Germany hopes for a slightly calmer 2018
12 January, 2018
Years ago Angela Merkel used to respond to questions about the near future that “Europe will emerge stronger from the crisis”. In 2017, times have changed. Jean-Claude Juncker may have felt “fresh winds in the sails” of Europe, but that is mostly because the ship did not sink in the election storms of Austria, the Netherlands, and France.
Compared to 2016, 2017 might look like a turnaround. But from Berlin's perspective, 2018 will be more significant, not least because of the protracted search for a German government, which is costing Europe at least six months of political momentum. For Berlin, the best hope for Europe in 2018 is to muddle through. Specifically, the hope is that there will be no new spike in refugee flows, and that Europe will be spared another major terrorist attack or a significant rise of the crime rate among migrant communities. Such a respite would allow some much-needed time to develop, debate and decide a more robust response to the migration challenge.
There will be little room for high flying plans like Macron's agenda as outlined in his Sorbonne speech. Martin Schulz's United States of Europe will not come any closer in the next twelve months, either. The centrifugal trend will remain strong over the coming year. Despite a favourable economic outlook, the German political class seems to prefer smaller steps over grand designs, largely due to a fear of failure. Berlin needs a low intensity year to avoid being pushed onto the defensive while trying to keep up some pressure for reform.
As to the greatest worry, the German view would focus on risks beyond Europe. Matters on the continent are not good, but seem predictable even in the worst case scenarios. A major conflict involving great powers would be a crisis of different dimension. The greatest worry would thus be an escalation of the Korean crisis. While geographically far away from the epicentre of conflict, Europe would be significantly hit by its fallout: Transatlantic relations would take another blow; Europe's economy could fall victim to a new Cold War in East Asia, and the nuclear non-proliferation system could break down, triggering nuclear arms races in regions closer to Europe.
The bigger the nuclear casualties, the deeper the fall in political temperature of world affairs is likely to be, with a rules-based international order disintegrating further and great power confrontation becoming the dominant paradigm.
The indirect shock might even be more detrimental to Europe than a direct blow such as the refugee crisis of 2015/16: Though Europe might be less affected than countries in wider East Asia, the shake-up could deepen the cracks in the EU's construction rather than lead to a closer cooperation.
The author is a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations Berlin Office.