Europe’s future is not what it used to be. Ever since the global financial crisis broke out nearly a decade ago, Europe has been hit by one crisis after another. There has been a debt crisis, an economic crisis, an Arab Spring gone bad, a Ukraine conflict, a migration and refugee crisis, a subsequent wave of populism and nationalism running through much of Europe and a Brexit crisis. And now there is a Trump crisis, putting vital transatlantic ties into question.
Granted, the mood seems to have changed recently. Economic growth is back. And the election of Emmanuel Macron as French President has brought a fresh, energising approach to discussions on the future of Europe. This could well create new political momentum to tackle some of the structural challenges faced by Europe. However, whether the new drive will lead to changes beyond the level of the symbolic remains to be seen. There are deep-seated, fundamental divisions in Europe over economic philosophies, foreign and security priorities and migration. As the fulcrum of global power shifts away from Europe and the Atlantic, and given the ongoing uncertainty about the future of US foreign policy and engagement in Europe, the European order looks increasingly fragile, as do the institutions that embody that order. Beyond Europe proper, conflict and geopolitical competition are back and globalisation – with its vision of benign, harmonious global governance – appears to be under threat. With the future becoming increasingly uncertain, there is a renewed interest in scenarios: how might the future look like if trends that are already visible today prevail and lead to massive changes? What if events suddenly change the course of history, as occurred in 1989? What is the purpose of European integration? What is it supposed to achieve or, for that matter, prevent from happening? What does a successful Europe look like? And a failing one?
In order to contribute to the ongoing debate about Europe’s long-term future, looking at Europe in 2030. The aim is to focus not on any particular institution (such as the EU or NATO) but on the broader European geopolitical architecture, paying special attention to the link between intra-European political relations and Europe’s role in the world. That is where we want to put our mark, and set this exercise apart from others. The main focus is thus on the interaction between European states, and their relations with great powers, primarily the US, China and Russia. The broader question looming over this article is whether Europe will be a geopolitical subject or an object, ie, an actor in its own right or a playground for great-power competition. It goes without saying that there is no way to address the question in black-or-white terms, but rather through a fifty-shades-of-grey lens.
The first scenario outlines the nightmare scenario: a divided, ‘free for all’ Europe, in which the continent falls prey to penetration from several external actors as well as to the reverberations of intra-European competition. What happens if Europe fails? How does a Europe in which nation states have largely ceased to cooperate, and the EU and NATO either wither away or become irrelevant, look?
The second contribution takes a radically different point of departure: a united Europe. In this scenario, the EU succeeds in becoming both the key player in European geopolitics as well as a significant force or pole in the world.
The third contribution is a ‘rebirth of the West scenario’, in which the transatlantic framework remains the organising factor of both European geopolitics and Europe’s doings beyond Europe. It outlines a future in which the US and the UK emerge again as the leaders of a united West, and as the main focal points of European politics.
The fourth and final contribution presents a ‘strong China’ scenario, in which the mechanics of Chinese penetration in Europe are unpacked.
Developing a scenario implies taking some risks. The future that might be can look very different from all four scenarios presented here. But we believe that thinking about scenarios is nevertheless of key importance to policy-makers, experts and the wider public. Not because they predict with scientific rigour what is going to happen but because they make it easier to discuss expectations and to bring into the open the many implicit assumptions about the future on which our political discourse is built.
Political actors make decisions based on certain assumptions. They have goals in mind, and are driven by visions of (a) desirable future(s), often plagued by images of nightmare futures. Scenarios help us spell out the desirable and the undesirable in greater detail.
The aim of this article is to contribute to the discussion about possible futures for a Europe whose order is increasingly challenged in an increasingly volatile, contested world
The four scenarios cover a wide range of possible futures for Europe. Some are more disruptive; some remain rather closer to the present. However, a common theme seems to emerge: European interests and values are at risk in an increasingly volatile and fragile world, in which old-style geopolitics are back. The big question will be whether Europe manages to become more cohesive and develop the capabilities that will allow it to be a global actor, whether in the framework of a strong transatlantic relationship or that of a united Europe. The alternative is to become a geopolitical playground, at the mercy of other powers. The answer to these questions will not only depend on decisions made in Washington, Beijing or Moscow. It will also depend, to a large extent, on decisions made in Europe’s capitals. It is up for Europe to decide if it wants to be a player or a pawn.