Early last week, chief Brexit negotiator of the European Parliament, and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, delivered a candid and highly unprecedented address to an assortment of academics and commentators, gathered at Chatham House in London for a colloquium termed Brexit and Beyond: Europe’s last chance? Indeed, for Verhofstadt, the crisis pitted against the European Union is existential in nature. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the response the UK is to expect from the EU following its formal triggering of negotiations, Verhofstadt omitted Brexit, in defining three seminal threats, that are poised to dissolve the glue of European integration.
The first threat, “radical political Islam”, has scrutinised the efficacy of European cooperation. In a year peppered with high anxiety – of the kind not experienced since the prelude to attacks on Madrid and London, in 2004 and 2005 respectively, European security apparatus have been subject to intense criticism. The four-month evasion of Paris attack perpetrator Salah Abdeslam has roundly been perceived as an indictment of Franco-Belgian security cooperation; symptomatic of sub-par intelligence and force co-ordination.
“You remember?”, Mr. Verhofstadt asked of the audience – an allusion to those attacks that have permeated the European security net: Madrid, London, Paris, Brussels and Berlin. In the context of an ailing ISIS, which continues to undertake efforts to reassert its relevance, securing European cities must be a priority – an arduous design, as the EU strives to balance security with a humanitarian approach to an acute refugee crisis.
A second threat, not dissimilar to the first in straddling both internal and external spheres, is Russia. A peril by no means new-fangled, fear of the intent of Putin’s Russia to subvert European cooperation is well-founded. The orthodox mechanisms of Russian interference: military incursions into associate states, and cyberwarfare, are most recently undercut by a fundamental gamechanger: the advent of nationalist, anti-globalist sentiment. The increasing alienation weighted against the European project has purportedly been exploited, with Russia financing populist elements – Le Pen in France, Wilders in the Netherlands – intent on broadening a gulf, with authorisation emanating from the highest echelons of Kremlin sanction.
Russia, a long-ordained threat, has much to gain from European disintegration. As a leveller of hefty sanctions, in response to military incursions in Ukraine, the Union is accused of imposing a universalist, anti-Moscow position, a foreign policy feature that individual states are not at liberty to change. In bolstering the European right, Russia may hope to blossom the bilateral – to establish cooperative channels with fresh, openly pro-Russian statesmen.
Most significantly, the chief Brexit negotiator concluded his tripartite diagnosis with a final, previously undefined caution. For the first time, the EU my find itself outflanked. Across the Atlantic, the mouthpiece of the populist movement sits behind a broad, oaken desk, redefining the American contribution to the global order. Donald Trump has thus far been unbridled in his criticism of European values. As a prospective President, Mr. Trump foresaw an electoral victory that would constitute a “Brexit times five” – a prophetic statement, reflective of an amplified instability.
A vehement critic of the mainstays of the European project: free movement, liberal trade and institutionalism, President Trump and his cohort have faced accusations of collusion, with European nationalist elements. An assault constituting direct, one-on-one meetings between the President and prominent right leaders, and the networking of Chief White House strategist Steve Bannon with both state and non-state actors – anti-papal, traditionalists at the Vatican most recently.
The former Belgian premier appears just, in acknowledging a broadening of the existential threats facing the European Union. Whether these 28/27 states are equipped to weather a worsening storm is up for debate, but may well hinge on the outcome of seminal elections, in France and the Netherlands – both of which being highly contested. The fate of the European project ultimately rests as much on nationalism as it does on how its malcontents seek to harness it. Indeed, it is a great conundrum – that as Europe ascends to higher degrees of disintegration, cohesion itself becomes most vital.