. On defence it brings together nations which do meet their spending commitment to NATO, such as Britain and Greece, with others, such as Germany, that do not, and includes some nations – Ireland and Finland, for example – that, while relying on the NATO umbrella for their ultimate defence, have opted for neutrality.
The triggers for the possible collapse, Kearns fears, are worryingly many. Turkey is currently being paid to stop the flow of migrants into Europe, but its authoritarian President Erdogan could re-open the taps if the EU displeases him. This could lead to more barriers being thrown up at the borders in the affected countries on the route into the prosperous northern EU members and to a resurge in populism across the Continent.
There could also be further advances for Euroscepticism in core EU countries, as in Italy where the new governing parties are decidedly less enthusiastic about the European project than their predecessors. The Italian Government is being put under extreme pressure by the European Central Bank to keep its budget within Eurozone borrowing rules, but may decide not to. If it fails to do so, Italy may find itself unable to borrow in the markets and might be forced out of the Eurozone, triggering a collapse of its highly vulnerable banks with consequences for the banking system in other countries as well.
The Catalan crisis, too, remains to be resolved and if secession again becomes a possibility this could have a very serious impact on the Spanish economy, which relies heavily on Catalonia, the wealthiest part of Spain. The Madrid government could then find it, too, would be shunned by the markets and unable to borrow at reasonable rates.
The Domesday scenario is an unmanageable rout spreading through Europe, and in its wake the serious undermining of liberal values and democracy as populists begin to argue that it is pluralist institutions that have led to the crisis, and that stronger more authoritarian rule is required (as in countries that have concentrated power in dominant leaders such as China, Russia and Turkey).
If all this happens, the NATO community might not be able to respond to threats to the territorial integrity of the block. Countries might not be willing to go to each other’s aid in cases where they have already accepted significant financial or other support from Russia or China. Greece, for example has become heavily dependent on China for the rebuilding of its infrastructure and there is sympathy with Russia within Italy’s ruling parties. Even Germany might find itself compromised because of the heavy dependence it is developing on Russia to meet its energy needs.
These pressures, coupled with the assaults being made on international organisations such as WTO, could take the world back to the power-based politics setting one nation against another which caused so much trouble in the 20th century.
We may, of course, muddle through as so many times in the past. Nevertheless, whatever view is taken on Brexit and its part in Europe’s current woes, Kearns’ warnings should be heeded by policymakers before it is too late.
Collapse: Europe after The European Union. ISBN 978-1-78590-215-4
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