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A dark decade lies ahead for Europe

As it faces its latest crisis, triggered by Belarus, a looming leadership vacuum threatens to condemn the EU to years of stagnation behind other global powers

Ryanair flight FR4978 at Minsk International Airport after it made an emergency landing there. Passenger, opposition activist Roman Protasevich, was removed from the aircraft - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

A world leader can never be sure what they’re going to face on any given day. Last weekend brought the unexpected for Europe’s heads of government, as Belarus pulled off the audacious arrest of journalist and opposition activist Roman Protasevich by having its agents onboard call in a fake bomb thread on a Ryanair plane, diverting it to Minsk with a fighter jet escort, and capturing him and his girlfriend there.

For the sake of free expression – not to mention safe flying – everywhere, such actions must have consequences, and it will be largely up to the leaders of Europe to decide what those are. Foremost among those is surely Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005, and perhaps the lodestone of EU politics.

Merkel might not be the dynamic or principled lead some paint her as, or want her to be – her tendency is to talk a good talk on human rights, while continuing a business-first approach to Russia and China – but is a stabilising force and an experienced hand.

She also rightly received credit for her unusual, principled stand opening Germany up to huge numbers of Syrian refugees. A large part of Europe’s response to the latest Belarus crisis will rest with her, and her calculation on weighing up action against Belarus’s autocratic leader Viktor Lukashenko, who enjoys the political support of Vladimir Putin.

Merkel is relying on Russia for a key pipeline project, Nord Stream 2 – which will bring gas from Russia to Germany along the Baltic, bypassing eastern European countries – but balances that against attempts to stand up to the country’s political aggression. Where she lands, others follow.

But this crisis could be among her last – she is standing down, and so whatever the results of September’s German elections, Merkel will depart the political stage. She will leave a space that is unusually hard to fill – Europe faces a leadership gulf, with few strong or experienced leaders in place able to shepherd the bloc.

Making it worse is looking at the task list of the continent’s leaders: they must manage a return to normality from coronavirus and the economic damage it has wrought; they need to tackle aggression and misinformation from Russia; contend with China’s human rights violations; and the rise of populists within Europe itself, not least in Hungary and Poland.

Europe’s unifying figures generally come from its bigger countries, especially the ones who are net contributors to the EU budget. The UK’s departure from the EU removes one of the big three from the equation – as if Boris Johnson would be a viable candidate in any case – leaving just France and Germany.

France’s Emmanuel Macron would certainly like the unofficial title of Europe’s de facto political leader, but there’s every reason to believe he would be both catastrophic and divisive in the role.

In his early years, Macron fooled many of Europe’s progressives and centrists into believing he was one of them, with his fresh-faced look, calls for modernisation, and new political party – the optics distracting from Macron being little more than a shop-variety populist, with just as few real solutions as any other garden variety populist.

Domestically, Macron is contending largely with the National Front, seemingly trying to tackle their popularity by becoming them – issuing laws targeting the country’s Muslim minorities, with one of his ministers even accusing the National Front of going too soft on them.

When it comes to foreign policy, Macron has repeatedly expressed a desire for a rapprochement with Russia, to collectively pivot against potential perils from the Middle East. Those looking for decisive leadership against populist threats or human rights abusers might have to look elsewhere – unless they come from the right countries for him.

Those looking elsewhere for contenders might find the field somewhat thin: political power tends to rely upon being at the helm of a big country and one that is a net contributor to, rather than net recipient of, EU funds.

These criteria might seem to favour Italian premier Mario Draghi, currently enjoying a wave of popularity in a honeymoon period since taking office in February. Draghi is also an established player on the European political scene, having served as president of the European Central Bank for two terms in the wake of the financial crisis.

Draghi could be the capable, internationalist figurehead the bloc needs – but Italian politics will almost certainly intervene. He is at the helm of a large and fragile coalition of political parties which is unlikely to prove sustainable in the long term, and Italy’s affection for new political leaders rarely lasts. Bookmakers would likely give very, very long odds on Draghi lasting nearly so long as a national leader as has Merkel.

Could Merkel’s domestic successor try to take her place as Europe’s unofficial ringmaster? It seems unlikely they could do so at first – especially as it’s not yet clear who it might be. At present, Germany’s Green Party is polling neck-and-neck with Merkel’s CDU/CSU, meaning the next chancellor could well be decided by who can pull a coalition together.

Germany’s Greens are generally a mainstream social democratic party with an environmental tinge, and are somewhat less pro-Russia than others on the country’s political stage, not least because the party opposes the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The CDU’s chosen candidate, Armin Laschet, is considered as something of a Russia sympathiser, or Russlandversteher as it’s referred to in the country.

But whichever of the two – of some other longer shot – takes the role, they will not have Merkel’s stature, experience, or built-up respect and goodwill. To come into a new role with what could be quite a shaky coalition and try to immediately take the helm over more experienced leaders could prove a challenge.

All of that leaves something of a power vacuum, and something of an absence of wise heads (of government). Into that gulf the European Commission would usually step – the politicians chosen to head up the various departments of the EU’s civil service. The problem this time is the Commission is perhaps the most mediocre it has been in living memory.

None of the factions of EU politics was sufficiently dominant after 2019’s European parliament elections to be able to put their own first choice slate of candidates into the Commission.

The result was a long series of wrangling to find acceptable compromise candidates which each faction could just about put up with, rather than anyone who was one side’s dream. The result is a Commission staffed up by everyone’s third or fourth choices, rather than especially charismatic or effective leaders.

That leaves Ursula von der Leyen – a former minister in Merkel’s government herself – in an unlikely position to step up to a bigger, informal role navigating Europe through its coming crises, given few in Europe have much confidence in her to do the job she already has all that well.

What will all of this mean for Europe? It’s often the habit of British newspapers to suggest any potential crisis will spell the death of the EU, and yet on it continues nevertheless. The EU will almost certainly survive any crisis caused by a gulf of leadership, too. But that doesn’t mean it will necessarily thrive.

The EU is at a point at which it will need to be decisive. Having decided to have Europe-wide foreign policy, it must work out what it stands for and how it will handle China’s ascendancy, as it comes alongside aggression against Hong Kong and a genocide of its Muslim Uyghur population. It must also handle its ongoing headaches with Russia, and the recent flare-up with Belarus.

But it must also handle problems closer to home – the EU is currently dealing with the rise of populist autocrats in Hungary and Poland by ignoring them. That can only work for so long. Without an authoritative leader to try to guide people to a consensus course of action, the EU will likely end up burying its head in the sand for a few years more, until a new political generation comes through.

That time could cost it dear. Europe has just endured a huge economic crisis after a decade of stagnation. If it wastes the next few years it could find itself left behind ascendant potential rivals and trading partners.

There might be a temptation for some in Britain to look over at the continent’s trouble and feel some schadenfreude, a vindication for the country’s narrow decision to leave the EU – but that petty joy would be misplaced.

That EU countries are facing these problems doesn’t change the fact that the UK is facing them too, and as near neighbours and trading partners, with a long shared cultural history on top, our fates are intertwined whether we are part of the EU or not. If the continent has a dark decade, the EU will find one too.

We have, for the moment, excluded ourselves from the game – no-one in Europe will want to hear much from the UK for some time. All we can do, then, is watch and hope that somehow, Europe aligns on someone to fill Merkel’s shoes.

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