Europe has demonstrated a remarkable ability to muddle through crises in recent years, and it’s certainly possible that European leaders and institutions can avoid catastrophe awhile longer. But new challenges will soon test their political agility.
First, there is the Brexit referendum. Current polling suggests a tight finish. The “remain” campaign looks to have a lead, but its margins are narrowing, and those who say they’re most likely to vote want Britain to opt out. The immediate economic fallout is debatable, but a vote to leave the EU would create a period of lasting uncertainty for both Britain and Europe.
First, an online poll published last month by Ipsos-MORI found that 45 percent of 6,000-plus respondents in Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain, Sweden, Hungary, and Poland want their own governments to hold an EU membership referendum. For this reason, EU governments will not reward Britain with a new treaty that encourages populists across the continent to push for new agreements of their own – with threats of referenda to boost their leverage. Upstart political parties of both the left and right will continue to profit from anti-EU sentiment, and a vote for Brexit will accelerate this trend. This uncertainty will surely damage both Britain and the European Union.
Across the Channel, France is enduring another round of convulsions over proposed labor reforms. The country’s economy had just begun to show signs of growth when another proposal to reduce unemployment by adding flexibility to rigid labor markets triggered strikes by railway workers, air traffic controllers, police, students, workers in nuclear plants and oil refineries, truck drivers, and garbage collectors.
To the south, the European Commission is having a difficult time ignoring the problem that Spain and Portugal are violating EU rules on fiscal policy. Spain has overshot its fiscal target eight years in a row, and Portuguese voters elected their current government to reject EU-ordered austerity. That country’s debt has already more than doubled the EU limit of 60 percent of GDP. The Commission decided last month to delay talk of sanctions until after Spain’s June 26 elections to avoid helping the anti-austerity party Podemos win more votes. But pressure on the Commission to act is building even as public anger at EU institutions in Spain and Portugal makes it more difficult for their governments to cut spending.
To the east, Poland’s government faces a different sort of sanctions threat. The European Commission says a new law that allows the ruling Law and Justice Party to replace all judges on the country’s highest court violates the rule of law. Polish officials charge that the Commission is simply trying to blackmail their country into accepting more Muslim migrants. If Poland’s government refuses to back down, the Commission could impose unprecedented sanctions. The harshest penalties won’t win needed support from other EU governments, but Warsaw and Brussels will be at odds for years.
Finally, there is the migrant crisis itself. The flow of migrants has slowed dramatically in recent months, thanks mainly to obstructions along the Balkan route and an EU deal with Turkey. But this respite can continue only as long as two particularly weak links, Greece and Turkey, continue to hold. The EU has promised Turkey visa-free travel throughout the Schengen area in exchange for cooperation in preventing migrants from trying to reach Greece by sea.
Since Recep Tayyip Erdogan became president less than two years ago, Turkish prosecutors have opened criminal cases against more than 1,800 people for insults against the president. It’s becoming harder for European officials to ignore the fact that Turkish and foreign journalists are routinely harassed in that country. The European Commission insists that visa-free travel is possible only if the Turkish government rewrites terrorism laws to ensure they can’t be used against journalists and the president’s critics. Erdogan refuses. Now Germany’s parliament has infuriated Turkey’s president by approving a resolution that labels the mass killing of Armenians by Ottoman Turks during World War One as "genocide.”
What happens in Greece if Turkey renounces the deal? Turkey is now home to about 2.75 million migrants, and Erdogan’s continued willingness to prevent a mass exodus toward Greece is crucial for the ability of Greece and the EU to cope. Greece still struggles to pay its bills after three bailouts in five years. More than a million migrants have entered the country by sea over the past 18 months, and 50,000 are still there. In a country where nearly a quarter of working-age adults have no jobs and wages have fallen 40 percent, more citizens will wonder how much their government pays to provide for Syrian refugees when so many Greeks are suffering. The potential for unrest is growing. When the Turkey-EU deal fails, the migrant crisis will begin again.
All these problems will serve as prelude to national elections next year in Germany and France, votes that will set the course for Europe’s immediate future. Solving them will require a willingness to make tough choices and a durable consensus to support them. In Europe today, these resources are in increasingly short supply.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World.