Europe on the Verge

The biggest displacement of persons since World War II poses a far more serious threat to the European Union than the Euro-crisis ever did. The migrant crisis is putting severe strain on domestic politics in every member nation, especially the biggest and most important one. I don’t often travel to Germany, but Philip Stephens does, in his capacity as associate editor and columnist of the Financial Times. On Friday, he wrote:

It is more accurate to call it panic than plotting. This week I spent time in the company of members of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party. Startlingly for an outsider, the conversations turned on whether the German chancellor would survive the refugee crisis. Some thought she had just weeks to turn things around. Never mind that only yesterday she had towered above any other European leader. Overnight, the unthinkable has become the plausible — for some in her party, the probable.

As recently as September, The Economist celebrated the German chancellor as “Merkel the Bold.”  In throwing open the doors of her nation to new waves of migrants seeking shelter from Middle Eastern and African strife, she was “brave, decisive and right,” the editors said, Merkel intoned, “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”  .

Two months later, the situation has reversed. Germany is expecting that more than a million migrants will have arrived by year end, with no clear end in sight. Demonstrations have begun occurring in major cities, especially Dresden.  Stories are proliferating like the one today  by Andrew Higgins in The New York Times: “German Village of 102 Braces for 750 Asylum Seekers. Jochen Bittner, a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, put it this way in an op-ed for the Times:

What we see on the rise, in other words, is not the anger of a classic loony fringe, but rather mainstream people striking out at elites who they believe have lost touch with reality and common sense. To many here, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the Ukraine crisis and the threats seen in an unleashed global capitalism have converged in a fundamental question: Do the mighty still know what they are doing?

To many ordinary Germans, perhaps most of them, most of the sources of trouble in the last quarter –century seem to have originated in post-Cold War acting-out of the United States.

The proximate cause of the migrant wave is the mass dislocation that followed the Arab Spring, which began with food riots in Tunisia in December 2010, and spread throughout the Mediterranean region and the Persian Gulf.  The Obama administration didn’t do well in Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi was displaced and then killed, before it set to replace Bashar al-Assad in Syria.  Before that, of course, came the immensely destabilizing invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The illusion of the US as an unconstrained “hyperpower” began in the 1990s, with the NATO enlargement that followed the reunification of Germany – in violation of what the Russian government at the time understood as assurances under President George H. W. Bush that it wouldn’t occur. It came in three waves, starting in 1999, during the Clinton administration, with Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.  In 2004, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia were admitted, during the presidency of George W. Bush. Russia briefly went to war with Georgia in August 2008 over the latter’s intent to join. And when Ukraine deposed its elected leader, with apparent US support, after he shied away from EU membership and a NATO commitment, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea.

Just before Merkel was elected chancellor, in September 2005, EP wrote,

[T]here’s a virtuous circle to be started within Germany itself, an arbitrage of character.  It involves turning to the curious goodness that was fostered among those who stood up to the corrupt government in the communist east, as an antidote to the tendency to overreach that became endemic in the west.

Since then Merkel has proved to be the longest-serving leader in the west, in large part for the reasons then given: she has been a superb mediator among German factions and between nations, in Europe and, especially, the US and Russia. The value of that role may be diminished, but it is not played out, and if she is sent into retirement the world will have become a significantly more dangerous place.

What are the chances next year’s US election can be turned even partly into a debate about foreign policy? We’ll know by the time the candidates reach election day in New Hampshire.

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