Despite both recent and ongoing events which have served to cast doubt in many Europeans on the future of the EU, Estonian MP Marko Mihkelson found that Europe is nonetheless stronger when it stands together, and that in the face of external threats that it cannot prevent, the union must continue to build stronger ties upon the shared desire for peace and stability which serves as its foundation.
Europe had barely been able to begin recovering from Brexit when France’s national holiday ended with yet another massacre by an Islamist which shook the world. And as if that were not enough — a strange attempted coup which claimed more than 200 lives in NATO member state Turkey had many of us involuntarily asking — what is going on in the world?
In addition to the recent news, wars are continuing in Syria and Ukraine, pressure on Europe causede by migration from the south remains topical, China is increasing tensions on the South China Sea and the leader of North Korea is playing with (nuclear) weapons.
In reality, things have been rotting for quite some time already. The depth of bigger currents often remains unperceived in daily newsfeeds. The online telegraph is just constantly blinking red because the news never sleeps.
But let’s make time stand still for a moment. Let’s view things from a new angle, like a modern drone, and try to take a still frame. The picture you’ll see is not pretty. In some places it is quite heartbreaking, if your nerves are shot. And there is not one simple solution, no matter how fiercely the populists bellow.
Great changes in the world, including within our sphere of (EU and NATO) friendship and neighborhood, has some time ago already prompted the question — does the existing language and notation in international law still adequately reflect shifts in power relations, and does it ensure the ability to cope with challenges without us sinking into the turmoil of either internal political or armed conflicts?
Identity crises not exclusive to the UK
I will begin with the EU and the future of our common home, as solutions to many very serious challenges are hidden within it. We are currently facing such big issues as the future of the EU in light of Brexit, the management of the migration crisis and Islamic extremist ideology, the fending off of Russian aggression, a lack of strong democratic leaders to show the way (not to be confused with the craving for a strong arm), and on top of everything else now the imbroglio in Turkey as well. All of these factors inevitably hint at serious questions involving the subsistence and existence of the EU.
While many post-Brexit opinion surveys have indicated an increase in support for the EU among the people, this initial reaction may quickly fade. The reasons for Brexit do not lie exclusively within Brits’ island mentality or giving into campaign lies, but in large part still in the weakness of a common European identity. People do not associate themselves with the democratic accountability-free Brussels in the broadest sense of the term, and they see that in the management of the migration crisis or even Islamic terrorism, for example, the EU has been seemingly powerless.
Such confusion and infringement upon one’s sense of security is not perceptible exclusively in the minds of British voters, but is a part of the internal political debate in most EU member states. Here in Estonia as well. True, the best way to link our future and the idea of a common Europe, for Estonia, is the understanding that, if left alone, with our sphere of friendship crumbling, we would end up in a very difficult situation. This should pressures us today especially into actively sharing our vision in the relaunched debate on the future of the EU, as government leaders should be exchanging ideas on these topics in Bratislava at the beginning of this upcoming fall already.
Instead of focusing on the upcoming presidency of the EU or related technical details, the Estonian government should offer for public debate its vision of how European identity among the people could be strengthened in an environment of great and at times existential challenges, and which reforms the EU should be able to handle conducting themselves.
Europe is stronger together
Cosmetics alone may not be enough anymore today. Upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany will certainly not bypass Europe-related topics. Populists are trying to take advantage of confusion prevailing among their people. This, however, is serving to further divide societies, which in turn leaves the common European identity even more fragile.
Of course one may ask what the idea and identity of a 21st century common Europe even is, especially at a time when nationalist sentiments are on the rise. This is actually not rocket science, however; Europe’s own history alone shows us that the desire to unite and the need for each other’s support has accompanied us over a very long period of time — we’re talking about at least a thousand years here.
Challenges comparable to those faced today have come up in Europe’s past as well. The greatest catastrophe, World War II, finall set the stage for the formation of the modern common Europe. The accession of Northern and Eastern European states at the end of the previous century and beginning of this one marked a historic and first-time consolidation of Europe, which turned the EU into an important influence on world policy and the world economy.
The shared understanding that it is only together and as a joint force that Europe can manage better has not gone away. It is precisely this that is the strongest foundation upon which to rely and build the future. External factors threatening the unity and internal effects of Europe are all cross-border, making cooperation between countries inevitable.
Extremism is nothing new
The terrorist attack in Nice, which claimed many lives and unfortunately affected us in Estonia more closely than any previous such attack, is not exclusively France’s concern. Countries’ internal social and political factors are naturally important in understanding why radicalization and yielding to violence as a solution occurs in various layers of society.
Islamic extremism is far from a new phenomenon, and this increasingly regenerative ideology is spreading in the internet age like wildfire. This ideology has gained organization-based (al-Quaeda, Islamic State and others) and individual followers since the end of the 1970s already. The fight against a violent ideology is always very complicated and time-consuming, and is impossible to definitively root out besides.
The limiting of the activities and destruction of the Islamic State as an organization, if an international coalition (including Muslim states) were to succeed in achieving this, would not be a solution to the problem, just as the removal of Osama bin Laden as the head of al-Quaeda wasn’t.
Sources for the survival of extremist ideology lie within Middle-Eastern authoritarian systems, sectarian violence, demographic factors, the little freedom of choice of the young generation, special services' joy of the game and the spiral of conflict which further divides unmanageable rifts in society.
All of this inevitably points at the fact that regions nearby Europe will remain a source of instability for a long time to come. This in turn rather increases the threat of terrorism on our continent as well, as the Islamic community’s poor integration in various European countries serves to continually create preconditions favorable for fanatical “heroic deeds.”
Good neighbors in a complicated neighborhood
Political or ideological terror has unfortunately been an integral part of the development of Europe for a long time — even the French Revolution could not get by without it. At the same time, Islamic terrorism is still much more challenging than the IRA (Northern Ireland) or ETA (Basque) ever were.
At the same time, Europe is not defenseless. Special services have actually managed to fend off many times more terrorist attacks, and intelligence cooperation between member states has continually improved. If we add considerably greater attention to the strengthening of the control of Europe’s external borders, the outlook is not that bad at all.
Internal openness and unity are the keywords that must function in Europe during even the most difficult of times. The EU is not some project but rather fate. Peace and stability is our common desire, and it is precisely because of this that the union of European peoples and states continues to have a bright future ahead of it. In order to ensure this, one must simply be a brave decision-maker and not a defeatist.
MP Marko Mihkelson (IRL) is a member of the Riigikogu's National Defence Committee as well as its EU Affairs Committee.
Editor: Editor: Aili Sarapik