Europe’s summer of discontent

If Brexit, as seems likely, impacts the forces ranged against globalisation and strengthens protectionism, major developed countries might well begin to look inward. This would lead to profound geopolitical shifts

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:01 pm IST

Published - August 16, 2016 01:44 am IST

160816 - Oped - Europe’s summer of discontent - MK Narayanan former NSA.

160816 - Oped - Europe’s summer of discontent - MK Narayanan former NSA.

Despite a warm summer, the mood in Europe today is one of pessimism. Optimism about the future of the >European Union (EU) has dipped sharply. Some Europeans have even begun to think that the idea of Europe is in peril, and analysts warn that the Brexit vote of June 23 could well turn out to be “a turning point in the history of modern Europe”.

The Brexit vote has, in a manner of speaking, been the tipping point, and the root cause for this pessimism. Europe’s spirit had already begun to flag, having to confront migration on a massive scale and handle successive terror attacks. Fears had already begun to be expressed that this was altering the character of Europe, and putting the European model in jeopardy. Brexit seemed to cap such sentiments.

String of attacks Concerns about the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) already verge on paranoia. The IS has been highly successful in self-radicalising a sizeable percentage of Muslim youth residing in Europe and to this has now been added more IS sympathisers among recent migrants. The July 14 Bastille Day attack on revellers in Nice, by a ‘lone wolf’ Tunisian attacker who employed a truck to mow down 84 people and injure several more, the axe attack on a German train in which four persons were seriously injured, and the knife attack at an Alpine resort in France — all during the same month — have added to the feeling of insecurity, and contributed to a kind of ‘ >Islamophobia ’.

It is possible to empathise with European concerns relating to their safety, given the string of terror attacks reported from France, Belgium and Germany during the past year and more. Since January 2015, France has witnessed three major terror attacks — the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in January 2015 (killing 12 people), the series of terror attacks in Paris in November (killing 129 people and injuring several hundreds more) and the latest incident in Nice, in July this year. In March 2016, Brussels witnessed simultaneous terror attacks, including one at Brussels airport (32 people were killed and more than 300 injured). Fears about another major attack in the near future are palpable, and the U.K. anticipates that it could well be the next target.

The Brexit blow Most European analysts, nevertheless, believe that it is the longer-term repercussions of Brexit that will prove to be more damaging than current short-term concerns relating to migration, terror and the >Eurozone crisis . Brexit is being openly reviled in many quarters as an irresponsible move, and as likely to have a qualitatively greater impact on Europe than any event since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The timing of the Brexit vote seems to have come at a most inopportune moment. Popular support for the EU had been diminishing for some time. It had reached a low point of late. What the Brexit vote achieved was to alter the character and content of this discourse, and effect a qualitative change for the worse. It threatened not merely the existence, but the very idea of a European Union.

The question uppermost in the minds of many Europeans is that if the U.K. — which had perhaps the best possible deal within the EU, being a member of the Common Market without belonging to the Eurozone and the Schengen Area — preferred to opt out, other nations who had more serious differences may also choose not to remain. France, where popular support for the EU is perhaps the lowest in Europe, and the Netherlands are being mentioned as obvious candidates. These sentiments are shared by many leaders across the political spectrum, with right-wing leaders such as Marine Le Pen of the French National Front and >Germany’s Alternative for Germany (AfD) already proclaiming the death of Europe.

Portents of a tortuous exit Enmeshed in its own contradictions, the U.K. is trying its best to salvage something from Brexit. It is hoping to secure from the EU the most suitable terms as part of a ‘divorce’ settlement. Its one-point agenda is to try to maintain the U.K.’s access to the single European market, while restricting EU migration into Britain. This will not be easy. Here, personalities will count as much as issues. The new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, is a Eurosceptic and a hardliner on immigration. The current point person for European unity, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, is a pragmatist, firmly committed to migration and the concept of open borders. A great deal of bloodletting is anticipated in the course of negotiations culminating in Britain’s final exit from the EU.

Contrarian tendencies are already beginning to manifest. This could impede a mutually acceptable settlement between the U.K. and Europe. Britain hopes to keep its lead role as a financial services hub — finance is the U.K.’s biggest industry and worth as much as 10 per cent of its GDP — and circumvent attempts by some European countries, notably France and Ireland, to displace it from its present perch. Side by side with this, the Gnomes of the City of London are seeking ways and means on how best to maximise its attractiveness as a less regulated offshore financial centre.

All this is in the realm of speculation. For now, financial jitters are more likely as almost immediately the U.K. will need to prepare for the loss of nearly 2,85,000 financial sector jobs. The City’s relations with China are also likely to suffer as a result of Brexit. London’s standing as the world’s principal place for trading in euro — a $2 trillion-a-day market — will come under new pressures. An additional worry is that when banks leave, professional services firms that work with them will follow.

The writing on the wall is thus all too clear. >Brexit has diminished both Britain and Europe. The EU today has 28 members, with a combined GDP of $19 trillion. Yet, apart from lacking the kind of legitimacy required of a supranational state, it also suffered from an inbuilt weakness in handling internal conflicts. The overemphasis it put on narrow technocratic politics proved to be a mistake. Brexit demonstrated that for ordinary people, sharing in the fruits of globalisation had far higher priority than the unity of nations.

The future of globalisation

Analysts perceive several other policy implications stemming from the Brexit vote and the U.K.’s departure from the EU. One, a possible unravelling of the EU. Two, a possible destabilisation of the West, with the liberal international order coming under strain as world democracies begin to look inward. Three, a strengthening of the trend against globalisation, favouring the erection of barriers, and undermining free trade in goods and services.

Institutions such as the >North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) could also be impacted. Dissonance among NATO partners is already very much in evidence, mainly over being compelled to toe the U.S. line against Russia. The exit of the U.K. (America’s most loyal partner) from the EU would not merely limit U.S. ability to manoeuvre NATO into accepting U.S. dictates, but weaken NATO itself.

Experts further believe that Britain’s retreat from Europe will increase tensions between Germany and France over leadership in Europe. With Britain’s exit, Germany’s share of EU’s GDP would increase from one-fifth to one-fourth. Germany’s steady rise as the de facto leader of Europe already riles France. Washington’s attempts, of late, to strengthen its axis with Germany will further exacerbate the strained relations. Many other countries of Europe appear concerned at a German surge towards hegemony in European politics, and the emergence of a more ‘German Europe’. This could provoke more disunity than unity.

The Brexit vote has, however, come in handy for Russia. The U.K. was among the hawks endorsing U.S. sanctions against Russia. Brexit, and a weakened EU resolve, is likely to lead to the easing of sanctions. This would leave Russia free to strengthen its relations with continental European powers, expand its influence, and consolidate its leadership in Eurasia.

>Globalisation has both an economic and security aspect. If Brexit, as seems likely, impacts the forces ranged against globalisation, perceptibly slows it down, and strengthens protectionism, then major developed countries might well begin to look inward. This, in turn, would lead to profound geopolitical shifts, and substantially alter the international security environment. The impact of Brexit may then prove to be far greater than what might have been originally envisaged.

M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

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