Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).
Europe faces a perfect storm of crises on a scale not seen since World War Two. Endless streams of migrants are testing political cohesion. The euro zone crisis remains deeply unresolved, with the richer north and poorer south eyeing each other suspectly. A resurgent Russia provides an external threat in a way not seen since the Berlin Wall fell. Ukraine is a stark reminder that limited conflicts are not unthinkable.
But major, widespread European conflagration? It might remain unlikely, but no longer as unthinkable as it once was.
Some even predict it. In recent months, several current and former U.S. and European officials have told me they privately believe a major European war is no longer unthinkable. One even said he actively expected it to happen.
My own country, Britain, faces its own rather raw choice in June this year, deciding whether or not to remain a member of the European Union. The UK will probably stay in, informed opinion says — although there is also a consensus that the worse the news flow from the continent, the more likely it is to leave.
It is difficult to predict how events will unfold, or even what the greatest risks might be: the effects of mass migration, the dangers of growing tensions with a resurgent Russia, the ongoing lingering threat that the euro might unravel. The worst-case scenario might be all of the above happening at once, prompting a collapse into chaos and violence that could be extremely difficult to manage or recover from.
Worries over the effect of the migrant crisis skyrocketed after the November Paris attacks, and perhaps even more after reported New Year’s Eve mass sexual assaults in Cologne and other German cities, some blamed on migrants. Russia, meanwhile, is increasingly accused by some U.S. and European officials of deliberately exacerbating tensions in Europe through propaganda and disinformation.
At the end of February Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military chief and head of the U.S. European Command went so far as to accuse Moscow of “weaponizing” refugees by stoking the Syrian war to undermine European institutions and resolve.
Russia’s agenda remains extremely opaque — particularly since this week’s announcement by Moscow of a withdrawal from Syria. Vladimir Putin could be trying to push Bashar al-Assad towards the negotiating table by threatening to cut support — or simply trying to muddy the waters still further.
For sure, the unraveling of the EU — and even more so, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — would offer Moscow considerable short-term advantage. It would also be a catastrophe for vulnerable Northern European states such as the openly nervous Baltics. Ultimately, though, a truly chaotic collapse in Europe could threaten Russia’s interests as much as anyone else.
For now, neither NATO nor the EU seems yet on the brink. If anything, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have strengthened NATO’s resolve, forcing it to come up with much more comprehensive plans to reinforce vulnerable eastern and northern flanks. While some recentthink tank reports suggest that a massive conventional Russian assault might actually succeed, there are now enough U.S. and other NATO forces in the region that such action would trigger much wider, perhaps nuclear conflict with the West. By the Cold War-style rules of deterrence and mutually assured destruction, that should make such action much less likely.
There are other potential threats to NATO’s long-term survival, of course — not least the possibility of a more isolationist administration in Washington. But they remain relatively distant.
Some elements of the EU, though — particularly the Schengen region abolition of internal borders — have been damaged, if not altogether destroyed, by the migrant crisis. There are clear frustrations in multiple countries about what is seen as too much centralization and the lack of democratic accountability. That is magnified many times when it comes to the single currency bloc.
The management of the currency bloc remains messy — perhaps unsustainably so. Outlying states, particularly Greece, have effectively lost economic sovereignty, perhaps forever, while richer central states remain on the hook for repeated bailouts.
The domestic consequences of that dynamic, when combined with the refugee crisis, are politically alarming. Slovakia’s election this month saw a better-than-expected performance by the far right. And while German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats suffered less of a mauling than many expected in state elections this weekend, the right-wing anti-refugee, anti-bailout AfD did better.
Earlier this year, one of AfD’s leaders suggested police officers use firearms to stop refugees crossing borders. The party appears prone to alarming historical blindness — another leader this weekend referred to Merkel as the “worst Chancellor in German history,” apparently overlooking Hitler.
Under these circumstances, one might say Britain is best just getting out.
The “Better In” campaigners point to the economic unknowns and unquestioned negative shocks that would follow any Brexit. Such things are hard to model, though, and some of the bleaker predictions smack of scaremongering. In truth, a weakened Britain could likely survive outside.
The irony is that of all the countries in Europe, Britain is among the best placed to weather any storms, be they a short-term EU exit or a much larger collapse on the continent. It has relatively strong political institutions. It has an independent nuclear deterrent, its own currency and enough sea around it to protect against foreign armies or uncontrolled migration.
Had the UK made the cataclysmic error of entering the single currency under Tony Blair, now might actually be the last safe moment to leave. Joining the euro would have hugely damaged UK sovereignty and democratic accountability, and it might actually have been worth taking the horrific economic impact of getting out again. But that is not the case.
No country has ever left the European Union. Were the UK to do so, the knock-on effects on the rest of the continent are entirely unpredictable.
Perhaps Europe is doomed, but Britain owes it to itself, its people and its neighbors to not deliver what could be a fatal blow.
This piece originally appeared on Reuters on March 17, 2016.
Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.