Europe’s main challenge in 2018 will come from within

Europe’s main challenge in 2018 will come from within

European leaders will enter the new year with a number of serious challenges on their agenda.

On their eastern flank, they will have to manage relations with a resurgent and increasingly assertive Russia, and deal with tough issues such as alleged meddling in western elections, sabre-rattling in the Baltic region, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Across the Atlantic, they must manage a fractured partnership with the United States, and straddle disagreements over vital questions such as the survival of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. And throughout Europe, leaders will have to respond to heightened risks emanating from extremism and radicalization.

Yet the most pressing challenge facing Europe will come from within the region’s political and social system itself: the gradual erosion of democratic norms and liberal values in Europe’s heartland, and the challenge to European unity that this presents. Brussels rebuke to Poland, which could precipitate EU sanctions against the member state, is a recent and illustrative example of this. As a consequence, the biggest challenge ahead for Europe is not bound to a steady stream of external threats, but to Europe’s capacity to stick together and deal with them.

Politics in dire straits

2017 has been a turbulent year in European politics. The clash between Brussels and Poland follows moves by Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party to undermine the independence of the country’s judiciary and roll back civil liberties, while restricting freedom of the press and pursuing controversial educational reforms. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the party’s chairman, has found a supporter in the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who himself  increasingly embraces “illiberal democracy” – the cautionary term once coined by the political commentator Fareed Zakaria to warn against “Democratically elected regimes [that] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms.”

Across Europe, 2017 witnessed the growth of numerous populist movements. While the bearers of these movements differ in shape and form, they tend to embrace ethnic nationalism and share a firm opposition to globalization, European cooperation and Pan-European institutions. The examples include but are not limited to Sweden, where polls show that the xenophobic Sweden Democrats are now the second biggest political party, and Germany, where recent elections allowed a far right party to take seat in parliament for the first time in more than half a century.

In this context, the elections in the Netherlands and France brought some relief, as the movements led by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen failed to usher in political power. But the wide-spread support for these leaders are disturbing nonetheless: more than ten million Frenchmen, for instance, cast their vote for Le Pen and her Front national. And while some observers drew sighs of relief after this year’s elections in Austria, the country’s new leader Sebastian Kurz is set to form a ruling coalition with the far right Freedom Party.

Why this matters for European security

These developments are discouraging. Recent diplomatic efforts with Iran and Russia show that Europe deals best with external challenges when it stands united. And for the internal perils of disunity, we need only consider Europe’s history. It is one marked by recurrent strife and zero-sum politics. The relative stability witnessed on the continent since the Second World War is therefor somewhat of a historical anomaly, enabled in no small part by institutionalized European cooperation. This cooperation, in turn, has been one part of the liberal world order that prevailed during the last seven decades.

That order may have been born out of necessity more than idealism, and facilitated through security guarantees and other “hard power” means, but it has always rested on economic and political cooperation as well as on some shared norms and values. As political scientist John Ikenberry notes, “the [liberal world order] is complex and sprawling, organized around economic openness, multilateral institutions, security cooperation, democratic solidarity, and internationalist ideals.” And it has allowed Europe to become richer and more secure than ever.

It is exactly these values, ideals, and commitments that so many European political figures – riding on a wave of populism and seemingly oblivious to the lessons from the continent’s past – are now questioning, if not combatting altogether. Accordingly, a core pillar of European stability and prosperity is under siege. It is a challenge which is threatening a return to a raucous historical pattern of nationalism, protectionism, and conflict. And the wound is self-inflicted.

Looking ahead

This is not to say that Europe has given in to populism or far right ideologies. Europe remains democratic and diverse, the European Union is still alive and kicking, and political leaders committed to continued European cooperation remain a majority. Nor is it to suggest that the region is not facing serious external challenges which require firm responses. But the challenges arising from the core of Europe are real, and they must be acknowledged and addressed.

A good start would be to accept the roots of the problem. To a large extent, they are found in a faltering belief in liberal democracy, and a lack of trust in the ability of liberal societies to provide and care for its citizens. Through processes of globalization, meanwhile, some people fear economic insecurity (from outsourcing, for instance) but also a lack of cultural rootedness.

As a result, the work must start at home. Liberal states must strengthen their core foundations of capitalism and democracy, and demonstrate that this can be achieved through diversity and cooperation. Above all, European leaders must show that legitimate concerns may never elicit illegitimate responses: populism, closed borders, and scapegoating are not panaceas to Europe’s woes. This is a lesson history has taught us all too well, and it remains as valid today as ever.

2017 marked the seventieth anniversary of the Marshall Plan, the great American-led initiative that helped turn a war-torn Europe into a center for peace and prosperity. As General Marshall noted when rolling out the program, “Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” His words are a poignant reminder of the extraordinary things that have been accomplished through European cooperation and the region’s commitments to liberal values and democracy, as well as of the hard work and challenges that lie ahead.

Categories: Europe, Politics, Security

About Author

Axel Hellman

Axel Hellman is a foreign policy analyst with a focus on the United States and the former Soviet Union. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from King's College London and received his MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy from St Antony's College, Oxford.