Europe is about to experience a hectic start of the political season, with more problems on its hands than at any time in recent years.
The euro area crisis created its own difficulties in 2009–13, but they came in waves: Ireland in 2009, Greece in 2010, Portugal in 2011, Spain in 2012, and Cyprus in 2013. The immigration explosion of 2014 and 2015 further tested the resilience of European institutions. Fall 2016, however, comes with three major challenges at once: the aftermath of the Brexit vote; tensions with Turkey, Europe's biggest partner in reducing the immigration threat from the Middle East and North Africa; and a chorus of East European voices for the resignation of Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, over the inability of Brussels to handle crises.
Add to these challenges the prospect of a rudderless Spain, where various attempts to form a government over eight months have failed, and worries over the coming presidential elections in France where Marine Le Pen, president of the far-right National Front, leads in some polls. The prospects look daunting.
Start with the Brexit vote. So far, Europe has been awful at dealing with it. First, EU Commission President Juncker accused UK political leaders of "leaving the boat," drawing ire from both sides of the Channel. Then President Juncker insisted on a quick application of Article 50: the formal start of the breakup. He was snubbed by outgoing UK Prime Minister David Cameron and told to hush by EU member states. One senior EU official commented: "Juncker wanted Britain to leave the parking lot before setting the navigation system." The European Council was hastily charged with handling the separation. Just when things were returning to normal, former French commissioner Michel Barnier, who is not known for friendly relations with the city of London, was appointed EU chief Brexit negotiator.
The apparent weaknesses of the European Commission go beyond those of its current president.
There are many unanswered questions over Brexit. We know by now it is going to be a drawn-out affair. We know that the new UK government is staffing up the key institutions responsible for the negotiations. We know that Boris Johnson, the public face of the Brexit vote, is now foreign secretary. And we know that a number of EU member states would like to have as amicable a divorce as possible, leaving lots of options on the table for the United Kingdom to choose from. What we do not know is how important the role of the chief Brexit negotiator will be; whether the process will ultimately be handled by Germany, just as many of the euro area crisis decisions were; and most of all we do not know what the new government of Theresa May has in mind as a successful outcome.
The second thorny challenge is immigration. Turkey's behavior has been inconsistent since agreeing in May 2016 to stem the immigration flow in return for visa-free EU travel for its citizens. Since then, Turkish president Erdogan has thrown several thousand alleged coup plotters into prison; dismissed tens of thousands of teachers, university professors, journalists, police and army personnel; and threatened to open the borders for the nearly three million refugees currently residing in camps inside Turkey. With the reported violations of human rights in Turkey after the July 2016 coup, visa-free EU travel is hardly feasible to attain anymore.
To calibrate the immigration threat: The number of refugees in Turkey is about twice as high as the number of refugees that entered Europe in 2015. And they are increasingly attempting to use land corridors through Bulgaria and Serbia, which are easier to travel during the winter months as compared to the sea routes.
Perhaps there is another agreement that can be made with Turkey. Otherwise President Erdogan can toy with European leaders by opening the border temporarily to increase the stakes. Europe is not prepared for such a development. East European heads of states have asked for the creation of a joint European army and border police. So far there is no answer either from Brussels or from Berlin. In late August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the unorthodox step of inviting European leaders to Berlin to discuss how to handle the situation. Few details have emerged from these discussions, suggesting no clear answer to the immigration threat in the making.
The third challenge is to repair the reputation of the European Commission. The poor handling of recent crises has significantly weakened the European Commission. Several countries, mostly from Eastern Europe, have asked for President Juncker's ouster and for broadened powers for the European Council. The fact that Chancellor Merkel, and not President Juncker, was meeting with heads of state in late August to discuss Brexit and immigration shows how little the European political elite trusts the European Commission.
The apparent weaknesses of the European Commission go beyond those of its current president. Its bureaucracy was slow to deal with the euro area crisis under former President José Manuel Durão Barroso, with the result of prolonged economic recession in Greece and high youth unemployment in most of southern Europe. The main lessons from this poor performance were not taken into account in the Ukraine crisis of 2014. A significant re-think of the role and responsibilities of European institutions in handling crises is needed.
All these challenges are surmountable. But European institutions have so far repeatedly failed to rise to the occasion. Hopefully the summer rest has given top politicians and bureaucrats time to establish a new crisis approach.