Terror threat and migrant crisis are just two of many challenges confronting the bloc in 2016
Border controls, viewed as a thing of the past across much of the continent, have been raised at many national frontiers, and leading politicians have acknowledged that the Schengen passport-free travel zone, one of the great successes of European integration, is under threat.
To the east, the Ukraine conflict remains unresolved and Russia’s foreign-policy posture more aggressive than at any time since the end of the Cold War.
Meanwhile, the recovery of the eurozone economy has been faltering and economic vulnerabilities remain in some countries in the form of high debts and weak banks, even with official interest rates close to zero.
Added to that, the U.K. could deliver a blow to the European Union in a referendum, likely to be held in 2016, over whether the country should become the first ever to leave the 28-nation bloc.
If it does, a period of economic and political uncertainty is likely to ensue for the U.K. but also for the entire bloc. If one country can leave, others might be tempted, eventually, to follow.
“An existential crisis for the EU” is going to be “the big geopolitical event in 2016,” said James Stavridis, who retired in 2013 as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s top military commander and is now dean of the Fletcher School at Tufts University.
For Mr. Stavridis, how Europe handles its challenges will be more critical to the world than Syria, Ukraine, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea or any other global strategic question.
Mainstream politicians in Europe, still reeling from the economic crisis, can be expected to struggle. As the crises multiplied, nationalist politicians reaped the benefits, often succeeding in depicting the EU as an undemocratic and cozy establishment club uninterested in ordinary people.
That has narrowed the space for European policy action even as the scale of the problems appears to demand concerted solutions.
“The difficulties we are facing collectively make the need for European cooperation all too clear,” said Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands, which takes over the rotating EU presidency on Jan. 1.
For Mr. Rutte, speaking recently to a small group of Brussels-based journalists, the “overarching issues” for 2016 will be fighting terrorism and stemming the flows of migrants. “We should not combine these two issues,” he said, even as he acknowledged that separating them won’t be easy.
The response to the economic crisis has shown, he said, that Europe can eventually find solutions, if not always in the smoothest way.
Mr. Stavridis said the “good news” is that in German Chancellor Angela Merkel Europe has a strong “world-class leader.” But even she has suffered a setback in her handling of the refugee crisis, and her relations with other EU governments, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, have frayed.
One possibility is that, with the twin crises of migration and terrorism, Europe would take a more assertive foreign-policy posture. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said Wednesday that the terror attacks had turned “a new page in the history of Europe.”
France and the U.K. both escalated their military campaigns against the Islamic State terror group following the Paris attacks in November. Mr. Stavridis said Europe’s reliance on soft power—using aid and trade to encourage democracy and justice—would need to be paired with a hard-power strategy if the continent is to become effective in dealing with the challenge it now faces.