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COLUMN-Europe on knife edge of uncertainty, maybe catastrophe

(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Peter Apps

March 14 (Reuters) - March 2017 is an uncomfortable time to be a European. Almost wherever you look, traditional certainties are unraveling in the face of a perfect storm of crises.

This week Britain will trigger Article 50, firing the starting gun on its departure from the European Union. A second referendum on Scottish independence will likely follow, with speculation growing that Northern Ireland might now be more open to leaving the UK and joining with the Irish Republic.

In Holland, right-winger Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party may get the largest share of the vote in the general election, even though the collaboration of more mainstream Dutch parties will likely keep Wilders out of power. In France, Marine Le Pen and her National Front will almost certainly finish second in the first round of presidential elections this spring, although centrist Emmanuel Macron looks set to beat her in the second round.

Further east and north in Europe, worries about an increasingly assertive Russia still dominate. Sweden this month announced it is reintroducing conscription – abolished in 2010 – to bolster its military against the perceived threat from Moscow. Finland – which has maintained it throughout – is conducting military exercises aimed at pushing back against hybrid warfare techniques. In the Baltic states, NATO is in the midst of its largest European deployment since the Cold War.

Nor has the crisis for the European single currency gone away – indeed, having struggled along ever since the financial crisis of 2008, it may be entering a new and volatile stage. The next Italian election – perhaps as soon as June – could well hand the balance of power to political parties hostile to remaining in the currency bloc, which many Italians blame for years of slow growth and rising unemployment.

Not everything is collapsing quite as fast as naysayers might suggest. In Germany, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland party has certainly grown fast, particularly in parts of the deeply frustrated East. But it still seems unlikely to grab genuine political power in the German federal election in September. The latest polls predict it winning barely 11 percent of the vote, compared to 34 percent for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and 32 percent for her rival Social Democrats and its challenger for the chancellorship, Martin Schulz.

It’s a reminder of just how much Europe’s hard right is struggling. Europe's left remains in disarray – witness the travails of Britain’s Labour Party, or the chaos around scandal-hit French socialist presidential challenger François Fillon. Still, only two European countries – Hungary and Poland – have governments that could be described as seriously right-wing. And even they have often struggled to win battles many thought would be easy. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban called a referendum on banning further migrants from outside Europe in October last year, he failed to get a high enough turnout to make the results binding.

Europe may not be unraveling, but it does seem in a state of semi-permanent crisis. For almost a decade, European “crisis summits” – in which leaders convene over a weekend to talk over issues such as the single currency or EU reform – have been the norm, and few have produced particularly incisive results.

Much seems a matter of leadership. At both a national and regional level, Europe’s leaders appear to be suffering a crisis of confidence, popularity and – at worst – political legitimacy.

Europe’s state of uncertainty is something Russian President Vladimir Putin has been more than happy to exploit. There are plenty within the national security establishments of both Europe and the United States who believe Russia’s intervention in Syria was partly designed to ramp up the refugee crisis, straining Europe’s politics to its limits. At the very least, Russian-backed media outlets have been happy to fan the flames of instability and extremism, sometimes making up stories, sometimes merely exaggerating them and exacerbating already growing tensions.

Events in the United States have arguably added to that uncertainty. In an interview with Reuters last month, President Donald Trump surprised some Europe watchers by expressing his support for the European Union and its institutions. That’s a view shared by much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, if only because they fear the consequences if the EU unravels. Some of those around Trump, however – particularly the ideologues such as chief strategist Steve Bannon – view the EU as anathema to their worldview, and would love to see it fail.

The rest of the world isn’t helping, either. The growing row between the Turkish and Dutch governments over a canceled Turkish political rally in Rotterdam – which saw Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan compare the Dutch to Nazis – is seen to have only strengthened support for Wilders. Terror attacks in Brussels, Nice, Berlin and elsewhere – or even simply reports of suspected potential attacks such as one in Germany this week – fuel a sense of division wildly out of proportion to the threat.

The real question is whether that narrative becomes entirely self-fulfilling. Right now, Europe’s institutions have the distinct smell of collapse around them, but their resilience – so far at least – remains striking.

The various European projects now under pressure – the EU, NATO, the single currency, even the basic political institutions and establishments that administer each country – are imperfect. But they have also delivered some remarkable results, not least keeping the peace on the continent for more than six decades and – broadly, at least – delivering effective welfare and rights to their people.

European liberal democracy is often hypocritical, and sometimes ineffective. But by and large, the citizens of EU countries have spent recent decades protected from some very bad things, in particular excesses of state power, something not true of Putin’s Russia – let alone the fascist regimes of the thirties or Soviet-dominated governments that ruled Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War.

Europe is certainly becoming a less friendly continent, particularly for those who are different – as refugees now held in increasingly horrific conditions in the EU border states such as Serbia have noticed. So have migrant communities across the EU.

It’s hard to say where things go from here. While the institutions of European integration offer the best hope, countries can hardly be blamed for taking matters into their own hands when it comes to defending themselves. An article in the Economist last week asked whether Germany might be willing to break one of its last and greatest taboos, and launch its own nuclear weapons program to protect itself against an ever more uncertain future.

Somehow, Europe has to convince itself things are not quite as bad as they look and find some optimistic route forward. Otherwise they might get worse than anyone is willing to contemplate.

(By Peter Apps)