On 14th November 2015, Europe woke up shocked and dazed following the terrorist assault on Paris. Four months later, the dramatic attacks on the Belgian and European Union capital once again underlined that this wave of Islamic terrorism will not be defeated without a great deal more collaboration within the bloc. These events have also cast the spotlight on the need for Europe to focus on finding a common understanding as to the existential threat it is facing; some see it as the fight against terror, others the refugee crisis, still some see a resurgent Russia as the Union’s main security issue, whereas all these crises and threats are linked. They can only successfully be addressed holistically, not on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. Finally, as Europe reviews these challenges and how best to address them, it has to put them in the context of the world the way it is evolving rather than the way it wishes it to be.
The Paris and Brussels terror attacks and the following investigations have clearly demonstrated the need for more intelligence sharing between Europe’s police and security agencies. The wave of post-Brussels bombing arrests – in Belgium, Italy, France, Germany and the Netherlands – suggests that Daesh operative cells span a wide network across Europe. Immediately following these latest attacks, we heard renewed pledges from politicians that Europe will work more closely to step up surveillance and exchanges of information as well as finally plug holes in criminal databases that have allowed jihadists to operate under the radar, while the UK’s home secretary Theresa May told the British Parliament that ‘we [would] not succeed by acting in isolation.’ Four months after the Paris events, though, the Union’s most egregious security failure clearly shows the true lack of proper European intelligence cooperation, wasting scarce resources and duplicating efforts while leaving gaping vulnerabilities within the EU.
The good news is that most of these intelligence sharing issues can be remediated relatively quickly, if the political will exists. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for the creation of a ‘security union’ fostering closer cooperation to combat terrorism. One of its first tasks should be the establishment of a European counter-terrorism agency with operational authority to share information and manage threats. But while the EU heeds mounting calls for it to craft a serious and effective collective response to these attacks, it is imperative to set this response within the appropriate geopolitical context and therefore for Europeans to don the proper lenses to read that environment.
So far, depending on whether you are Western European, Central European or Eastern European, the vision of what constitutes an existential threat to the EU has been very different: the fight against terrorism for the Brits and the French; the refugee crisis for the Austrians, Germans, Hungarian and Swedes; or an unpredictable and a more aggressive Russia for the Baltics or the Poles. But these security challenges are all interlinked, and their unprecedented accumulation can only be addressed comprehensively. The NATO summit next July in Warsaw will focus on the challenges the alliance faces on its eastern and south-eastern flanks. Ahead of that gathering, Europeans need to put their house in order and come to the table with clear ideas and a path forward.
This will be all the more important as Europeans are likely to see another rug being pulled from under their feet: the unshakable belief that, come what may, American support and leadership will always be there. After having strongly criticised George W Bush’s interventionist vision and policies, Europeans got a first taste of what a US disengagement from its post-World War II role may be with the Obama presidency. In June 2011, Defence Secretary Bob Gates warned Europeans on his parting visit to the continent that ‘there [would] be dwindling appetite and patience in the US Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that [were] apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources… to be serious and capable partners in their own defence.’ The time may have come for Europeans to adjust quickly to the idea, and prepare for an America either more isolationist, or in any event more focused on its own direct interests and its only true global challenger, China.
Whoever sits in the White House on 20th January 2017, his or her election will mark an inflection point. Whether Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders makes it to the White House or not, they will have profoundly marked their parties, shaking up ideological red lines and influencing their presidential platforms. Trump and Sanders are tapping into resentment against both economic globalisation and what many see as costly and pointless foreign military ventures in the name of US leadership. America has been profoundly changed by the last decade, and the country faces looming internal challenges on education, healthcare, income inequality, infrastructure, institutional reforms, gun violence and yes, adapting to globalisation. America’s next president will be more domestically focused, and as the head of France’s Foundation for Strategic Research Camille Grand recently noted, ‘Trump is moving with the foreign policy zeitgeist in the United States, not against it.’
Amid declining domestic support for free trade deals, alliance commitments or military intervention, European leaders should not take American commitment and support for granted. Europe must be preparing itself to take on a more autonomous role and larger regional and international responsibilities on economic and security matters. The on-going Greek crisis, the sluggish growth and the seemingly total inability to come to terms in a coherent and concerted manner with the current refugee crisis bode ill for the continent’s ability to rise to that challenge. In view of Europe’s recent chaotic answers to these issues, there isn’t much to suggest that Brussels, Berlin, Paris or London have the will or the means to lead the EU in picking up the burden of leadership and confidently and capably addressing these threats to its own security, even less so should Brexit happen. Looking at the world the way it is and adapting to it to find appropriate responses may already be a good start.