Europe is facing several challenges beyond Brexit
Russia, China, and Africa will sow new divisions among EU states in coming years—and at a time when European consensus on important questions is already facing extraordinary stress
With all the attention to the never-ending legislative absurdities and self-inflicted wounds of Brexit, it’s easy to overlook the long-term challenges facing Europe. In recent years, the European Union (EU) has proven resilient enough to muddle its way through a sovereign debt emergency and a migrant crisis without sacrificing core principles, and the humiliation that Brexit has visited on the United Kingdom has discouraged Eurosceptics in other countries from pushing hard for exit plans of their own .
The EU has plenty to be proud of. Its status as the world’s largest common market makes the union a regulatory superpower, particularly for digital age information and communications technologies. Few of the world’s tech giants are based in Europe, but many of their consumers are. That leaves highly competent bureaucrats to make rules that American and other tech giants can’t ignore.
Yet, there are growing divisions among member states over values and priorities. Four EU states — Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Austria — now have populist governments that in different ways have challenged EU orthodoxy on internal issues like immigration policy. The governments of Poland and Hungary have posed direct challenges to EU definitions of rule of law — on free speech and judicial independence, for example.
That said, some of Europe’s greatest challenges come from outside. First, the transatlantic alliance has reached its lowest point since the end of World War II, and there’s no guarantee things will markedly improve once Donald Trump leaves the stage. It’s easy to forget the depth of divisions between the Lyndon Johnson administration and Charles de Gaulle over NATO, European public hostility toward Ronald Reagan, and the responses of France and Germany to George W Bush’s war on Saddam Hussein. But the emergence of two generations of Americans and Europeans who aren’t old enough to remember the Cold War creates a new degree of difficulty for maintaining the integrity of the alliance.
This matters in part because Moscow now poses new kinds of threats. Until recently, Russian influence in Europe was limited mainly to European demand for Russian energy, with governments of the most deeply dependent states friendlier toward Vladimir Putin’s government and those less dependent more sceptical. But Russian investment in and support for various Eurosceptic movements embeds Moscow more deeply in the internal political lives of European countries.
European officials have warned publicly that Russia intends to try to influence May elections for the European Parliament through support for populists ready to challenge European consensus on political values, but there isn’t much Brussels can do in response, and the US and Russian withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty will renew an arms race that directly undermines Europe’s security.
Russia is not the only, or even the most complex, challenge Europe faces. In particular, the coming “Technology Cold War” between the US and China will force many EU countries to side with Washington to protect rule of law and consumer rights against the Chinese State’s use of data to protect its authoritarian political model. But China’s trade with, and investment in, many European countries already surpasses America’s, and the gap is widening. EU members that are becoming increasingly reliant on Chinese investment will be reluctant to comply with the broader EU regulatory approach to the tech sector, opening another important divide in EU politics that undermines Europe’s global influence.
Finally, there is the special challenge posed by Africa. Migration has proven to be the most divisive issue of this generation in European politics. The migrant crisis of 2015-2016 created new populist political parties, reinvigorated old ones, and shifted the political balance of power in nearly every EU country. This issue will become even more important as surging populations of young Africans in search of a better life, African governments unable to keep pace, and other sources of instability persuade more migrants to take to the road.
More than one million Africans have applied for asylum in Europe since 2010. Recent studies show that many Africans still hoping to leave their countries soon say they intend to move elsewhere within Africa, but more than a quarter say they want to reach Europe. It’s easy to imagine that so many would-be asylum-seekers will create new opportunities for anti-immigration populists, especially in southern EU countries where most migrants first arrive, to undermine the authority of European institutions. That’s particularly true when other EU members refuse to help them share the burdens of processing and assimilation.
In short, Russia, China, and Africa will sow new divisions among EU states in coming years — and at a time when European consensus on important questions is already facing extraordinary stress.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism
The views expressed are personal