Europe

Will the crises facing Europe cause it to unravel?

Will the crises facing Europe cause it to unravel?
Dutch far-right politician Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom. The party is expected to do well in the Netherlands’ national election today. Photo: AP
Published: 4:00 AM, March 15, 2017

The risk of European disintegration looks significantly more real this week. Multiple crises, each a symptom and cause of the continent’s deepest problems, are converging simultaneously.

Britain took a step towards leaving the European Union, and Scotland towards independence. The far right is expected to do well in Dutch elections. And a growing feud between the governments of Turkey and the Netherlands reveals both the difficulties of keeping Europe together and the forces that could pull it apart.

Alone, these are not enough to break apart Europe, which has endured worse. But they represent larger forces that, given enough such crises, could do just that.

This week’s events, then, pose something of a test of whether Europe can overcome or at least manage its problems, or whether those problems are enough to unravel the post-World War II order.

Here is an overview of those crises and why they matter.

FAR RIGHT LIKELY TO GAIN IN DUTCH ELECTION

The Netherlands will hold a national election today, in which the far-right Party for Freedom is expected to do well. It holds 15 of 150 seats in Parliament and polls suggest that it will win five to 15 additional seats, making it the country’s largest or second-largest party. The party is led by Geert Wilders, a populist firebrand known for extreme anti-Islam positions.

It appears highly unlikely that Mr Wilders or his party will end up leading the Netherlands. He would need 76 seats to form a governing majority, and the country’s multi-party system means that mainstream parties can easily form a coalition without him.

Still, the election is a test case for whether Europe, which will also see major elections in France and Germany this year, can manage its rising populist movements.

Far-right parties, even if they cannot secure enough seats to govern, can exert pressure. Mainstream parties could feel compelled to co-opt populist positions, much as Britain’s Conservative Party adopted leaving the European Union, or Brexit. And keeping the far right out of power risks exacerbating populist backlashes, as voters increasingly believe that establishment parties are conspiring to undermine popular will.

In this way, the real test is not election day but how the mainstream handles the next few years with a smaller majority and an emboldened far right. In Germany and France as well, the far right is currently polled to win a larger slice of votes but not enough to take power.

The takeaway: The far right probably will not take power, but there will be more pressure to pursue populist policies, such as targeting migrants or weakening European integration, which would undermine Europe’s post-war order.

TURKEY AND EUROPE AT ODDS

A growing dispute between Turkey and European governments poses its own high-stakes test.

Turkish officials are touring Europe to hold rallies encouraging the Turkish diaspora to vote in support of a referendum next month. The referendum would give the country a new Constitution that would greatly expand the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has invested significant political capital in the measure.

But Germany and the Netherlands have blocked the rallies. The Netherlands prevented Turkey’s foreign minister from landing in the country and deported the Turkish family minister, in both cases to prevent them from attending pro-referendum rallies.

Mr Erdogan responded by accusing both countries of Nazism.

The feud serves the political interests of both Turkish and Dutch leaders. For Mr Erdogan, it allows him to make a show of standing up to Europe, rallying nationalists at home. Polls have shown a tight vote for the referendum, so he needs every vote.

Mr Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, also stands to gain votes among those sceptical of Mr Erdogan. But so does Mr Rutte’s primary challenger, Mr Wilders, who has seized the crisis to portray the country’s Turkish minority as alien and hostile.

Because governments on both sides are driven largely by domestic electoral politics, they may decide, after their respective votes, that it is in their interest to smooth things over.

Or they may not. The Dutch government is likely to emerge under pressure from a larger far right. And Mr Erdogan, if his referendum passes and he consolidates power away from democratic institutions, may still feel insecure.

Both could respond by indulging more such disputes. With each round, they could whip up more public outrage against the other, making it harder for either to back down.

The episode, then, is less a danger in itself than a test of whether Europe and Turkey can still get along. That is a question of values as Europe swings towards populism and Turkey towards authoritarianism. But it is also a practical matter: Europe needs Turkey to stem the arrival of refugees, which it has been doing under a year-old deal.

Mr Erdogan, if pushed, could cancel the deal and allow or send millions into Europe. A rapid influx could deeply destabilise European politics and fuel the far right at a delicate moment.

The takeaway: Turkey and Europe both have interests in getting along, but political pressures could build to the point of forcing a breakup that hurts everyone.

ARTICLE 50 BRINGS BREXIT CLOSER

The British Parliament approved legislation that would permit Prime Minister Theresa May to formally invoke Article 50 of a European Union treaty, which dictates how a member state leaves the union.

This legislation is mostly procedural. The debate has largely focused on how to carry out Britain’s exit from the European Union — what role Parliament has in negotiations, for instance, and whether EU citizens should retain certain rights — rather than over whether the exit will occur. British leaders are still set on leaving.

The larger significance is that it brings Ms May a step closer to triggering Article 50, which she had pledged to do by the end of this month and which would officially begin the process of leaving the EU.

The takeaway: Brexit is looking increasingly certain, which will heavily damage the British economy and European unity.

SCOTLAND AND NORTHERN IRELAND IN DOUBT

Ms Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, has called for a new independence referendum, which would make Scotland an independent country with the aim of remaining within the EU. The vote would be held by spring 2019, so almost certainly while Britain is still negotiating Brexit.

Ms Sturgeon’s statement is not binding, and there are many steps to go. She cannot hold a referendum without permission from the British government, and it is unclear whether she will get it.

Less noticed has been the recent election in Northern Ireland, which handed major gains to Sinn Fein, a nationalist party that has called for Northern Ireland to leave Britain and reunite with Ireland.

Brexit has brought tremendous uncertainty to the Northern Ireland peace agreements, which rely on relaxed Irish border rules that may no longer be possible after Brexit. Sinn Fein still lacks a majority, but its gains indicate Northern Irish scepticism about following Britain out of the European Union.

The takeaway: The UK could break apart, though it is too early to say whether it will. THE NEW YORK TIMES

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Max Fisher is a writer for The New York Times Interpreter, which explores the ideas and context behind major world events.