In a speech at the Sorbonne on 26 September 2017, the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, laid out his vision for Europe. He wanted “a sovereign, democratic and unified Europe”; one that would, among other things, be able to “effectively protect [its] borders, take in those eligible for asylum decently, truly integrate them, and at the same time quickly return those not eligible for such protection”.
That vision was never realised. Despite the lasting effects of 2015’s migrant crisis, the worst in Europe since the Second World War, the European Union has never worked out how to control its external borders. In the relative calm that followed the 2015 crisis, the EU was complacent about the need to reach a unified migration policy. Instead, it relied on a piecemeal strategy based on border walls, punitive patrols and coercing nations outside the bloc to keep migrants at bay.
Now, there is a new migration crisis on Europe’s doorstep. Recognising the EU’s weakness on this front, Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, has been shuttling thousands of Middle Eastern migrants to his country’s borders with Poland and Lithuania. Our Europe correspondent, Ido Vock, has reported from the front line; he speaks to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus’s exiled opposition leader, who warns against another form of complacency, as well as the dangers posed by Russia. “Only with the dismantling of the [Lukashenko] regime can the situation improve,” she says. “If only the migration crisis is solved, the regime will invent something else.”
Yet the EU has often turned a blind eye to autocracy. Even within its own borders, unruly member states such as Hungary and Poland have been coddled rather than censured. While the EU’s desire for stability is sensible, it becomes a problem when it tips over into sclerotic support of the status quo.
Then there is the issue of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which supports Belarus and, in its quest for chaos, is intent on destabilising Europe. As Bruno Maçães writes in this week’s cover story, where the Russian leader embraces – and sows – instability, the EU has too often pursued a path of least resistance: “The Kremlin understands that Europeans have such a deep aversion to dealing with instability and conflict that a sure way to repel Europe’s encroachment on the Russian near abroad is to engineer unresolved conflicts, political disorder, and border disputes.”
In her column, Helen Thompson warns of another vulnerability: Europe’s reliance on Russian energy. Here, complacency has struck again, as successive German governments ignored the potential pitfalls of a growing dependence on Russian gas. That reliance, strengthened by the nearing completion of the second Nord Stream pipeline, means that the EU is even less likely to take pointed action against Russian aggression.
But the risks of complacency aren’t limited to migration or geopolitical disputes and rivalries. As many individual governments across the continent are now discovering, a summer of low Covid infection rates instilled a dangerous nonchalance over equally low vaccine uptake rates in some EU states. That has now manifested in a winter of discontent as a fourth wave of Covid sweeps across large parts of Europe. While eastern Europe has been particularly hard hit, Austria has also imposed a strict lockdown, and Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands are all tightening restrictions. The new rules have been met with unrest, protests and even violence.
Yet, as Jeremy Cliffe writes, not all European countries face the same turmoil. Spain, Portugal and Mr Macron’s France – which was firmer and faster than other states in implementing vaccine passport systems over the summer in order to boost take-up – are experiencing relatively low case rates.
Perhaps the perils of complacency should serve as a cautionary tale for the United Kingdom. Though vaccine take-up has been relatively high across the country, lax rules on masks and social distancing, as well as a disregard of the spread of Covid in schools, have contributed to an alarming surge of cases on a par with many EU states. Britain may be outside the EU but, as ever, its fate remains tied to Europe’s.
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos