Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 February 2020

The European project is failing when it comes to migration, the economy and defence

With so much drift in the outlook for Europe, it comes as no surprise to discover leaders are facing unparalleled levels of distrust, writes Damien McElroy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Wael Hamzeh / EPA
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for a meeting with Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Wael Hamzeh / EPA

Another crunch week looms for Europe and the mass of contradictions it faces keep expanding.

Tensions are testing tolerance points everywhere.

The forces of moderation are in full firefighting mode – yet no initiative proposed is remotely adequate to the task.

Leave aside Brexit, as that is a peculiar and irresolvable riddle which has neither been adequately nor even seriously addressed.

Europe cannot master any of its crises. Not in migration. Nor in the economy. Even defence is neglected.

The three themes are set up to be tackled at a raft of summits this month. Whatever agreed statements emerge, the outcome seems foregone in each. The continent will continue to drift.

Migration on a mass scale usually takes one of three forms: refugees seeking asylum, migrants seeking a better life and skilled or unskilled labourers filling jobs.

Europe has no control of the policies on all three. The basic facts are demographic. Europe has an increasingly ageing and middle class society. Expanding populations to the south and east are asymmetrically youthful and aspirational. Put together this represents a massive generational challenge.

The instalment of a populist government in Italy has put the question of migration at the heart of Europe’s politics.

Not only are the long-term refuseniks of Eastern and Central Europe emboldened but so are instinctual nativists everywhere.

The traditionalist conservatives of Germany have suddenly come out of the centrist shell that enveloped post-war politics.

Another category of politicians that could be called cynical migration hawks are the handmaidens in this struggle. This includes leaders in countries such as France, Denmark and the Benelux. They seek to make no political waves as they tighten the screws, hoping to displace migrants elsewhere.

The result is an unstable mix of agendas, yet none are bending to a viable solution.

Ideas on the table are more likely to exacerbate the problem than resolve it.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, toured Lebanon last week seeking to pass the problem onto that fragile society. At various times Europe has sought to establish holding centres for people in Turkey, Jordan, North Africa and the Sahel.

In most of the target countries, the political situation degenerated so fast the centres were never set up. Or, as with Turkey, the relationship with the host country has become intolerable.

Yet at each domestic pinch point, Mrs Merkel and her colleagues return for more of the same. The whole policy is fast becoming a sop.

To shore up the Eurozone, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has finally shifted Mrs Merkel on Germany’s staunch opposition to a single European budget – a bit but not enough.

Transfers and bank guarantees are on the table at last but only as an incremental concession.

For example, the next state hit by a Greece-style crisis could suspend contributions to the European budget to retain revenues and rebalance its own economy but this would be treated as a loan. Meanwhile, offers to guarantee bank deposits from Lisbon to Helsinki are carefully limited as well.

Defence spending is at last on the rise in response both to the sharp Russian dagger pointing at Europe and fears Donald Trump will collapse the US umbrella over the continent.

The centralising tendency pushing a Brussels-run defence policy conflicts with both the best thinking in European defence academies and wider efforts to reform Nato.

A dangerous institutional divergence is now opening up as each side buries its head in the sand.


Read more from Damien McElroy:

The G7 summit separates the strongmen from the chaff

George Soros: Brexit bogeyman or best for Britain?

The faked death of Arkady Babchenko was a spectacular own goal for Ukraine


The most likely credibility test for the continent is a Russian attack on a free state on its western border.

Could the Europeans respond on their own? Current reality says that the British and French could combine to beat back Russia’s conventional forces. European politics is a million miles from shaping a framework for that kind of co-operation to take place.

With so much drift in the outlook for Europe, it came as no surprise to find in a poll last week that leaders faced unparalleled levels of distrust.

The figures, country by country, were an astounding indictment of the faces that congregate at the summit tables. An overall 64 per cent in western democracies felt their voices were not heard and 54 per cent felt people like them had no say in national life.

Given the foundational purpose of democracy, the international poll, carried out by German firm Dalia Research, amounted to a wake-up call. Some of the worst figures were recorded in Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Portugal.

Constructed as a bubble of internal stability and social tolerance in response to the Second World War, the European project is failing the tests posed by external pressures.

It is in transition to a new system and there are no road maps to guide the way.

The dangers lurking at every turn are not going away.

Updated: June 23, 2018 07:10 PM



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