The crisis enveloping Europe

M. K. Narayanan, The Hindu

10 Dec 2015

The combination of geo-economics and geopolitics is today fuelling a degree of paranoia. Many in Europe see the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris as the precursor to a fresh wave of violence across the continent. 

The world has been looking to the COP-21 (2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference) with great anticipation, hoping that the outcomes would pave the way for an equitable agreement that would satisfactorily address the issue of global warming and achieve the prescribed target of limiting the rise in global temperatures to less than 2° Celsius. The jury is still out on what COP-21 will ultimately achieve.

There was, however, an uninvited guest present in many of the same salons in Paris, where the climate change meetings have been held. Like Banquo’s ghost, terrorism was an overwhelming presence, never absent from the thoughts of both leaders and other participants attending the COP-21. The incidents where there were five shootings and two bombings by gunmen and suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State (IS) on predetermined targets in Paris on November 13, and resulting in 130 fatalities and injuries to over 200 more people, have left France in a state of shock. Worse, they have left an indelible imprint on the French ethos. This is now beginning to reverberate across most of Europe. The meticulous planning, the calibrated nature of the attacks and the use of modern communication equipment by the perpetrators have jolted France and Europe. Governments across Europe are being compelled to review and change their laissez-faire procedures and security doctrines.

Jolted by Paris

If any one single act could make Europe truly understand the meaning of German philosopher general Carl von Clausewitz’s phrase, that “war is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will” (substitute the word terrorism for war), then it was the November 13 attacks in Paris. It has had serious repercussions in neighbouring Belgium, which shut down for a while. Meanwhile, an entire continent has developed a siege mentality.

This was clearly evident during a meeting that I attended of erstwhile senior policymakers in Europe, held exactly a week after the terrorist attacks in Paris. What was apparent during the discussions was that Europe had changed. As Europe weeps over this, and is outraged by the barbaric acts of premeditated violence, indignation over the terrorist attacks, together with the uncontrolled flow of migrants/refugees into the continent from West Asia and other regions, is beginning to cast a shadow over the character of Europe, especially its approach to humanitarian and other causes.

Europe has been wrestling with economic issues since the 2007-2008 economic crisis and financial meltdown. It had, consequently, put geo-economics on top of its agenda. Even as the existential crisis regarding the future of the Euro-zone is still to be resolved, and Europe is yet to fully recover from the great debt crisis, it now confronts a range of newer threats. This has required the return of geopolitics. The combination of geo-economics and geopolitics is today fuelling a degree of paranoia. Many in Europe see the November 13 terrorist attacks as the precursor to a fresh wave of violence across Europe.

Beginning 2015, Europe, including France, has witnessed terror attacks with increasing regularity. Since 2008, the death toll in violent conflict has gone up in geometrical progression. It is in this milieu that Europe is confronted with the greatest influx of refugees since the end of the Second World War. Europe seems overwhelmed as a result. One immediate result is that it has led to a divided European Union. It has also given an impetus to right-wing nationalist forces in many countries. The Schengen concept is under grave threat.

Living with terror

Europe, though, is no stranger to terrorism or terrorist attacks. The Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy, the 17 November in Greece and other terror groups that operated in France, the United Kingdom and Spain during the latter half of the 20th century had all wrought a great deal of fear. The 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games ranks among the most diabolical events in the annals of terrorism anywhere. Nevertheless, European strategic experts tend to think that the latest events signal a turning point in the history of Europe.

It is not merely that every one of them had underestimated the threat posed by the IS — or their capacity to strike far beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq, extending further into West Asia and now into Europe. Further, they had misjudged the fallout of the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, which had now metastasised into Lebanon, into Jordan, into Turkey and now into Europe, with thousands of refugees likely to seek asylum in Europe in the coming years. The real fear is that the combination of pressures had the potential to create a situation leading to the disintegration of a united Europe.

As the crisis in Europe deepens, concerns are also being voiced at the same time over the implications of French President François Hollande’s “Declaration of War” against the IS. Europe tends to be divided between those who want the state to be armed with greater powers and those who fear that indiscriminate “war talk” may lead to a crackdown domestically on any contrarian voices.

The employment and the use of extraordinary powers under the plea that the nation and its institutions are under grave and immediate threat have serious connotations for Europe’s future according to the champions of civil liberty and keepers of the European way of life. Following the terror attacks in Paris, the passing of a statute in peacetime granting the French President emergency powers is seen as far too draconian a measure, which they believe is likely to have unforeseen consequences. France’s example, they think, would in turn be emulated by other European states.

Emergency measures vs civil freedoms

The chasm between those who are pressing for changes in the statute and also in policies and those others who want the existing safeguards to be preserved to retain France’s European character is increasing with each passing day. This has added to the sense of impending crisis. What is considered certain by most is that European intelligence agencies will be invested with greater powers for surveillance and to carry out more intrusive attacks. At present, those who insist on the importance of safeguarding civil freedoms are clearly in the minority.

As Europe flounders on how to deal with a cornucopia of new problems, it is worth considering whether the developments in Europe will have an impact on global governance. Coexistence among people of different regions and the compact among those belonging to different religions across the planet — something that Europeans, in particular, are said to greatly treasure — is coming under threat. This may well turn into a major geopolitical issue.

Many, and this includes those not only in Europe, express fear that the Muslim world is coming apart, enabling extreme radicalist elements like the IS to flourish. Sustaining a reasonably open and tolerant state in such circumstances, they believe, has become difficult. Most European leaders, as of now, hew to the view that an open attitude at this juncture may be too much to ask for.

(M.K. Narayanan is a former National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.)

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