Europe Has Entered a New Age of Anxiety – and It’s Dragging Britain Along Too


Once again, a spectre is haunting Europe. Yet the spectre is not communism, as Karl Marx wrongly predicted nearly 200 years ago. Far from it. The spectre today consists of multiple new drivers of national and regional insecurity. Together they threaten Europe’s – and Britain’s – long postwar years of general democratic stability and intermittent economic optimism. And Europe does not yet know what to do about it.

Last week’s success for Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands’ general election is the latest of these many shocks. The vote for Wilders’ anti-migrant, anti-Islamic and Eurosceptic campaign has sent a jolt through all of Europe. It is too simplistic to call it part of a general shift to the right, partly because that may encourage simplistic responses. The far right has always been a problem in each country, and will continue to be so. But the increased vote for Wilders is also a sign of something altogether larger.

This is because all the nations of our continent are experiencing an age of European insecurity. Too many remain in denial about it. Very few are confident about the most effective responses. Yet five overlapping big insecurities confront all Europeans. These are: the military threat from Russia; the stagnation and inequality of Europe’s economies; significant migration within and from outside Europe; the impact of climate crisis in remaking economic and social life; and the weakening of the nation state. Others could unquestionably be added to the list, not least the overmighty global power of the internet and of AI. And all of them connect.

The new insecurities are not confined to the member states of the European Union. Nor have they been caused by the EU – even if the union invariably does not as much as it could. Europe’s non-members have proved to be just as much a prey to these insecurities as the member states are. Countries outside the EU such as Britain, Norway, Serbia and Switzerland – and, of course, Ukraine – are heavily affected in their own distinct ways. So is Turkey. So are the nations of the Caucasus.

Ukraine stands on the frontline of the most immediate of these insecurities: the threat from Russia. The war is not going as well as hoped. Europe has spent heavily but its assistance is not proving to be decisive. The US bears a much larger burden, but this may come to an end if Donald Trump is re-elected. The long war to contain Russia does not just beckon – it is already a reality.

Yet the plain truth is that Europe is nowhere close to being able to shoulder America’s role of manufacturing and supplying the necessary arms, if Trump were to pull the rug. Europe’s industry is no longer geared towards the large-scale military production that will be demanded even if Ukraine prevails. A change of that kind may indeed be desirable, even inevitable, but a shift of such scale cannot be wished into existence. Put simply, however, if Europe cannot defend Ukraine, it cannot defend itself either.

Next month, the EU will begin the formal process of Ukraine’s accession. There will be some political resistance from Hungary and others, but a green light is ultimately likely. In geopolitical terms, it will be a significant act of solidarity. But at the same time it is also a reminder of some of the EU’s enduring weaknesses. These contribute to limiting its ability to play the heavyweight geopolitical global role to which it aspires. The EU may indeed be better than no EU, but it is not necessarily up to the job.

Just as there is an overriding strategic argument for Ukraine’s EU membership, so there are some valid reasons for caution. Relocating a huge part of the eastern boundary of democratic Europe to the doorstep of Russia is a very big event indeed. Then there are also the financial costs involved in rebuilding Ukraine, the migratory impact on Ukraine’s nervous western neighbours, the effect on the under-pressure EU budget, and the impact on EU decision-making and institutions in a bloc that may soon number 36 member states. These are not small matters, especially when military demands are factored in.

With the best will in the world, the EU will not find it easy to make this work. Unless and until the German economy recovers, Europe’s delivery on its own and Ukraine’s expectations could be stretched close to breaking point. All member states, the central Europeans in particular, will also be wary of the potential impact of 44 million Ukrainians on their labour markets under freedom of movement rules. While member states retain their right of veto over EU foreign policy initiatives, the common response that some EU leaders crave will be hard to achieve.

The modern European model is struggling on multiple fronts. But, like it or not, this is also modern Britain’s struggle. Brexit has in no sense freed Britain from these larger influences and connections. In some respects, it has merely made them worse. Nor has it spared us from the risk of a Wilders-type backlash – our wannabe Wilders is now eating four-penis pizza on TV before he begins his campaign to take over the Conservative party.

Every single issue haunting modern Europe haunts modern Britain too, whether it is the Ukraine war, growing the economy, redressing social inequalities, managing migration, climate crisis and even the decline of the nation state. The answer to that is not to rejoin the EU. But it is to be partners with Europe. It means recognising that our insecurities and our hard options for overcoming them are not different at all. In the majority of cases, they are exactly the same.

Source : The Guardian