February 9, 2015
Guest blogpost by Ian Hansen, program assistant with the Atlantic Council.
By almost any measure, Europe has had a difficult start to 2015. The attacks in Paris, the increased unrest in Ukraine, and the elections in Greece are just three issues that underscore an increasingly vulnerable and divided continent.
Yet, while Europe faces various challenges, if the continent’s leaders unite in cause there does exist a distinct opportunity to constructively shape its future.
First, consider what some see as the most glaring present difficulty: terrorism is and will continue to be an issue in Europe for the foreseeable future.
The Paris attacks painfully demonstrated that radicalized individuals trained in zones of instability like Syria or Libya represent a significant threat. While every Western country is vulnerable to urban warfare-model or lone-wolf attacks, Europe’s sheer proximity to the calamitous Middle East/North Africa region increases its risk. Moreover, the reality remains that quashing every single future attack is, regrettably, a Sisyphean task.
Yet, one may take solace as leaders have already discussed methods to enhance Europe’s future security. Calls to increase information and intelligence sharing across the EU, France’s decision to recruit more police intelligence agents, and preemptive coordinated raids like those in Belgium are sensible steps. Finding the appropriate balance between liberty and security working with tech companies like Apple and Google over encryption technologies would be another. Ideally, cooperation throughout Europe and among its partners will only increase so authorities can infiltrate and undermine terrorist cells, and ensure any future attack has minimal impact.
Therefore, though terrorist attacks dominate headlines, the greater peril plaguing Europe remains an inability to unite to take the economic and political action necessary to reinvigorate the old continent.
An unimproved European economy will diminish Europe’s clout in promoting its commendable international stances. Prolonged high unemployment, particularly among the youth, will further isolate immigrants, exacerbate the already deepening cultural rifts and demographic problems, and increase the risk of an entire lost generation. Islamophobia and anti-immigration fervor will also fester.
In essence, a Europe which fails to reform into a more inclusive, innovative and productive place will deteriorate until it is divided by prejudice and weakness. Opportunities to positively shape the continent’s direction must be seized before it is too late.
The quantitative easing plan begun by the European Central Bank (ECB) is a belatedly welcome move, though it is not a panacea. Only 20% of purchases are the responsibility of the ECB which highlights the lack of unity within the eurozone. More to the point, this monetary change does not address the emerging north–south divide which demonstrates the need for a greater reformed fiscal policy.
To do this, the politics of Europe must change. After Greece, Europe still faces eight more elections this year featuring varying degrees of populist parties. Some explicitly seek to halt or dismantle the social and economicinstitutions and tools that have markedly improved the continent’s societal architecture since World War II. Whether these parties are far-right or far-left, their continuing electoral success would work against the implementation of necessary eurozone economic reforms and sensible immigration policies.
That is why, with the public’s trust in the EU dwindling, Europe’s leaders must begin to act beyond their own shortsighted electoral interests.
As the most important country in Europe, Germany must take the lead and overcome its inhibitions by increasing its public investment spending and reduce its own insistence on austerity. Furthermore, as the economies of Europe are inextricably linked, and remaining aware that a Grexit still risks untold consequences, all proponents of austerity should find areas to compromise with the new Syriza-led government so the euro remains stable.
However, part of this compromise should include the continuation of reforms in Greece as well as countries like Italy and France where politicians make changes their predecessors have not. Additionally, throughout Europe, mainstream parties right and left of center should campaign together against lowest common denominator appeals offered by populist and extremist parties. They should unabashedly highlight the values of growth initiatives like TTIP while defending the benefits the EU has brought the majority of citizens.
Even with Syriza’s victory on Sunday, one must remember that 92% of Greeks desire to remain in the euro. With that in mind that, when addressing Europe’s current and future problems, one hopes that the continent’s leaders see the impetus to work together and remember the words of Jean Monnet: “there is no future…other than in union.”
Ian Hansen is a program assistant with the Atlantic Council. He has worked and lived in Poland, Georgia and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter at @CEE_theworld.Blogactiv Team