The European Union:Domestic crises and reduced foreign influence

Tewfick Aclimandos
Monday 9 Mar 2020

Regional and international powers like Turkey and Russia are likely to try to exploit the reduced foreign weight of the European Union in order to achieve their aims

Multiple local challenges have cast shadows on the European Union’s foreign policies recently, including:

1- Crises of the democratic model that have increased against the backdrop of the European elites losing their credibility and the crisis of the welfare state in Europe. 

The weight and influence of the traditional political parties in most European countries has diminished, despite their remaining at the forefront of the political scene. Perhaps the most important exception to this rule is the British Conservative Party, which has “reinvented” itself under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the political parties in Spain. But the populist right’s share of the vote is still rising, even if it is unable to form a majority in most Western European countries. The only exception here is Italy and some Eastern European countries where the populist right has also become a ruling pillar of certain governments.

The rise of the Greens in a number of Western European countries, including France and Germany, has been noticeable, and their popularity has increased among the youth, begging the question of the relationship between the environment and today’s political actors.

Europe is also witnessing polarisation between the regions and the major cities benefiting from globalisation, and this has been prominent in the protests and strikes taking place in France. The vast majority of European cities also now suffer from a high number of homeless people and increasing poverty. Integrating and respecting the culture of Islamic minorities in Europe varies between embracing a multicultural approach and adopting an approach that foregrounds integration into the prevailing culture and attempts to reconcile these minorities into the mainstream.

There is also some pessimism in European public opinion, which understands that the international weight of Europe is declining and fears the consequences of the current technological revolutions and their impacts on unemployment, increases in the cost of healthcare for the elderly, migration, demographic and urban change, and the threat of terrorism.

2- Escalating security and defence challenges. As regional crises related to Europe have revealed, the US support for Europe is no longer guaranteed. European economic weapons are weaker than their US counterparts, as has been shown in the present crisis over the sanctions against Iran, and the countries that benefit from European aid may turn against their conditions. 

Perhaps the crisis over Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 constituted a turning point in the Europeans’ awareness of their weight within the global system, leading them to intensify efforts to build a joint military force. However, Germany’s performance has been less than expected, and debates are ongoing about the possibility of building a European defence force, the future of NATO, and methods of cooperation between European countries in defence policies.

In addition, Europe faces the threat of jihadist penetration into Libya, the Sahel and Sahara regions and West Africa. Although there is a French military presence in Africa, there is discussion about its effectiveness in combating terrorism. This debate will heat up if the US announces its intention to withdraw its forces from West Africa, where they have been providing solid support for French operations, and for this reason France has been calling on other European countries to provide more support for its operations in Africa. 

The case is not much different in the east, whether in the Eastern Mediterranean where Turkey has been harassing Greece and Cyprus, while continuing to waive the issue of the release of migrants, or in the Black Sea, where the Russian military presence is increasing. The Crimea and Ukraine crisis also continues, amid weak prospects for its resolution.

At the same time, there is no European consensus on defence priorities, creating disagreements in the European position on the US and Russia. The Eastern European countries will try to urge Washington not to withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe, and the number of American troops deployed in Poland has increased. Likewise, the Europeans have not been able to agree on a single approach towards Russia, some seeing a hostile stance as unwise as it could increase the chances of a Russian rapprochement with China, and others underestimating Russia as a threat. Still others think that dialogue is the best means to dissolve the Russian threat.

Regarding Turkey, the country has been adopting a rough policy towards European interests, and it may become a threat to Europe. Ankara has benefited from its military capabilities, geographical location and the relative decline of US hegemony, allowing it a margin of movement to develop economic relations and military cooperation with Europe and raising the cost of possible sanctions against Europe itself. 

The Turkish position reinforces Ankara’s control of the keys to migrant and jihadist flows in and out of the region, and Ankara’s intervention in Libya is a new card on the table. Turkey’s influence among Turkish communities in Europe and on Muslim Brotherhood networks will also be important, but its weak point is the multiplicity of fronts on which it is operating, exceeding Turkey’s capabilities. The actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vis-à-vis Russia and Turkey’s relations with it raise questions about the country’s remaining in the NATO military command if it continues on the same path.

3- The challenge of secession and exiting the European Union. The UK’s intention to resolve the Brexit crisis has been the most important development on the internal European level, but the country will remain subject to the rules of the European single market and customs union until a trade agreement is reached. The problem is that Johnson has promised UK voters that he will reach an agreement of this sort before the end of 2020, or that he will leave the European Union without an agreement, but the time limit appears to be very short. Perhaps Brexit will raise questions about the secession of Northern Ireland and Scotland from the United Kingdom. Some other European countries may also witness the danger of secession in some of regions of their own, particularly Spain.

Although it is difficult to foresee the future of European foreign policy, in the light of these challenges and the US presidential elections later in 2020 it seems likely that regional and international parties will try to exploit them to achieve gains, among them Russia and Turkey.


Several possibilities can be put forward:

1- The prospects for resolving the Ukraine crisis are weak, because it is inconceivable that Russian President Vladimir Putin will reconsider his position on this issue. Putin is expected to exercise pressure against Belarus as well, and the European countries will not be willing to provoke him when it comes to this issue.

2- It will be difficult for the UK to reach a Brexit deal with the European Union by the end of 2020. It is also unlikely that it will leave without an agreement, so it seems that the most practical alternative would be for Johnson to abandon his promise to leave without sealing a deal unless the two parties have reached an agreement before the end of 2020.

3- There are possibilities of early elections in Italy, given the fragility of the ruling coalition government. These will be related to the results of the local elections in Italy to be held in the first third of 2020.

4- The “rough” policy of Russia and Turkey towards Europe is expected to continue, but it is unclear whether Europe will impose sanctions against Turkey or make concessions to it in order to keep it securely in NATO.

*These articles were first published in the newly released Outlook 2020: Egypt’s Projections of Regional and Global Issues by the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).

*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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