We apologize in advance for the depressing tone of what we have written here. Of course the migrant crisis that Europe is currently facing is anything but cheerful – for those who understandably are desperate to come in and for the Europeans who are contemplating the likely consequences of this.
But the lack of leadership to tackle this clear and present danger to Europe's future is truly concerning. Both the migrants and the Europeans might be worse off as a result.
While the armed conflicts in the Middle East get all of the press coverage, we have written about how the dearth of water there is affecting millions of people and might cause one of the greatest humanitarian disasters the world has ever seen – irrespective of who prevails in those conflicts. That reality will not go away.
And we are already getting a preview. This year Germany alone might get an influx of 800,000 migrants, about 1% of its population.
Ah, but fear not... European leaders are working on a plan, which reading from the headlines will likely involve paying hundreds of millions of Euros to African states to take all those people back. It’s a purely political/financial band aid that portrays a certain naivety about the problem and the region. Once those countries get the money we can only wonder how long it will take before all of the migrants and more are back on the shores of the Mediterranean. There are no easy solutions here.
And there is a much deeper issue that is surfacing as this crisis rages on: Europe’s defenses are highly vulnerable, which is a real risk if elements of those migratory influxes turn from desperate to hostile.
This may seem at odds with the narrative of the EU being home to hundreds of millions of people, an active NATO member and aspiring world power (with nuclear weapons to boot). All very good indeed, but let’s consider what is lacking across the Old Continent right now:
- No borders: the current EU construct was designed for a time of peace, meaning having roads and railways connecting all corners of the continent with little checks along the way. In times of conflict however, this asset might quickly turn into a liability.
- No oil: a decade ago Europe (including Norway) was producing about 40% of its crude oil needs; today the figure is less than 25%. This makes its foreign policy more dependent on other countries, particularly the big oil producers of the Middle East - and at the same time less assertive. After all, what good is to have better tanks and airplanes if you don’t have an abundant supply of energy to use them?
- No guns: a nuclear deterrent is useless if the threat is coming from within your borders. In fact that can rapidly become a huge risk should insurgents undermine part of that infrastructure. At the local level, police forces are already swamped when budgets for new recruits and weapons come under stress. European civilians are not allowed to have guns. We are not taking sides in this debate (the casualties caused by gun violence in the US are a tragedy for sure) but as a consequence the population is exposed to rising terrorist threats in their own communities. At the same time, Europeans are rushing to sell advanced weaponry, particularly to the Middle East, as a way to sustain their industrial output. It would be truly tragic if these turned against them in the future.
- No army: while the European project has helped to promote peace amongst its Member States, there’s one important footnote here – Germany, its most sizable country, cannot have armed forces with the capability of projecting any significant power. That leaves the French and the Brits as the only major forces to counter major insurgencies across the continent and beyond.
- No allies: if push comes to shove, who will come to Europe’s aid? The Israelis are already dealing with their own problems and if they act preemptively against any of their foes, we might see an even greater influx of people into Europe. Russia shares common interests on this front, but the powder kegs in Ukraine and Syria have only antagonized them – with sanctions to boot. Turkey is fighting its Kurdish minorities (who in turn have proven to be effective fighters against the Islamic State) and might become embroiled in a wider regional conflict. So there are only the Americans left, who are probably tired of their own decades-long fight against terrorism. It’s truly the West versus the rest.
- No money: this crisis could not have come at a worse time for Europe, still reeling from the Eurozone financial debacles. Try explaining why austerity is needed in Greece, Portugal and Spain while asking them to show solidarity and support the settlement of migrants. And who in Europe today would have the fiscal slack to remilitarize if a foreign threat were to emerge?
- No stamina: Europe’s population is getting old in a hurry. In contrast, the migrants rushing in are predominantly young males – always the most troublesome in any society, and would add critical mass to already sizable communities in Germany, France and the UK. Simply put, time is running against Europe’s native populations, who just based on current trends will likely have to share an increasing amount of power and governance with those emerging communities in the decades ahead.
- No effective leadership: within the current European establishment, who is able to come up with a credible solution and have enough political goodwill across different Member States to implement it? Who can inspire Europeans of different backgrounds to rise up to the challenge? Nigel Farage, arguably the most colorful Euro-skeptic politician, once said that the President of the EU had the charisma of a damp rag – to his face. Diplomacy (or lack thereof) aside, the fact is that most Europeans don’t even know who is running the whole place.
- No cohesion: in a time of crisis, people need something to hold them together and motivate them to push through it. Nationalism and religion had historically provided such cohesion across Europe. But what do we have today? The role of nation-states has been diminished in exchange for a stronger federalist union – understandable given the bloody historical context, but so far seemingly incapable of inspiring anybody at this point. Those who demonstrate in favor of their own local communities are often branded as neofascists. As for religion, Judeo-Christian traditions – which once had permeated the whole continent (not always harmoniously) – have been all but erased from public life. So Europeans are increasingly divided, facing both the ghosts of the past and of the future.
Now compare all of this to the Islamic State. In a short period of time they have brutally secured the control of vast areas with millions of people just with, what, 30,000 fighters? These guys are battle-hardened, motivated and homogeneous – a radical ideology (and 70 virgins in the afterlife) does provide a powerful cohesion. Despite facing US Air Force bombardments, they continue to make gains, both in terms of territory and recruits, executing Western hostages with impunity. And they have access to crude oil.
In a way they are the polar opposite of the freedom-loving Europeans – which is probably why they are on their hit list. So what better cover to use than millions of people crossing the Mediterranean? What can Europeans do to counter this? How would they be able to respond if well trained militias were to suddenly crop up in their back yards and commit unspeakable acts of terrorism?
It’s a frightening risk. And one that is likely to grow bigger if nothing is done to address it.