Europe is in dire straits. Dangerously low inflation rates, coupled with low growth forecasts, culminated into destabilizing global currency markets after Mario Draghi – governor of the European Central Bank – announced yet another stimulus package plan. A year ago, Greece was nearly booted from the exclusive European economic club and some are skeptical about its ability to pay its debt and avoid a new crisis. The UK is preparing to hold a referendum in June, and the "Leave" campaign could make Brexit a very tangible reality. Currently, Europe is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis in recent history, trying to accommodate millions of refugees.
So, if there is one boiling global economic and geopolitical issue that might burst in the immediate future, all fingers should be pointing at Europe.
Taking a look into Europe’s history, the old continent doesn’t only stand for revolutionizing ideas and technological breakthroughs – from liberalism to steam engines – but also for war, desire of conquest and world domination. It stands for the greatest human slaughterhouse and the systematic cleansing of nations.
After World War II, it is true that Europe took a long break from these endeavors. At the time of Schuman’s speech, Europe set the right course towards tolerance, cooperation and economic prosperity for Western and Eastern Europe alike. The newly established European Coal and Steel Community (1951) that Schuman announced laid the foundations of the European Economic Community (1957) and then, the European Union (1992). All these steps showed an ever-increasing coordination in policy-making and legislation, and an improvement in cooperation among states. Until recently.
The 2008 crisis shook this firm economic union: unemployment and debt were and remain high in countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece. The faith in the political structures of the EU is diminishing: the idea of paying for Greek debt or the image of Germany dealing the cards contributes to widespread dissatisfaction with the management of the Union. Eurosceptic populist parties – who have seen a spectacular rise in recent national and European elections – push for the return of sovereignty to the state and less budget contributions to the EU vaults.
In 2016, these parties gain even more momentum because of the refugee crisis. Millions were displaced by the Syrian civil war and by the conflict with the Islamic State; many others come from poverty and conflict-stricken places in the Middle East and Northern Africa. However, Europe is not a much more welcoming place: the incoming populations rekindled ancestral xenophobic passions in many countries, indiscriminate of whether they are accepting 1.1 million refugees, like Germany did in 2015, or 531 like Latvia proposed to accept. The crisis nurtured a "pogrom atmosphere", with refugees slandered and caricatured, wrongfully accused of perpetrating crimes, stealing jobs and often described as parasitic welfare-seekers.
In a very ironic and grim turn of events, history tends to repeat itself. Europe’s polarization of the political spectrum seriously reminds one of the rise of totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Poland elected the Law and Justice Party which made ‘modest’ unconstitutional changes in legislation and key institutions. Moreover, Hungary slowly but steadily turns into an authoritarian regime with clear xenophobic and anti-Semitic inclinations. Even France and Germany, defenders of democracy and the ideal of a united Europe, are threatened by internal right-wing movements.
These developments are a huge setback for European unity and stability. Hard right-wing policies promote stricter border controls, lower immigration and refugee quotas, and building walls – fortunately, Europeans are not in the business of making others pay for their own play yards. Yet, the symptoms of the "wall syndrome" are quite serious: it disrupts trade and regular human flows, it creates smuggling opportunities, and it fosters the creation of a black market.
The problem with a fragmented Europe is that it undermines its already feeble economic condition, which was damaged after the sovereign debt crisis and the deflationary tendencies of the Euro zone. It is estimated that growth will be lowered by 0.1 percentage point in 2016 and 2017 because of the high direct and indirect costs associated with slower trade, especially in the Schengen area. To that, European Union officials must add the costs of China’s decelerating economic momentum and the plunging exports to oil-producing countries.
A sclerotic EU doesn’t benefit its strongest ally, North America. The EU single market is the largest in the world in terms of GDP, it is the second largest trade partner of the United States after Canada and Canada’s second largest trade partner after the US. A poor European economic performance means less benefits from trade and it takes a toll on financial markets too. It was enough for the Chinese stock market to plunge a bit in order to make the DOW Jones and many other indexes follow suit. Just imagine what a mighty European crash can do! In such an interconnected and globalized world, no big player can afford to let the others lose.
Despite all its flaws and failures, the European Union represents a bulwark of sovereignty and democracy whose political clout derives from the ability to wield economic incentives. The US has a powerful ally when the EU still stands for the same ideals. The EU proved this when it promised Ukraine a free-trade agreement, trying to distance it from the Russian embrace. When the Russian army and the separatists it supported chipped some of Ukraine’s territories, the EU seized Russian assets, imposed sanctions and called Russia to negotiate a ceasefire at the Minsk peace talks.
Never has the name "old continent" been more relevant than now. Europe is old and blind to the moving political sands it has camped on. It is forgetful of its not-so-distant past and serenely ignorant to the threat brought about by nationalism, hatred and division. The bit of lucidity that remains, embodied by leaders such as the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is quickly fading away. One can only hope for a wake up call.