For Europe, the Only Way Forward Is Together

Can a collection of nation-states whose populations loathe each other hang together? Who knows, but it’s that or hang separately.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron meet in Brussels, on April 23, 2015. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron meet in Brussels, on April 23, 2015. EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images.
Jan. 18 2016
About the author

Claire Berlinski, a freelance writer and consultant, is the author of four books, a contributing editor at City Journal, and a senior fellow of the American Foreign Policy Council. She blogs at Ricochet.

I share Daniel Johnson’s concern about Europe’s future—although not always for the reasons he cites. In general, I believe he conflates Europe’s domestic pathologies with the effects on Europe of global events, not all of which are of Europe’s making and not all of which are as grave as he stipulates. He writes, for instance, that the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris mark a culmination so far in “a concerted campaign directed mainly at Europeans.” Those attacks are certainly the ones Europeans noticed, because they were the victims, but they are largely irrelevant to the main “campaign”: a vicious Islamic civil war and a superpower conflict by proxy. In that war’s real theaters, the death toll dwarfs, to say the least, anything directed mainly at Europeans.

As for the other reasons why Europe’s future could well be bleak, I would list several. The United States is now the Sick Man of the Globe, and when a hegemonic power falls into desuetude, disorder is inevitable. The Eurozone crisis and Europe’s moribund economies have exacted a steep price in public trust of Europe’s institutions. The world has not naturally adopted liberal democracy as a form of government (as many had hoped at the end of the cold war), and the rise of illiberal democracies, particularly in Russia and Turkey, is a great danger—both directly in that Russian forces now openly threaten European countries and indirectly in that the authoritarian contagion has spread to Europe’s own southern and eastern flanks.

This is hardly to deny that the catastrophic breakdown of states and social order in much of the Islamic world—leaving a quarter-million dead in Syria alone — is a threat to Europe. But 800,000 asylum-seekers provoking a clash of civilizations on Europe’s soil, plunging it into chaos on the scale of the Middle East? Not so fast.

Let me briefly address three issues raised by Johnson in his well-founded anxiety about Europe’s future, and end with a not-so-modest proposal.


First, Johnson asks whether Europeans are ready to fight for Europe. For clarity here, let’s define Europe as the collection of states that constitute the European Union, though in this context it’s also useful to view it as the non-American members of NATO.

The short answer is yes: there’s no doubt Europeans are ready to fight. Militarily, Europe is a powerhouse, with more men under arms than the U.S. The UK and France rank fifth and sixth in global firepower, and they’re both nuclear states. The Bundeswehr is among the best-funded and best-equipped militaries in the world.

And they’re not just ready, they’re willing. After the November atrocities in Paris (where I now live), enlistment applications quintupled, plans to reduce military spending were reversed, and this year’s defense budget will instead rise by €600 million. France’s 2013 unilateral intervention in Mali is studied in the U.S. as a model of expeditionary warfare and a rare Western success in rolling back an Islamist insurgency. Nor was it France that flinched at the prospect of enforcing Obama’s red line when Bashar Assad attacked his civilians with chemical weapons. Its planes were on the runway.

Is Germany willing? Eager, I’d say. Tagespiegel has called for “total war” against ISIS and for the permanent occupation, no less, of the Middle East. General Karl Müllner, commander of the air force, can hardly contain his zest at the thought of unleashing that force for the first time since World War II.

But are these states willing to fight for Europe—or only for themselves? That’s a good question, to which I’ll return.


Second, Johnson invokes the threat of a potential “Islamization” of Europe. Again, a threat, certainly; but is it the greatest threat facing the continent? Looking to the future, Johnson has neglected to look south, east, and west. From that perspective, 800,000 asylum-seekers are a danger only because they are a distraction.

South: there are now 60 million refugees in the world: refugees, not economic migrants. The Middle East, North Africa, and the region stretching from the Sahel to the Horn of Africa are riven by civil wars and full of truly failed states. Regional nuclear proliferation seems likely. If the prospect of absorbing a million refugees has divided Europe and exposed as hollow the idea of European unity, how will Europe cope with twenty million? And if it can’t, how does it propose to keep them out?

East: Russia is nuclear-armed, autocratic, and lunatic. It is also singularly focused on undermining the West’s institutions, among them the European Union, NATO, and the treaties that knit together the postwar and post-cold-war order. Having destabilized Ukraine, Vladimir Putin is systematically trying to destabilize other European states and pull them into Russia’s orbit.

Johnson rightly notes the disturbing reemergence of extremist parties in Europe, characterizing this as a reaction to and one of the inevitable consequences of the “pan-European ideology” that has presented these parties with “a legitimate grievance on which to campaign.” That may be an ingredient in or a pretext for these parties and movements, but it’s far from the whole story. They have gained power now because Europe is economically stagnant, because Washington has ceased paying attention—and because Putin, who has gained the psychological upper hand, is funding and encouraging them with a slick, sophisticated propaganda campaign.

Although most Europeans instinctively find the Islamist brand of authoritarianism repulsive and retrograde, and will reject attempts to Islamize their culture, far too many find Russia’s brand seductive, appealing, even inspirational. Turkey, Hungary, and now possibly Poland have learned from Putin the recipe for creating an illiberal democracy: lock up the people who are better fit to be leaders, starve them of access by gaining control of the media, jigger the courts and the constitution so that opponents have no hope of coming to power through democratic means. Elections still happen, but they’re denuded of everything that makes elections meaningful.

Europeans have watched passively, registering mild remonstrations at best as the pattern is repeated over and over, each time closer to Europe’s heart.

West: Europeans are correct to think the United States will continue to contribute to their security. But they can no longer repose full confidence in America as a guarantor. When the Soviet Union dissolved, the U.S. and Russia jointly dismantled Ukraine’s nuclear weapons and agreed to honor the country’s borders. Russia violated the agreement, and the United States could do nothing about it. This should be instructive to Europeans who consciously or unconsciously predicate their security on American commitments.


Third: “Europe,” as Johnson correctly notes, is not a country but a continent and an idea. Indeed, it’s a fiction, and that really is a problem. It’s a series of planned economic entanglements, without any true common foreign and defense policy. Absent such a policy, it has a dim future indeed, for the nature of the threats it really does now confront are global.

Can a collection of nation-states whose populations in fact loathe each other hang together? I don’t know, but it’s that or hang separately. Notwithstanding Johnson’s assertion that many Europeans regard nationalism as Europe’s “original sin,” what prevents them from hanging together is—precisely—their nationalism, or, if you prefer, their still powerful and entirely understandable attachment to their individual sovereignty. Whatever you call it, the truth is that Europe is a hybrid entity comprising states united by no shared language, culture, or history, but by trade treaties and toothless courts. Some of its states are unhappily yoked together by an albatross of a currency. Each wants full sovereignty when it suits its national interests; none wants it when it doesn’t.

This worked well enough when times were good. It didn’t prevent Europe from enjoying the most peaceful and prosperous half-century in its history. But it is far from clear that it works when times are bad. Of much greater immediate concern than looming Islamization is that Europe has no common policy for immigration and border control, still less for involving itself constructively in resolving the conflicts that are producing these refugees.

If the Middle East continues in its current trajectory, Europe could wind up with not a million but tens of millions of refugees. If Europe has no common foreign policy toward Russia, Putin will cheerfully exploit its divisions to bring state after state under Russian influence or control. If Europe continues to pursue a policy of monetary integration without ceding sovereignty to some form of federal government, we will see more reiterations of Greece punished and alienated by Germany, of Hungary and Poland descending into authoritarianism even as they keep their hands extended for aid from the EU, and of no one able to halt the process.

Hungary and Greece are Europe’s borders. You can’t secure Europe from a rapacious Russia to the east and failed states and terror armies to the south unless countries like these are fully committed to the European project.

With America is in its imperial dotage, Europe can’t even hope literally to wall itself off and hope that someone else sorts it all out. Even were Europe to build a new Berlin Wall around its entire periphery, twice as high and guarded by savage Dobermans, telling all those who can’t breach the walls to go drown in the Mediterranean, it would still be threatened by the chaos to its south. And now imagine something more frightening than a million Muslim immigrants who might not be assimilable. Consider a terrorist army able to purchase a nuclear arsenal from North Korea.

Indeed, admitting as many refugees from Syria as Europe can conceivably absorb may be the continent’s best strategic option. The war in Syria won’t end soon, if it ever does, and when it does, there will be nothing for Syrians to return to. It is in the West’s long term (and even short-term) security interest that they not become a permanent class of stateless people in refugee camps. From that standpoint, the long-term risks of failing to resettle refugees from the Syrian conflict in Europe may well exceed the short-term risks of resettling them. The German chancellor Angela Merkel has been portrayed as impulsive, but has any other European leader proposed a long-term answer to the problem?


To sum up: Europe is now facing history’s biggest constitutional crisis. It must either develop real federal political institutions or break into its component parts. In the latter eventuality, countries like Slovakia would be poor, weak, and quickly gobbled up by stronger countries. It may be natural for Slovaks to dislike being told what to do by outsiders, but what choice do they have? It may also be perfectly natural for Germans to say, “If you want to be a country with your own immigration policy, be our guest. Just don’t expect your next subsidy of 10 billion euros from the EU.” In the end, this will not solve Europe’s security problems.

The anxiety about immigrants is causing enormous damage to European social trust. Terrorist attacks will always occasion demagogic grandstanding, which works because the public can’t easily distinguish useful security policy from theater. But there’s no getting around it: effective counterterrorism demands more unity among European nations, not less. Counterterrorism requires the centralization of power, people, and money. It requires specialist teams and specialist equipment, particularly for surveillance, data management, and intelligence-gathering. It involves sharing information quickly and effectively across national borders. It is highly unlikely that any European country can do this alone, and highly unlikely anyone else can or will do it for Europe—“it” being the ability to maintain and defend effective borders: real borders, not hastily erected fences to keep out refugees but borders sufficient to keep out armies.

The challenge is to create common institutions capable of devising and implementing a strategy to manage the influx of migrants and refugees; the even greater challenge is to create institutions that can address the instability and violence in Europe’s neighborhood. Unlike the European External Action Service and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs, and perhaps uniquely in the history of the EU bureaucracy, these institutions would exist for a reason beyond merely existing.

At bottom, the only way forward is a single foreign and defense policy. This means strengthening the union. It may be impossible to do—but really, what choice is there?

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