Europe – A landmass, a collective of nations, a union and one of the biggest domestic markets in the world. The continent symbolizes a plethora of things for different people. For some it may resemble a paradise of milk and honey, others see a deeply divided continent put to the test by economic and humanitarian challenges that will inevitably change its social and political landscape.
But what exactly do we talk about when we talk about Europe?
We are talking about a continent that, combined, is the home of 50 nations (6 of which geographically belong to Asia as well) spanning a multitude of cultures and religions. A continent, that was the main stage of both World Wars, that has overcome multiple obstacles throughout its history and that recently has to face new challenges that seem all too familiar.
There is a certain distinction one has to make when talking about Europe, though. While geographic Europe is home to many nations, only 28 of those belong to the European Union, a political and economic union designed to build and strengthen a unified internal market. This mostly means sharing the same currency and laws that ensure the uncomplicated movement of workforce, goods, and services internally and regardless of country borders.
A system this intricate and interconnected is not only profitable for most its member states, but it creates is a delicate web of dependencies, one that is not as fail prove as most people in Europe would’ve liked to believe. Greece’s government-dept crisis following the Great Recession ten years ago put the Union and its currency to the test and although Greece remained a member of the Union, kept the currency and has been able to reduce its debts, it still has a long way to go.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
While Greece remains to be a part of the EU, another country decided to leave just recently. The UK decided to “Brexit” the European Union by referendum in 2016, a process still ongoing, but with the goal of leaving the collective for good. It was not the first nation to leave to be exact. Algeria, Saint Barthélemy, and Greenland all left the EU, or the agreements preceding it, as soon as they became self-governed countries. All three of them were previous members of the agreements as they belonged to France and Denmark respectively. However, those were minor incidents in comparison to one of the largest and wealthiest nations in the Union deciding to leave for good.
The referendum, which was heavily fueled by UKIP, a populist EU-Sceptic party in Britain, was only the stepping stone and representative of a much larger issue that spread through Europe like a wildfire. Populistic right-winged EU-Sceptic parties have been slowly gaining traction in recent years and seemed to feed off of a multitude of different occurrences in Europe at the time. The Greek Depression, the war in Syria and the endless waves of refugees combined with increasing terrorist attacks created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, making radical ideas socially acceptable and provided vital momentum.
Elect the Dead
After the blow that was Brexit, the year 2017 was seen as a potential turning point, capable of tipping the scales in either direction. Three major countries of the Union held, and are still about to hold, general elections, and every single one of them featured recently strengthening populistic parties confined to the rightmost political spectrum.
The Netherlands and France were able to fend off these parties, and Germany will most likely do the same, nevertheless, the parties remain a significant part of the political landscape and are not gone, as some would like to believe. A single defeat is not enough to get rid of populism; it may in turn actually strengthen these parties as they are now a major part of the opposition, feeding off any failures the ruling parties may commit. The Union as entered its own trial that in the end may very well be either the end of it or a major chance to reset and restart a concept that many feel has not developed enough over time.
Nations of Europe at Odds
Not only the EU but all of Europe has been severely impacted by the Syrian war and a flood of refugees pouring into the countries in waves, mostly affecting Greece, Turkey, and Germany. Many other nations, too, have been hugely impacted by an increased stream of people entering the countries, which has led to severe tensions inside of, and between them. While Greece is still facing difficulties with refugees entering the country by sea, many of them dying in the process, Turkey has used its geopolitical location as leverage in its diplomatic ties with the EU and their member states.
Following a military coup in 2016, Recep Tayan Erdogan has used the aftermath successfully to secure his place in the country, leading to a highly controversial win in the 2017 Constitutional Referendum, effectively changing the country from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. This decision, when implemented with the next election, would be the end point of Erdogan’s journey which he started in a rather symbolic role as President of Turkey, but would evolve into executive powers if re-elected. This, among other things like the imprisonment of journalists (like Deniz Yücel), caused the EU to stop negotiations about Turkey joining the union any time soon.
Apart from stopped negotiations, Turkey had and still has a lot of power due to the stream of refugees entering Europe through Turkey. Erdogan has been known to use this power to his advantage when able. Another point was Erdogan’s ambitions to launch campaigns previous to the Referendum in countries like Germany, which did complicate relations with some of them, The Netherlands, for example, went as far as to refuse entry into the country to Turkish delegates.
Going forward for Europe
It’s been a rough decade, but after all, Europe and the European Union still stand, but there is no denying that the trouble may just have started. The proper processing and integration of incoming and eligible refugees was and still is a tough challenge to overcome, especially as the responsibilities are unevenly distributed with Germany leading the pack. Viable solutions still seem far off, especially with the rise in terror attacks soiling the public image of refugees and Islam to a point where the feeling of fear trumps the determination to help.
While populist and right-winged ideologies have been mostly fought off for now, the upcoming Brexit and an increase in votes for populistic parties will remain to pose a threat to the EU and the Unity of the continent as a whole. This may be a crucial point in time, as the European Union needs to change and grow with the trials it is facing, or face the possibility to falter and fail come next election cycle. After all, it has borrowed time to thrive, yet there is still a long way to fall if it is taken for granted.
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