In 2017 | The Russian bear overshadows European security concerns
Next year could likely see the issue of defence spending and NATO’s ‘free rider’ problem put high up the political agenda. The USpresident-elect’s comments about NATO’s European allies do cause real concern
I wonder if it is only a passing coincidence that Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle’ is playing in the background while I pen these reflections on the year ahead. ‘Clowns to the left of me… Jokers to the right…’. This is perhaps an apt description of Europe’s present predicament. An ever-assertive Russia in the East and an enormous question mark hanging over the United States in the West. Either way, Europe is stuck with both the US and Russia, only the middle is now riddled with those familiar dark forces: populism, terrorism, isolationism, nationalism… As the chief of the European Central Bank recently stated: ‘uncertainty prevails everywhere’.
‘I got the feeling that something ain’t right…’. The scope for political and military misunderstanding in 2017 is bound to be high. Moscow is turning Kaliningrad – its European satellite region – into a heavily armed military base that is not only home to the Russian Baltic Fleet but to sophisticated missile systems that can strike targets in central Europe and Scandinavia too. What is more, Russia’s ability to use its cyber capacities to cast doubt over elections should not be underestimated. Just as the outgoing US government believes Russia interfered with recent elections, so too must one assume that the 2017 French and German elections could be made targets.
Next year could likely see the issue of defence spending and NATO’s ‘free rider’ problem put high up the political agenda. The USpresident-elect’s comments about NATO’s European allies do cause real concern, but in many ways what was said during the US electoral campaign has brought to a head a longstanding issue for Europe: how to get serious about defence when resources are scarce and political priorities are pulling governments in multiple directions. Several European states have already agreed to increase defence spending over the next few years, but it will take a lot longer than one year for such investments to make a difference.
Short of spending more money, governments in Europe may look to innovative policy solutions aimed at boosting cooperation. Work implementing the joint EU-NATO declaration signed after the 2016 NATO Warsaw Summit could bring the two organisations closer together at a vital time. However, 2017 only offers a narrow window of a few months for EU governments to take up the plans on security and defence and Europe’s defence industry presented in 2016 by the EU’s foreign policy chief and Commission Vice-President, Federica Mogherini. This window will close in March 2017 with the 60-year anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, after which point Europe will head into election mode – first with the Netherlands, then France and ending with Germany – and, of course, ‘Brexit’ negotiations. The window might then again re-open in 2018.
What is there to look forward to in 2017? After all, security in Eastern Europe continues to be tested but fragility in the southern neighbourhood is equally important. Libya is still an unresolved crisis and challenges could yet emerge from sub-Saharan Africa with insecurity in the Gulf of Guinea, the Great Lakes region and South Sudan. This is not to even speak of the consequences that a possible trade dispute between China and the US might have on security in the Asia-Pacific and global trade.
What might the year in which Malta takes the reins of the EU presidency look like? Could there be some sort of deal on Syria? Perhaps not. Could Daesh capitulate? More likely, but much will depend on how the war in Syria pans out. Could ‘Brexit’ end in an amicable divorce? Difficult to say because no one has any idea about the terms or for how long negotiations will last. Apparently ‘Stuck in the Middle’ was written as