Europe is a troubled continent – and the long term trend lines are not good, according to James Kirchick, a writer and reporter who spent four years living in Germany and traveling widely throughout Europe. High unemployment, demographic decline, inflexible labor laws, growing anti-immigrant tensions, military weakness and a resurgent Russia – all point to a difficult future. “Europe as a peaceful, nice place with castles is a relatively recent view,” said Kirchick. “European history has been one of war, genocide, fiefdoms, and kingdoms” – a turbulent past that may well return unless the political and economic challenges are not confronted and resolved.
Kirchick, whose book The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age has just been published, cited the example of France, where the nationalist vote has been increasing inexorably. “In the 2002 presidential elections, Jean-Marie Le Pen got 18% of the vote.” Kirchick says Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie, will probably get about 40% of the vote in the coming presidential election run-off on May 7th. “She is not going to win this time, but five years from now, who knows? The trajectory is worrisome.”
France, he says is “a microcosm of the problems that affect all of Europe”. Not only does the country have a 9.6% unemployment rate overall, it has a near 50% unemployment rate among young Muslim males. Many French Muslims live in ghetto-like communities that are isolated from mainstream French life, which leads to problems of radicalization and violence – particularly against France’s Jewish population. “You don’t want to scapegoat all Muslims, but you need to admit there is a problem - if responsible leaders don’t talk about it, the demagogues will take advantage of these problems.” Which is exactly what is happening with the rise of nationalist political parties across Europe.
One of Kirchick’s greatest concerns is Germany, where the long-time chancellor Angela Merkel is now facing a serious challenge from the social democratic candidate, Martin Schulz. Russia, which interfered in both the US and the ongoing French elections, is likely to put considerable efforts into turning the vote against Merkel, both with illicit funding, cyber hacking and the widespread dispersal of “fake news” stories about German politics. Merkel has been the strongest leader in Europe on the issue of enforcing sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, which is why Putin wants to force her out of power. “If Merkel loses, who is going to lead the western world?” asked Kirchick.
Putin’s long-term plan, Kirchick says, is to destroy the European Union, NATO, and the US-European transatlantic alliance. “If Russia can deal with each European country on a bilateral basis it will be easier for them to exert their influence.” So Putin is systematically seeking out parties throughout Europe who oppose NATO and the EU – be they on the extreme right or the extreme left – and giving them support.
Kirchick was also very critical of the Brexit vote in the UK to withdraw from the EU. Not only does he think it will reduce Britain’s international stature, but “within the UK itself, Brexit will be very destructive.” The Scots and the Northern Irish both voted to stay in the EU, so there is growing pressure in Scotland for another referendum on independence from the UK. Meanwhile in Ireland there is the distinct possibility that a “hard border” will have to be reestablished between the Republic in the south, still an EU member, and Northern Ireland, despite the fact that that runs in the face of the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement. “The British not only screwed themselves, they screwed their Irish neighbors as well.”
Kirchick said that the recent prosperity and peace that Europeans have enjoyed has largely flown from institutions like NATO and the EU, “and the US role here has been crucial. If the US were to withdraw, the conditions that created nationalism and chauvinism could return”. He cautions Americans against feeling Schadenfreude about the problems that Europe is facing. “Nothing we do in the world is done without the Europeans. They are our greatest ally. To see their global influence decline at the expense of Russia or China, that is not in our interest. ”