European weakness and the rise of authoritarians

A diverted plane is nothing new, bomb threats may be rare but are no longer a novelty, but an armed interceptor fighter jet “escorting” an airliner to an unexpected destination in another country is very different. Now step forward, or rather, fly forward, to Ryanair flight 4978, which was traveling from Athens to Vilnius on May 23, when it was forced to land in Belarus.

First, can we put the fallacy of a potential bomb threat to one side? This was a politically motivated act and intended to capture an irritant to the Belarusian regime. After all, state security police do not suddenly turn up just to “escort” an individual off a plane.

What we should do is put this issue in perspective in regards to what is changing around our continent, especially involving politics but also the greater economy of the region as well as that of individual nations.

Globally, authoritarianism seems to have been successful in terms of wielding power, and the acquiescence of the populations affected has for the most part been remarkable. One notable and worthy exception to this has been the continued presence of demonstrators in Minsk and key areas of Belarus, who have stood up very bravely against well-armed police and the Belarusian KGB.

Obviously, the power of the Russian leader has had a significant influence, where the sham of democracy has increasingly been exposed. The paranoia that Russian leaders have had over the centuries about foreign interference is still well-entrenched in the country’s political class and intelligence services. This is to a certain extent understandable given the historical track record of foreign invasion and interference in Russia, from the Mongol-Tatars to the Poles, to Napoleon and post-October Revolution military interventions, and of course World War II. The Russians quite rightly highlight their pain, efforts and losses to the outside world.

Today we see Russia taking advantage of a hopelessly weak and vacillating European leadership to extend its influence, not just in Europe, but on a more international scale, especially in the Middle East.

A Russian Topol-M strategic nuclear missile on Moscow’s Red Square. EPA-EFE/SERGEI CHIRIKOV

Now let’s add in Ukraine, in a chronic state, both politically and economically, where Putin has again called Europe’s bluff over the theft of the Crimea and the support for the separatists in two eastern Ukrainian regions. Their calls for support have achieved little and any action has been either by indirect support, denunciations or marginal sanctions. They merely provide Vladimir Putin with an opportunity for a wry smile.

Now with the arrival of the energy pipeline Nord Stream-2, Russia plays another card by providing direct fuel to Germany alongside unreliable statements about operational independence. Please wake up Chancellor Merkel: there is a large bear sitting on your gas tap. This is a tap that can be turned off at a time of tension and there have been clear precedents in the past. Germany has been blessed with possibly the strongest and most successful democratic leader it could have in the form of Angela Merkel, but as her extended term in office draws to a close, there seems no one of similar stature to take her place.

Then we have another EU power and that is France. Marine Le Pen seems to have rebuilt her position and power to such an extent that another democratic assault on the Elysee is almost certainly on the cards. Again this is not necessarily because this fervent right-winger is particularly able, but because democratic leaders are seen as being weak and ineffectual.

A similar story can be told both in Poland and Hungary where phrases along the lines of “I didn’t swap domination by Moscow and the old Soviet Communist Party to be controlled and dictated to by Brussels bureaucrats” are not unknown.

Another element to this tawdry tale was Brexit, opted for by just over half of the UK voting population. This too was a vote won by the populists and has, as was fairly predictable, created some difficult disturbances on both sides of the Channel. For the EU there is obviously a significant disruption in its budget, with one of the largest contributors pulling out, but also despite the frequent arguments, a reduction in political strength with such a powerful nation leaving. 

Equally, though, for the British, there is the slow realization that the national economy will be poorer at least in the short term. Trading issues through delays, new systems and bureaucracy have already had a negative impact (both in ports such as Dover, but more importantly across the Irish border) and now the shortage of labor is being felt directly from farm produce not being harvested swiftly enough, through to the hospitality industry.

This was obviously severely affected by the economic lockdowns and the furlough schemes, so as yet we cannot judge just how many people will be returning to those jobs, but the strong indication is that a significant reduction in the workforce from mainland European countries is having quite a dramatic effect on cafes and restaurants which are fully opening up.

By casting our eyes over Europe, we can see the broader effect that these political changes are having. The main issue in my view is that of confidence, as that is the key driver for investment and expansion. The seeming destabilization over the past few years caused by authoritarians over vacillating democracies will have an effect. Europe needs to have a clear post-pandemic plan to re-energize its economies both inside and outside the European Union.

This means some clear and effective leadership from the democracies, which at present seems hard to find. Democracy is a precious commodity that is hard to win. It can easily be lost whether through indifference or just pompous complacency. Europe has created astonishing wealth for itself after the disasters of the two 20th-century world wars and the decades of Communist rule in the continent’s eastern half, but this economic strength must not be dissipated by political ignorance or, dare I say it, stupidity.

I believe we have a great opportunity for some very exciting development, but it is going to take some great political vision, leadership and action to push back the nay-sayers and enthuse our populations for a brighter and stronger economic future.

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