On Merkel, Syria, refugees, and saving the European Union

The defeat this week of Chancellor Angela Merkel in German regional elections brings the specter of a European political crisis a step closer. Moreover, it makes the “Brexit” — the exit of Britain from the European Union at the June referendum — more real.

Merkel

Merkel

The upshot could be a crisis far worse than a possible collapse of the euro, as economist Francesco Giavazzi stresses, sharing a common feeling among some European intellectuals. It might be the end of the grand European project that shaped the ideas, dreams and hopes of almost three generations born in the old continent — the equivalent of the US facing secession and splitting into 50 independent states. Even worse than the above would be a return of tensions and rivalries that crushed the continent and the planet in two near-fatal world wars.

EU nears eleventh hour

The crisis is triggered by refugees from Syria and Libya who are flooding Europe and threaten to tear apart its social fabric. The wave of refugees is shaking and threatens to overturn existing political agreements over the refugee issue. Some leaders like Merkel are eager to welcome the refugees for humanitarian reasons and to offset Europe’s declining birth rates. Merkel’s rivals, on the other hand, can’t wait to fan up racist rhetoric and worry out loud about the collective cohesion of European states.

To make matters worse, the European Union (EU) is mulling intervention in Libya while feverishly trying to strike a deal with Turkey, which holds the sluice gates that channel Syrian refugees into Europe.

It resembles the situation in centuries past when Turkey, in the form of the Ottoman Empire, held the fate of  Europe in its hands. The difference is the previous threat took the form of  hordes of blood-thirsty holy warriors bent on sacking the cities of the northern shores of the Mediterranean. Now, the danger takes the form of throngs of desperate folks running for their lives from a senseless war.

The difference between these two historical threats also underscores the disparity in strength between Europe and Turkey today. Turkey is very weak. It is using de facto blackmail against Europe, asking for billions in return for holding back the thousands of refugees that flee the Syria every day.

Yet everyone forgets that Turkey is no innocent bystander in the Syrian war. It is also a key player. Some of the money Europe gives Ankara to stem the tide of refugees is also plowed back into the war, creating more refugees.

Ankara certainly has its reasons for doing what it’s doing. It feels pressured in the east by Iran. In the south, it is contending with Iran-backed Hezbollah militants and a rump regime in Damascus. In the north is an old and revitalized rivalry with Russia, with Europe in the west still rejecting its entry into the coveted EU.

One could argue that Turkey could use better and subtler ways to achieve its ends.

Perhaps Turkey finds it easier to take this route because Europe, the richest and most important element in this puzzle, responds more to threats and blackmail than reason. This is because the EU needs to build a consensus between 28 independent governments with very different agendas and priorities before it can agree to anything. The process has proved very difficult and taxing for the EU and anyone dealing with it. These 28 governments respond much faster to immediate threats. Turkey knows this.

Independent European army?

All this has created a conundrum from which the EU finds it hard to escape. Though the EU and its members are the most directly affected by the Syrian war, it has no instrument with which to address the crisis. It has no independent army of its own to intervene in the conflict.

NATO is regional military alliance led by Washington. NATO has other priorities, such as dealing with a resurgent Russia, and cannot easily be detached to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis. Europe can only beg the US to intervene or pay off the Turks or anyone else to deal with the problem.

This why the EU may be doomed. It doesn’t matter anymore who was responsible for the Syrian or Libyan disasters. According blame will not result in solutions, nor can the EU count on its historic ally, the US, to restore peace and security to its borders. Without an army or some credible force of its own to defend it, the fate of the entire EU project, as well as its currency and the global financial stability linked to it is under dire threat.

The only hope for survival may lie in reducing blackmail from states like Turkey, building a consensus, creating some kind of European military force, and putting the EU’s 28 governments under a commander in chief who is in a better position to negotiate with Turkey and other parties.

Merkel as Lincoln

Merkel can fill this role and act as Europe’s Abraham Lincoln. The war she faces in Syria is very different from past wars. But it is very dangerous and it can make or break the EU — just as the Civil War threatened America’s survival. But to reiterate the earlier point, absent an army that can press Turkey to negotiate and possibly intervene in Libya, Europe is in fact lost.

While Merkel has made no such proposal, recent words and actions suggest she may be heading in that direction. Pope Francis also seems to be encouraging some kind of collective action by encouraging European countries to welcome the refugees and help Syria. But none of these solutions are possible without a stronger political union in Europe and the creation of a European military force to deal with the crisis.

There likely will be plenty of opposition from some quarters in Europe and the US. Yet, even from Washington’s perspective, the US would benefit from a stronger and more united Europe to help with mounting global challenges.

The opposite result means a broken Europe that would be at the mercy of hostile neighbors. This could theoretically include not only Turkey and Russia, but also potential extortionists like Egypt, or Iran.

If this happens, the old global order will be gone. Merkel, therefore, is in a position to save that order and the people who depend on it for their survival. Can she do it? Let’s hope she can.

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Research Associate of China Renmin University. The author of Asia Times’ Sinograph column, he was also Asia Editor for the Italian daily La Stampa and Beijing correspondent for Il Sole di 24 Ore, and has written for numerous Italian and international publications. He was the first foreigner admitted to the graduate program of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, he is the author of eight books on China and a frequent commentator on CCTV.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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