W(H)ITHER THE WEST?

     The aptly labeled “euro crisis” has led to a good deal of speculation about the future of the common currency, the European Union and, as if to put to rest any doubt that U.S. national security interests are also at play, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.  Debate on all of these issues is building on the back of great changes that have occurred all over the world since the end of the Cold War, most particularly the redistribution of economic, political and strategic might and influence.  The very meaning and identity of “the west” can no longer be clearly defined, as serious differences between its various components threaten to undermine the solidarity forged over the decades, particularly since the end of World War II.

     The euro crisis itself has clearly demonstrated  substantial differences between the economies of the northern tier, led by Germany, and those of their Mediterranean partners, i.e., Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain,  Portugal and, not far behind, France.  Those differences and the solutions proposed or, more accurately, imposed by the austerity-mad forces of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have led to loose talk not only about the future of the Euro Zone but, as stated above and in more hushed tones, of the European Union itself.  (The IMF’s Christine Lagarde is now reported as working to soften Merkel’s hard line.)  The consequences of dissolution may well force face-saving remedies, but the crisis has exposed not only wide gaps in monetary theory but obvious political and cultural prejudices that will survive whatever technical solutions are hammered out.

     A danger of quite a different kind exists in political developments in the British Isles, where Scots will decide next year whether to remain in the United Kingdom or go their own way, and where a new political party, the “Independents”, is gaining strength while pushing loudly for British departure from the EU.  The Tory government of David Cameron is feeling the pressure.  Add to that the recent ill-concealed animosity between the conservative Merkel forces and the French Government of socialist François Hollande, both wary of loss of support from their own domestic constituencies.  (Merkel is up for re-election this coming September, and Hollande predecessor Nicholas Sarkozy seems to be rethinking his retirement as criticism at home and abroad of Hollande’s performance emerges on a daily basis.)   If the UK goes its own way, the world will not end, but if France and Germany cannot work out their differences, the European experiment is dead.  The betting here, based as much on hope as anything else, is that common sense will rule.

     What does all this have to do with American national security?  Everything!  Whether or not there must occur some shift in focus, with the United States paying increasing attention to its interests in both the Near and Far East, the importance of Europe, Western Europe above all, will never diminish.  Washington surely understands this simple truth and, we must assume, is acting on that understanding.  This may well explain the recent announcement that President Obama will make an official visit to Berlin on June 18-19, which the German Deputy Spokesman has specified will take place at the invitation of  Chancellor Merkel and will cover “a broad range of bilateral and global issues including the further deepening of the transatlantic relationship”.  We can be sure that the dangers facing European and transatlantic unity will be high on the agenda.

     “Europe is enduring its deepest post-war economic crisis and the European Union’s very existence can no longer be taken as a given.” This quote from an incisive article by European Parliament President Martin Schulz in the British daily The Independent of  May 12

says it all, no matter what hopeful optimism has been expressed above.  Schulz’s views, under the headline “Europe needs to change, let the debate begin.  For some the idea of an ‘ever closer union’ is in freefall,”   must be repeated in full:

“For some, the idea is in freefall. Europe is living through rising eurosceptism, unacceptably high unemployment, especially among the young, and weak economic prospects.  This is worrying, for the moment people withdraw their support from an idea, the idea is finished. The more populist protest parties may see the European elections this time next year as an opportunity to score electoral successes. 

“As a convinced European I welcome the debate, but I recognise first that Europe needs to change course, something many in Brussels seem not to acknowledge. We are living beyond our means. Budgetary consolidation is essential, if only because we cannot bequeath a mountain of debt to our children. 

“Second, some structural reforms – to the labour market and on retirement ages – are essential. But the austerity policies currently being implemented in Europe are lopsided. It is taking too long for the structural measures and the necessary budgetary consolidation to take effect and, at long last, increase competitiveness. In the meantime, some EU Member States are sliding ever deeper into a recession. Austerity, supposedly the cure, is threatening to undermine the European project.

 “Third (and this is surely a cause to warm a British Eurosceptic’s heart), the EU must tackle the vexed question of tax. Every year in the EU, €1 trillion is lost through tax evasion and tax avoidance – an enormous loss to the Union. This sum could be used to pay off debt, to set up youth guarantee schemes and to invest further in growth initiatives. European heads of state and government have a duty to agree on effective counter-measures at the EU summit in ten days’ time.

 “And yet, and yet. Just six months ago, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It was one of my proudest moments. Indeed, many of Europe’s greatest successes are being taken for granted: Europe is the most prosperous continent on earth, Europeans can travel, work and live where they please. We enjoy a standard of living and a degree of protection of our fundamental rights which people in other parts of the world can only dream of.

“Perhaps paradoxically, a new European awareness is emerging from the crisis. Europeans are recognising how interdependent they are. One country’s failures can threaten the entire European economy, and can call into question the fruits of 60 years of integration. Peace, solidarity, and prosperity are not irreversible; only 27 countries, (28 when Croatia accedes to the EU on 1 July this year), working together can guarantee them. The peoples of Europe are taking a greater interest in what is happening on the other side of their countries’ borders. People want to know what the retirement age is in other countries, what the top tax rate is, why young people are demonstrating in the streets of European capitals. 

“However, some governments still refuse to accept that they are already working in a European context. They prefer to cling to national sovereignty, to the familiar trappings of carefully orchestrated Brussels Summits at which they mount a last-ditch defence of their national interests and then present the outcome at home as a victory. In so doing, they disregard the fact that it is in their countries’ very best interests that Europe should function properly. This, surely, is little more than posturing. 

“The European Parliament and the Council is currently discussing the EU’s long-term budget 2014-2020. It’s an important issue, but sadly it best illustrates the short-termist lack of commitment of some Member States to the wider European interest.  It is clearly misguided of EU governments, including the UK government, not to shift investment towards research and development, education, training, foreign relations and development aid, areas where European added value are at their greatest.

“The EU is about much more than its budget (capped at a meagre one percent of EU GDP since its inception).  The single market benefits the British economy hugely, and the EU remains by far the biggest destination for UK trade, accounting for almost 50 per cent of total exports The UK has played a leading role in forming many key EU policies (on the single market, overseas development, trade and climate change).  UK leadership in these areas has been highly appreciated and would be sorely missed should the British decide to exit.

“The UK has also played a major role in shaping policy on Justice and Home Affairs. In little over a year from now, these policies, including most importantly the European Arrest Warrant, cross-border criminal justice and policing become fully-fledged EU policies, meaning that any Member State failing to apply them properly can be brought to court. Yet the UK is moving ever closer to opting out of scores of those measures – in essence re-erecting national borders in the fight against cross-border crime. The UK’s own House of Lords EU Committee has concluded damningly that “…the Government have not made a convincing case for exercising the opt-out and that opting out would have significant adverse negative repercussions for the internal security of the UK and the administration of criminal justice in the UK, as well as reducing its influence over this area of EU policy.” Does the UK really want to puts its internal security at risk by exercising this opt-out?

“Next year’s European elections are of paramount of importance. For the first time there will be candidates from the European political parties for the post of European Commission President, this should engender a greater interest in Europe’s future. Those who say they want more democratic control can hardly complain at that. 

“Europe is enduring its deepest post-war economic crisis and the European Union’s very existence can no longer be taken as a given. A thorough, factually-based conversation on the virtues of deepening European integration needs to take place, starting in the UK. Britain would be sorely missed should it decide to leave. The stakes are high, so let the decision be taken with full access to the facts, rather than to narrow, outdated thinking. Let the debate begin!”

     W(h)ither the West?  However one wants to take that question, of this there can be no debate: the matter is of crucial importance to U.S. national security.

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