Throughout 2016, Europe has lurched from one crisis to another. The British voted to leave the EU. Russia stepped up its interference in domestic politics in several European countries by planting false news stories and financing populist, right-wing movements. Terrorist attacks and the refugee and eurozone crises divided the EU’s 28 member states.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Americans elected Donald Trump as their next president on a ticket promising to make the United States great again. Trump professes little interest in what has kept the West together: the transatlantic relationship.
All the above crises have one thing in common. They are having a profound effect on Europe’s future. As 2016 draws to a close, the EU’s extreme vulnerability and growing instability are exposed.
The Brexit decision has weakened Europe. If they chose to do so, European leaders could mitigate the political fallout of Britain’s exit. But instead of using Brexit to push for further integration or a two-speed Europe—or even as a chance to get out of their bubble to explain why Europe matters—most leaders are engaged in petty institutional or domestic power games. As they do so, they seem to underestimate how the roles of Russia and the United States are planting the seeds of Europe’s destruction.
For centuries, European states were always at war with each other or had various empires vying for supremacy. The EU, which grew out of the ashes of World War II, put an end to this internecine fighting and these power struggles.
But the EU is a young construction. Its existence has always relied on the United States. Dean Acheson, who was U.S. secretary of state from 1949 to 1953, believed passionately in a Western Europe knitted to the United States through NATO and the shared values of democracy and liberalism. That dependence on the United States, exemplified by the U.S. nuclear security umbrella, is no longer a given.
Yet many European leaders and politicians, especially in Berlin, don’t want to recognize this changing geostrategic reality. They are not prepared to consider the possibility of what happens the day after the United States withdraws from Europe. In practice, that means they are unwilling to consider any alternative to the U.S. security umbrella, such as Europe having its own nuclear defense—which could exist through France.
There are Germans who shudder at the idea of a European nuclear deterrent on the grounds that it would provoke Russia. But what world are they living in? Russia is already deploying nuclear-capable missiles in its exclave of Kaliningrad, which is sandwiched between EU and NATO members Lithuania and Poland. Yet Europe is muddling through each crisis without realizing that this time round, the EU’s defense and durability are at stake.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, knows exactly what buttons to press when it comes to Europe. Despite German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admirable tenacity in confronting Putin—primarily by pushing the EU to keep sanctions imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014 and then de facto occupied the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine—she is practically alone in her consistency. She is also the one leader whom Putin wants defeated as she makes a bid in late 2017 to serve a fourth term as chancellor.
Germany’s security services are acutely aware of how Russia may interfere in the federal election. But most EU leaders have a singular lack of political will to act, coupled with a dangerous complacency about the threats facing them. This is despite the fact that Russian interference in the German election—as well as in votes in France and the Netherlands—would weaken Europe.
The threat is plain to see: Europe’s democracy and stability are being threatened as they were during the Cold War. Then, Europe had the United States to protect it. Today, efforts by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński, and France’s National Front Leader Marine Le Pen to defend their nation-states against the EU are grist to Putin’s mill.
Unless Trump radically shifts his stances toward Europe and Russia, the United States will unwittingly hand Russia a silver platter that will lead to the breakup of the transatlantic alliance. That could transform the EU into a motley of discombobulated nation-states.
European leaders at the national and EU levels are contributing to the gradual eclipse of what could have been a powerful, confident, and strong European Union. In its place could be a mishmash of nation-states that have neither the security nor the leadership to protect what Europe stands for. Such are the trends of 2016. Such is the specter of 2017 and beyond unless leaders adopt a radically different mind-set to push Europe together.