The escalating crises of the European Union have left many American strategists smiling. Primacists scheming to prevent the emergence of an independent European superpower found the continent nowhere close to being ready to do away with the American pacifier. More prescient authors had warned of the dangers of monetary union in the absence of any serious labor market or fiscal integration. Others had warned of the threat posed by instability in regions next door. Yet others, of the Europeans’ shoddy record in assimilating Muslims in their midst. Still others, of the democratic deficit undermining the legitimacy of the European Union itself.
The EU’s democratic credentials have been seriously tested by the eurozone crisis. While technocrats impose austerity measures on the southern periphery, Berlin has continued to ‘lead from behind’. In light of Berlin’s posse of rich northerners, France has found it attractive to walk largely in lockstep with the result that Franco-German cooperation has been very close despite serious disagreements over policy. This extraordinary cooperation in testing times at the geopolitical center of the continent has raised the hope that Europeans are yet capable of coordinated political action.
The return of trucks filled with dead bodies to the continent has provided a much-needed ethical jolt to European leaders. Merkel has called for an equitable distribution of burden sharing through a mandatory refugee quota. Hollande, long opposed to mandatory quotas, has finally come around. British opposition can perhaps be bypassed by persuading the twenty-six Schengen states to sign on.
Whether or not Hollande and Merkel are able to deliver a solution of some sort to the refugee crisis, Europe will continue to face security challenges from its near-abroad. Europe’s inability to mount a coherent response to developments in either Ukraine or the Middle East is the result of the incongruence of political realities on the continent. For while continental affairs are settled under Franco-German cohegemony, the French are alone when it comes to mobilizing politico-military action overseas: Germany has recused itself from foreign security policy thereby effectively cutting short any possibility of the emergence of the continent as a unitary security actor. Whence, the incoherence of the European response to instability nearby.
There are real alternatives to passively responding to the instability from the south threatening the European order. Berlin has wisely maintained a working relationship with Moscow. Indeed, of all the Western powers, Germany is closest to Russia. A great power deal on Syria is yet possible. Berlin could persuade Moscow to arm-twist Assad to the table. A political accommodation in Syria that ends the fighting would necessarily involve accepting that Assad stay on; at least temporarily. The Americans are ready to cut such a deal but they don’t want to take the lead on this lest they rattle their Sunni allies—the Saudis, the Turks, and the Egyptians. In order to bring sufficient pressure to bear on the Americans, Berlin would have to convince Paris of the merits of a great power settlement in Syria.
French enthusiasm is even more important if stabilization in North Africa is contemplated; as it should. Indeed, an international force to impose the peace in Libya is also not out of the realm of European capabilities. Modulo the air war against Qadaffi and the French intervention in Mali, the Europeans have shown little appetite for campaigns overseas. That may be about to change. As more and more refugees make the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean, this course of action will become increasingly attractive. Security vacuums have a way of goading unwilling polities to get involved. If Europe indeed emerges as a unitary security actor in response to these threats, the escalating crises would not have been in vain.