Edward Lucas December 22, 2015
Everything that happened in 2015 was foreseeable at the start of the year, was surprising during it and was still intractable by the end.
We knew in January that the Syrian war had rendered millions of people destitute and desperate, that the intervention in Libya had created anarchy in that country, that Afghanistan was getting worse not better, that Eritrea and South Sudan are hellholes and the curse of Islamist extremism was spreading over parts of west Africa—and among radicalised no-hopers in Western Europe too.
We already knew that refugees from all those countries were trying to find their way to the West—whether from a genuine fear of direct persecution, or simply because they wanted a better life, or for many reasons in between. We knew that the European Union has a habit of acting too little and too late, that Germans are bossy and idealistic and that the liberal tide was ebbing fast in Central and Eastern Europe.
We knew that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was determined not to let the Assad regime in Syria fall and that it has a ruthless habit of spotting and exploiting Western weakness. We knew that the Obama administration is the weakest and worst in modern American history, that Turkey is run by a prickly and eccentric autocrat, that Britain is distracted with its own neuroses about Europe and that the Chinese growth was slowing down, and thus cooling the furnace which fired the world economy. We knew that the European Central Bank would not let the common currency collapse.
And yet we were surprised when a million or more desperate migrants made their way through Greece and the Balkans to the safety of northern Europe, where Germany and Sweden lived up to the European principles that almost all other countries have abandoned. We were surprised when the Schengen zone buckled under the resulting strain. We were surprised when the Kremlin wrongfooted us in Syria, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan killed the peace process with the Kurds and tightened repression. We were surprised at the Paris attacks.
To be fair, there were some unexpected developments. The Iranian nuclear deal marked a notable breakthrough. So did the Greek bail-out. The unflinching refusal of Germany to put an upper limit on the number of asylum-seekers marked the end of that country’s guilty tip-toeing through Europe’s corridors of power. We now face a new Germany: self-righteous and confident, which wants all of Europe to follow its lead.
But for the most part it is hard to credit our policy-makers with much foresight.
The public and the elite alike are exhausted by the past year and are daunted by what lies ahead. Trust in the competence of our rulers is fraying.
Yet the December gloom may be overdone. Here are some reasons to be cheerful. The biggest of these is Ukraine. Russia did not succeed in stoking an insurrection all across “Novorossiya”— the “Russian-speaking” south and east. It did not break the Ukrainian army (pitifully led and equipped though it was) or the Ukrainian people’s will, or topple the elected government. All that happened for lessons which we should bear in mind in our far stronger and richer societies: Ukrainians survived because they were not scared. We are losing because we are.
That leads to a bigger point. Vladimir Putin underlined his strengths and his weaknesses. He is a brilliant tactician, with all the ruthless opportunism of a seasoned KGB officer. But he is a lousy strategist. He has not managed to modernise the Russian economy, or to build durable political alliances with countries that can help Russia protect its interests. His friends are a rogues’ gallery of thugs and losers.
And the West is standing up to him. The EU did not drop sanctions. It maintained them. It is squeezing Gazprom by the throat. Russia’s big energy threat—the “Abominable Gasman” -- is stumbling away from Europe. For its part, NATO is boosting its presence in the vulnerable north-eastern states. It conducted its biggest exercise—Trident Juncture—since the end of the cold war. The West is beginning to get to grips with Russian propaganda. Sweden and Finland are intensifying their own defence cooperation, their joint efforts with neighbours and are moving closer to NATO.
We can expect more of that in 2016. So long as Angela Merkel is in power, Germany will not let down its allies in the east. My first prediction for 2016 is that the European Commission will ensure that Nordstream 2 is not built, however much German industry and the German Social Democrats may wish it. The Commission stopped South Stream—the Russian plan to build an illegal pipeline across the Black Sea and up through the Balkans. It can do the same in the Baltic Sea.
My second prediction is that Sweden’s governing Social Democrats will hold a party congress in 2016 in which they will drop their opposition to joining NATO. Finland will immediately switch its position too. This may not come in time for the alliance’s summit in Warsaw. But Russia’s bullying manner towards its non-NATO members has made membership look all but inevitable. Having tried to divide the West, Russia is succeeding in uniting it.
My third, and more sweeping prediction is that the Schengen zone will become much more like a country—in effect Schengenland. The crisis in the Eurozone offers interesting parallels. Like Schengen, the Eurozone was built on wishful thinking. It had a central bank that could not intervene in the event of a crisis. It allowed national governments to override fiscal constraints. There was no proper regime for supervising banks. The result was recklessness on all sides (by German lenders and Greek borrowers), followed by an almighty bust-up.
But now the architecture of the Eurozone has changed. We have an interventionist central bank, a fiscal authority which clearly overrides voters’ choices (ask the Greeks) and the rudiments of a common banking supervisory system. Some elements remain incomplete (such as fiscal transfers) and the economic, political and social cost has been appalling, but it is now possible to see how the Eurozone, more tightly integrated than before, can survive and perhaps even flourish.
The same process is now under way in the Schengen zone. Germany is reluctantly and belatedly pushing for a common approach to migration and to the security of Europe’s external frontier. Other countries are grumpily acceding to this. There is smoke and dust over the building site, but the outlines of a new structure are emerging.
For example, the external Schengen border will be defended, so that migration takes place in an orderly way. If Greece cannot defend its island borders itself, and will not accept help from the EU, then it cannot stay in Schengen. Schengenland will need to be much tougher in establishing the identities of people who live within its borders. Social cohesion is the most vital ingredient of civilization. Most people will pay taxes, obey the law and be kind to each other so long as they know that others are doing the same. Privacy zealots may find fingerprinting, retina scans and facial-recognition algorithms distasteful. However, faced with the movement of large numbers of people, biometric identification is crucial for establishing numbers and preventing abuse. European officials should be learning from Estonia to see how a system like this works safely, securely and cheaply.
Schengenland will also make asylum applications easier for those who are most in need and harder for those who break the rules. It makes no sense to privilege the photogenic people who have struggled (or paid) to cross long distances to reach the EU border, but to disadvantage those who are stuck in refugee camps because of frailty or family commitments.
My fourth prediction is that Europe will become much tougher in projecting power beyond its borders. Security—for a country or for an alliance—does not begin at the frontier. It begins well on the other side of it. The European Union needs to start behaving like the imperial superpower that it really is. It has a bigger GDP than the United States and a bigger population. It must stabilise its periphery. If it does not, then it will be destabilized by its periphery. That means an unprecedented level of foreign-policy toughness. We need a European army (I would suggest building on the French Foreign Legion). It should take control of and pacify territory, using lethal force if necessary, and then administer these territories in trusteeship.
My final prediction is that Britain will vote to stay in the European Union. The referendum is a disgraceful gamble on the country’s future. But once the campaign really starts, the balance of forces is overwhelmingly in favor of continued membership. Almost all business, almost all unions, all universities, all the cultural elite, most of local government, most people under 40, most of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and most of the media—all of them favour staying in the EU. So does every single one of Britain’s foreign allies: the only country which wants Britain to leave is Russia.
None of this is guaranteed. There are many bumps ahead. In elections in France and elsewhere anti-systemic parties may do well. A reckless Putin regime may decide to raise the stakes with a military provocation, hoping that we will fail to call his bluff.
But a diet of crises is normal nutrition for Europe’s leaders. I think we are going to end 2016 in a better state than we are now. On that note I wish all readers a happy holiday and a very happy new year.
Lessons of 2015