All posts by Nick Avila

LT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer assigned as the Olmsted Scholar to Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is a helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations Guam, Japan, and Australia.

The Spark to Redefine “Europe”

The results of today’s referendum in the United Kingdom present an unprecedented situation for a strained European Union. For the first time in its history, a member state voted to leave the Union. In an organization that grew exponentially, the exit of a powerful contributor will force remaining nations to make some tough choices. The UK will also need to make some hard decisions about how to move forward outside of “Europe”. Needless to say, the Brexit will not be an easy process for anyone.

The UK has historically played balancing role on the continent, but this referendum represents a decisive departure from Britain’s neighbors and a vote of no-confidence in the European Union. Eurosceptic voters of the UK have many reasons to want to sever ties with Brussels: the aftermath of the economic dysfunction made manifest by the near-miss of the Grexit, the inconsistent and frantic response to the refugee crisis, and the resurgence of a bold and unpredictable Russia. British voters, however narrowly, ultimately lost faith with the European Project.

In choosing to leave the union, the UK has lost its privileged position as one of the leaders of a modern, unified Europe. Great Britain had a unique position in the Union as one of the only states with a balance of political, economic, and military might – a position it built over the decades through active diplomatic and economic engagement in continental affairs. It was arguably the most independent of EU members, enjoying many of the benefits of Union membership without the risks of the Euro, or the borderless society of the Schengen Agreement. Britain’s options for influencing the continent are now weakened, and the benefits of Union membership lost –a unilateral disarmament of what was once a formidable diplomatic and economic arsenal.

Centrifugal Force

Europe had a lot to lose from a British exit. Strong and independent Britain played a stabilizing role: ensuring no single country –namely France or Germany– could push a unilateral direction upon the EU. It was a role only the UK could play. Italy and Spain are prone to economic and political instability; the Low Countries and Scandinavia, though economically formidable, do not have the clout or muscle needed to balance their larger neighbors; and the Višegrad economies of Eastern Europe are too new, many with elected governments more interested in moving away from Europe than towards it. Germany is the de facto leader of the EU, which is a source of great discord among the smaller, more economically-vulnerable nations that do not appreciate Chancellor Merkel’s heavy-handed style or the historical aftertaste of German leadership.

Though division within the EU is not new, the departure of its great offshore stabilizer starts the political centrifuge spinning. Right-wing leaders in France, and the Netherlands are already demanding independence referendums of their own. Spain’s call for dual-sovereignty of Gibraltar is a sign that some disputes between the UK and other EU member states may reemerge after being held dormant by a spirit of intra-Union cooperation. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, prominent leaders in many of the EU’s major nations called for their nations to follow Britain’s lead.

Not surprisingly, independent-minded regions within European nation-states will also ride the winds of change to clamor more loudly for their independence. In a bizarre twist, Scotland may have voted to remain in the EU, but may not want to stay in a non-EU Britain. No doubt Basques and Catalans in Spain will watch closely if a second independence referendum takes place in Scotland, and aspiring EU members in the Balkans are unlikely to tolerate a long and painful application process while the more developed countries are voting to leave.

The Brexit may well be the spark that brings about the dissolution of the European Union. Its erosion and potential breakup would deprive its member states of a useful venue for cooperation to solve common problems; an international political situation closer to 1914 than 2016. At a time when transnational issues are more relevant than national ones, it is not at all clear why European leaders are divesting themselves of international tools to deal with them. Europe should take a moment to reflect on its fractured past.

Opportunity in Discord

As noted European diplomat, Victor Angelo recently predicted: Europe will survive Brexit. What is not clear is whether the EU or the UK will survive their divorce intact. Perhaps the Union grew too quickly, haphazardly attempting to unify the continent in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, pushing “Europe’s” borders ever outward. In this manner, Brussels hardwired weaknesses into the future unity of the European Union.

But, as I’ve said before, there is opportunity in crisis. Challenges can break a weak union or strengthen a strong one. Perhaps this is the kind of shock Europe needs to wake up and implement further democratization and a unified fiscal policy towards a federal union. Any other course could doom the entire project to failure, and erase all the good Europeans have built, together.

Nick Avila Associate Blogmaster, Navisio Global. Brexit.LT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.

Flashpoint Europe: The Refugee Crisis and the Fate of the Union

It’s been a rough year for European unity, and it’s not getting any better. The sudden flood of refugees from the Middle East and Africa is straining the unity of European Project more than any crisis in recent memory. The member states are divided and unable to agree on a common solution. Militarized borders are being reopened, refugee camps are being hastily erected, and armies are mobilizing, all echoing nightmares of an Old Europe and a time long thought to be in the past. The EU is at a pivotal moment: a crossroads which may determine the fate of the entire European project.

The refugee crisis has amplified the serious disagreements amongst Europeans about the roles of national sovereignty and cultural identity in the future of the European Union. According to estimates from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), nearly 200,000 refugees have arrived in Europe just in 2015, with over a million total asylum seekers estimated to be residing in the EU by the end of the year. With most of the refugees fleeing the embattled nations of Syria, Libya, and Iraq, there is a palpable fear in Europe that the influx of such a large number of Muslims will result in a spread of radicalism and a weakening of perceived national identities, spurred by the spread of homegrown terrorism already on the rise on the continent.

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not.

There are two sides that have taken diametrically opposed moral stances on the issue: One side,  comprised mostly of the EU-founding member nations of Western Europe, are citing humanitarian moral obligations and wish to see a pan-European solution to absorb the refugees and distribute them fairly throughout Europe. The second, comprised of the newer Eastern European members of the EU, are resisting allowing migrants to remain in their countries. These states, located on the periphery of the EU, are concerned about the political and economic shock that would come should the refugees stay, and are fearful of the perceived threat to their respective national identities if they absorb thousands of Arab Muslims.

Emergence of a Crisis

This summer, Italy cancelled the European Commission-funded Operation Mare Nostrum, an extensive maritime operation to provide safety for refugees coming into Europe from the Middle East. Without Italian ships dedicated to their rescue, many refugees are avoiding the perils of traveling on makeshift boats run by smugglers in favor of joining the already innumerable masses of Syrians and Iraqis escaping into Europe by the longer land route through Turkey. As a result, the western Balkans are receiving an ever increasing number of refugees as the Hungarian-Serbian border was seen as the main entry point through which they can travel to the more prosperous regions of the EU.

Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com
Routes utilized by refugees bring them first to the peripheral states, many of which are least prepared to properly process asylum seekers. Image Source: www.ibtimes.com

Hungary has since made clear its severest objections to the presence of refugees within its borders and has loudly criticized fellow EU members for disregarding their own rules regarding asylum seekers. The Dublin Regulation requires the first EU country in which a refugee enters to register them for asylum and to provide humanitarian assistance. This arrangement leaves Greece and Italy, the main points of entry by land and sea respectively, to provide these essential services to the bulk of the refugees. Italy is already hosting over 170,000 mostly North African refugees, and the vast majority of those traveling into the EU via Turkey should have remained in Greece. Greece however, has been overwhelmed and unable to support them. The European periphery, plagued already by high unemployment, unstable economies, and troubled governments, is in a precarious position and needs immediate relief from the rest of Europe even without the overwhelming presence of so many refugees.

The uncontrollable movement of refugees through the poorer regions of Europe has called into question the very notion of a border-less EU. The Schengen Area provides border checks only upon entry into member states, and allows free travel without passports between signatory states. In response to the deluge of migrants, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, and the Netherlands have re-instituted border controls, with various other European nations considering similar actions. Hungary not only built a wall along the Serbian border, but is also considering (or already erecting) a fence on borders with EU members Croatia and Romania. As European states build walls between themselves, the idea of a border-less Europe is quite literally disappearing.

The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Experiment
The ideal of borderless travel is directly tied to the Four Freedoms that serve as the foundation of the European Union.

Disunity in Action

The refugee crisis has reignited the debates about what it means to be European. While the more prosperous Western European states have been receiving large numbers of Muslim and Asian immigrants for decades, the former Warsaw Pact nations of Eastern Europe have not. France and Germany, for example, have been the destinations of millions of migrants that have been assimilated to their respective cultures to varying degrees (although not without difficulty). The Eastern European members of the EU, however, are still nearly homogeneous, each comprised almost entirely of self-identified white Christian Europeans with no significant recent history of non-European migration.

The different national perceptions of identity politics between West and East is the crux of the problem. On 3 September, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly labelled the refugees a threat to Europe’s Christian identity, “We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming here grew up in a different religion and represent a completely different culture… this is an important question, because Europe and European identity is rooted in Christianity… is it not worrying in itself that European Christianity is now barely able to keep Europe Christian?”  The prime minister sees multicultural France, with its large North African population, and Germany with its sizable Kurdish and Turkish minorities, as a warning to his fellow Eastern Europeans about what could happen if the refugees were allowed to stay. “We don’t want to be like them” he almost seems to say.

While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com
While it has led the charge in encouraging other members to accept refugees, even Germany has found itself forced to implement new controls. Image Source: www.livemint.com

In fairness, individual states are taking action because the European Union is not. The EU has been slow to come to a consensus about how to handle the refugee crisis, resulting in member states taking action into their own hands, rather than relying on the cumbersome EU political process. After months of indecision, on 22 September the EU voted to institute a quota system that would distribute 120,000 refugees among member states. Framing the issue as a matter of national sovereignty, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania voted against the plan. As of 24 September, however, only Slovakia has refused to comply outright, threatening to sue the EU in court. Slovak prime minster Robert Fico was defiant, “As long as I am prime minister, mandatory quotas will not be implemented on Slovak territory.”

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past.

Eastern Europe is by no means united in response to the crisis. Croatia, which opened its borders to migrants on 16 September in response to Hungary’s completion of its fence along the Serbian border, closed them just two days later. In an almost schizophrenic reaction, Croatia began busing migrants to the (as of yet) unfenced Hungarian border. Responding to this action, Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto stated, “Instead of honestly making provision for the immigrants, it sent them straight to Hungary. What kind of European solidarity is this?” Szijjarto captured the sentiment of disunity and made perhaps the most poignant comment regarding the issue, “Rather than respecting the laws in place in the E.U., they are encouraging the masses to break the law, because illegally crossing a border is breaking the law.” Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanović bluntly replied, “We forced them (Hungary) by sending people up there, and we’ll keep doing it”. Croatia seems content with letting migrants in, as long as it can pass them off to Hungary. Unity indeed.

Crisis = Opportunity

This is the defining moment for the European Project. The refugee crisis could be the wake-up call Europe needs to recommit to the ideals of the European Union, else it could be the driving force behind its dissolution. Western Europeans need to take care to ensure the substantial inclusion of a very nervous and frustrated East, concerned that in any major decision, national sovereignty will simply be pushed aside by another round of majority voting in which a unified West will always win. This is not a sustainable state for the future of the continent.

Nation-states erecting walls and barbed wire fences echo a not-so-distant, unpleasant past buried just barely beneath the surface: a Europe divided against itself. Europeans must seize this moment to forge a real union or they will soon find the idea of a singular Europe relegated to a footnote of history. It is in these moments of doubt and discord that Europeans must remember one simple fact: that Europe will always be its best as one, rather than divided against itself.

NickAvilaLT Nick Avila is a U.S. Naval Officer and Olmsted Scholar in Belgrade, Serbia. He received his B.A. in History with a focus on American Diplomacy from Amherst College in 2008. He is an MH-60S helicopter pilot by trade and has military experience from two deployments in the western Pacific to include operations in Guam, Japan, and Australia. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the US Navy or the George and Carol Olmsted Foundation.