Transatlantic Take

As European Leaders Gather in Brussels, Thinking Beyond Disorder

Ian Lesser
Daniela Schwarzer
4 min read
BRUSSELS—Today’s European Council and Friday's meeting of the EU heads of state or government with the Turkish prime minister are considered crucial to stemming the flow of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea.

BRUSSELS—Today’s European Council and Friday's meeting of the EU heads of state or government with the Turkish prime minister are considered crucial to stemming the flow of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea. The open divisions between the EU member states over the deal with Turkey on controlling the migration flows and returning refugees and migrants, as well as over the question of how to handle the burden of the inflow of migrants into the EU, show that much more is at stake than an agreement on this one deal. And even if an agreement is reached, and even if it can be implemented effectively with Turkey — a big if — this is hardly a solution to Europe’s growing migration problem and the internal rifts the EU is facing. Europe is grappling with a grave new world.

Syria is only one element in the migration equation on Europe’s southern periphery. Conflict and chaos in Iraq and Libya, and looming instability in Tunisia and Algeria, could well produce new flows of economic migrants and asylum seekers. The potential for economic and security collapse in Egypt could produce migration on an even larger scale. Beyond crisis management, Europe will continue to be affected by the migration driven by the immense prosperity and stability gap between North and South across the Mediterranean. Conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, the Sahel, and the Maghreb will be as critical as those in the Levant in shaping the flow of migrants to Europe.

Europe and transatlantic partners will need to address the prospect of sustained disorder to the south, as well as geopolitical challenges emanating from the east. The EU and NATO have hardly begun to develop strategies for dealing with insecurity in the south, not simply as a question of crisis management, but as a longer-term condition. Balancing strategy between east and south will not be easy for either institution, in particular as some EU countries have distinct interests in only one of the regions. To be sure, Russia’s return to an active policy in the Mediterranean provides a unifying theme. But at base, the challenges and requirements in these two settings are inherently different.

For most European countries, and not just southern Europe, tackling the challenge coming with the migration crisis is at the very top of the policy agenda. European institutions have fallen short in their capacity to anticipate the crisis and prepare responses. Meanwhile, some national capitals have privileged national quick-fixes over joint European solutions, for instance by sealing up borders and rejecting a quota system for the distribution of asylum seekers. How deep the internal divisions will run depends on the EU’s capacity to reduce the inflow of migrants, which is dependent on forging agreements with third countries, setting up an effective external border protection with the help of Frontex, and working on the root causes of migration. Throughout the EU, populist movements foster the illusion of securing a better future by closing borders and resorting to nationalistic nostalgia, at a time when the European Union should tackle the challenges in its neighborhood in a concerted and united way.

The United States does not have the luxury of holding these problems at arms’ length. U.S. engagement in the Middle East and North Africa is surely changing. But to the extent that Washington remains engaged, this engagement may now be driven as much by European security as by developments in the region itself. If Europe fails to deal with its immediate and longer-term migration pressures as well as other challenges, including lasting risks in the euro area, for instance in Greece and Italy, and the ongoing destabilization efforts coming from Moscow, this will continue to fuel populist movements on the right and left — anti-EU, but also anti-American.

Moreover, if the east-south strategic balance is not well managed in political terms, this could encourage a corrosive decoupling of strategic priorities within the EU and NATO. A fragmented European security scene of this kind will further complicate transatlantic relations at a time of reassessment driven by demands in Asia and elsewhere.

Without question, societies on both sides of the Atlantic are facing striking, even unprecedented challenges to social cohesion, prosperity and security, both internal and external. In all likelihood, this pervasive disorder and insecurity is not a transient phenomenon, and may well be the “new normal” in domestic and international affairs. As European leaders gather in Brussels, they face a daunting task of crisis management. But behind the immediate agenda lurk a series of equally daunting strategic challenges in which Europe’s transatlantic partners are full stakeholders.

European, U.S., and global leading policymakers and experts will meet this weekend at GMF’s Brussels Forum to discuss many of the challenges of today’s grave new world. Panelists include Federica Mogherini, high representative of the union for foreign and security policy; Jens Stoltenberg, secretary general of NATO; Donald Tusk, president of the European Council; Michael Froman, U.S. trade representative; and a number of government ministers, representatives, and legislators from the United States, Europe, Iraq, and elsewhere. All of the plenary sessions and conversations will livestreamed at