A vast crumbling can be heard across Europe, coupled with an ennui that is the ironic upshot of being stunned by too many disparate crises. The Mediterranean, it turns out, is not the southern border of Europe: Rather, that border lies somewhere in the Sahara Desert from where African migrants coalesce into caravans headed north. And as they have throughout history, the Balkans still form a zone of human migration from the Near East.
For decades, the dream of the European Union was to become a post-national paradise of prosperity and the rule of law, and gradually, through various association agreements, extend the bounties of civil society to contiguous regions. Now the process is being reversed: The contiguous regions are exporting their instability into Europe itself. Eurasia, a super-continent of historic exoduses, is starting to reintegrate Europe.
This tumultuous process occurs as the social welfare state — the moral answer of European elites to the carnage of the 20th century — has become nearly impossible to sustain at its current level in some countries. The prolonged multi-year stagnation, exacerbated by bad monetary policy, has begot populist movements that will turn against the latest wave of refugees once the initial bout of public compassion runs its course.
Extremely low economic growth, plus the inevitable incidents of crime and terror, will darken the popular mood soon enough. Europe’s borders, rather than loosen as they have for decades, will tighten, with elements of the interior-ministry- designed-police-state asserting themselves in some countries. In a continent where nationality is still determined too much by blood and religion, calls will come for a Great Wall of sorts.
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As Europe’s postmodern period commences, a fluid geography is reasserting itself and erasing the last remaining divisions of the Cold War. For it was the survival of totalitarian states in the Middle East and North Africa into the 21st century that helped keep the Islamic masses locked up and safely away from Europe. But as significant parts of the Middle East dissolve into anarchy, from Libya to Afghanistan, Fortress Europe is no more.
Since antiquity, it was often demographic and military eruptions from the east — whether in the form of Persians, the various Gothic tribes, Slavs, Magyars, and others — that changed the face of Europe. The challenge from the east is now double-edged: Moslem refugees and an aggressive Russia. Either Russia will remain strong and dangerous, or weak and dangerous.
If Russia remains strong and dangerous, it will continue to undermine the government in Ukraine and may choose to ignite so- called frozen crises in places like Moldova and Lithuania. It will also serve as a pole of attraction for European populists who admire President Vladimir Putin’s emphasis on ethnicity and revisionism.
If Russia becomes weak and dangerous, we should expect even more virulent nationalism and anarchy within Russia itself. Because of Russia’s increasingly perilous economic condition, what seems implausible today may become ordinary tomorrow. The post-communist states of east central Europe, with their relatively weak institutions, will bear the brunt of these upheavals.
And yet the European Union is still sufficiently robust to mitigate these epic forces. The E.U., remember, is more than a balance sheet. It represents states rather than nations — that is, the rule of law and the protection of the individual against arbitrary fiat, regardless of ethnic or religious group. It is that attribute, as I know well from my experience as a journalist in the region, that still keeps former subjects of the East Bloc from descending into terminal cynicism about the E.U.
At the same time, the E.U.’s leaders must never forget that only by repairing its balance sheet through fundamental economic and monetary reforms can it possibly ameliorate the continent’s other problems. Sustained economic growth can undermine the attraction of populist parties and thus make it politically easier for European societies to integrate more immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa in future years.
A return to robust economic growth will also increase the possibility of higher defense budgets, which will send a strong message to an autocratic Russia. Growth will also improve the prospects for a lost generation of unemployed young people — perhaps the most underrated danger to the long-term political health of Europe. Growth, moreover, will enhance the ongoing institutionalization of states in the former Communist East.
As Lee Kuan Yew demonstrated on the other side of the world in Singapore, building honest, impersonal institutions helps a small state survive in a region of bigger, hostile ones.
Reforming the welfare state does not mean dismantling it — that would only cause another form of social and political upheaval. Nevertheless, structural economic reform is, at root, the solution to Europe’s slow-motion dissolution.
If the E.U. cannot generate more dynamism in the realm of economic and fiscal policy, it will continue to fracture internally, as each state looks out for its own, zero-sum interests, even as external threats multiply and Europe melts into Eurasia. Such a transformation in political geography would leave the United States as the lonely bastion of the West. Indeed, the E.U.’s creation and evolution represents the ultimate fruit of the U.S.-led victory in World War II. It should not give way to the dementia of nationalist ideologies.
But political vision requires a strong economic foundation. And only a fiscally vibrant Europe can cope with the threats on its periphery. Geography matters, but human agency matters more.
Robert Kaplan is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and author of the forthcoming “In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond.”
© 2015, Bloomberg View