1 March 2019

Is West Europe's Post-1945 Peace Coming to an End?

Since the Second World War, most of the conflicts that have broken out in Europe have done so in the eastern and southeastern parts of the region.  Many of these wars involved the ethnically- or religiously-mixed areas of those regions and were centered around border disputes involving the countries that emerged from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. In the east, the wars involving the successor states of the Soviet Union either involved Russia’s efforts to regain control or influence over the territory of the former USSR, or they were centered within these relatively-new states as the post-USSR borders left islands of ethnic or religious minorities within their borders.  In southeastern Europe, the collapse of Yugoslavia led to a series of wars that, despite being brought to an end by the military power of the United States and some of its NATO allies, continue to destabilize that region today.

As opposed to the eastern and southeastern areas of Europe, West Europe has largely been at peace since 1945. Sure, there has been violence and unrest in areas such as Spain and Northern Ireland, but on the whole, West Europe has enjoyed an unprecedented period of peace and stability.  Much of this peace and stability can be attributed to the United States’ domination of the military sphere in West Europe since the Second World War.  Simply put, no two West European states could have fought a war against one another as the US military presence in the region would not allow it.  Likewise, the integration of much of West Europe into the European Union has also fostered peace in the region, and provided a forum for regional disputes to be worked out.  This combination of the overwhelming military power of the United States and the creation of the European Union provided an opportunity for a prolonged period of peace to talk hold in West Europe, one that has persisted to this day.

While a major conflict in West Europe remains unthinkable for most people in the region, a number of changes in recent years have raised concerns that the run of nearly 75 years of peace in the region could be coming to an end.  First, the United States is much less interested in Europe than it was in the decades following World War Two, as the US is turning its attention towards Asia, where its new rival for global leadership, China, is emerging.  Second, as the US presence in Europe recedes, nationalist and isolationist sentiment is on the rise in most West European countries, jeopardizing the integration that has been achieved in the region in recent decades.  As this trend continues, old wounds are being reopened and disputes within and between West European countries are once again intensifying.  In light of these changes that are shaking the foundation of West European peace, here are ten flashpoints in that region that could lead to major disputes or even conflicts in the years ahead. 

  • Russia and West Europe: From the time of Peter the Great until the end of the Cold War, Russia played an ever-increasing role in European affairs.  Now that President Vladimir Putin is attempting to reverse Russia’s losses following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he is attempting to divided Europe in order to weaken NATO and the European Union.  Should he choose to use military force in areas such as Ukraine or the Baltic region, West European countries will be forced to decide whether or not to confront Russia, or to acquiesce to its domination of East Europe. This remains the single greatest threat to peace in West Europe at this time and the one that could lead to another great power conflict fought on European soil.
  • UK-Ireland: Ireland (the island) has long been a thorn in the side of the United Kingdom and the dispute over Brexit is proving that this thorn is causing more and more pain for the UK. Should no deal on Brexit be reached between the UK and the European Union, the greatest impact is likely to be felt in Ireland, as there will be a great deal of uncertainty over status of the Irish border.  This could fuel sectarian unrest in Northern Ireland and might even force the UK to deploy considerable military and police forces to the island.  It’s not unthinkable that this could even lead to clashes along the Irish border.
  • Gibraltar: This British territory on the Iberian Peninsula has long been one of Europe’s hottest flashpoints and the level of tension there has risen in recent years.  With Brexit, these tensions have risen even further, as Spain has sought the European Union’s backing for its claim to this disputed territory.  Should Spain continue to disrupt shipping and fishing in the waters around Gibraltar, it is possible that the UK will deploy additional naval forces there, raising the risks of a clash between the British and Spanish navies.
  • Catalonia: The declaration of independence last year by Catalonia’s regional government and the subsequent arrest of many Catalan separatist leaders has made this region one of the most volatile in West Europe.  Moreover, it is likely that a large segment of the population in Catalonia will continue to push for that region’s independence, maintaining the tensions between Madrid and Barcelona.  So far, this standoff has been peaceful, but it is entirely possible that, having been thwarted in their efforts to secure independence by peaceful means, that some separatists in Catalonia could resort to violence in order to secure their region’s independence from Spain.
  • Basque Country: Spain also faces the threat of a renewed push for the independence for its Basque Country. While the violence that plagued this region in previous decades has largely ended, a large segment of the Basque population continues to desire an independent state for the Basque people, It is possible that Spain could experience simultaneous separatist unrest in Catalonia, the Basque Country and even other areas of the country, something that would severely challenge Madrid’s ability to keep Spain unified.
  • France and Italy: France and Italy have often found themselves at odds in the Mediterranean, with both countries attempting to assert their control over much of the waters of that sea and the lands that surround it.  Since the 19thcentury, the Mediterranean was dominated by first the British and now the US navies.  However, as the US presence in the region is reduced, Paris and Rome see an opportunity to regain influence in this region.  Add to this the surge in migration from Africa northwards into southern Europe and it is clear that France and Italy could find themselves embroiled in a number of disputes in the years ahead.
  • Italy and Austria: While Italy’s geopolitical focus is often to its south, it also has some disputes to its north and to its east.  Most notably, Italy’s annexation of the ethnically-German South Tirol at the end of the First World War has led to a modern-day border dispute between Italy and Austria.  This dispute has resurfaced as Austria’s right-wing government has been considering a proposal to allow native German speakers in South Tirol to apply for Austrian nationality, a move opposed by the Italian government.  Austria has also threatened to close its border with Italy due to the flow of migrants northwards in recent years.
  • Belgium: Belgium has long been divided among its Flemish and Walloon communities, but thus far these divisions have remained peaceful.  However, as the economic and social divisions between the wealthier Flemish and poorer Walloon regions widen, the potential for more violent confrontations cannot be ruled out.  This is particularly the case if separatist parties in Belgium’s Flemish region continue to gain in support, as they already command a large share of the vote in that region’s elections.  For a country that hosts the capital of the European Union, such a split could set a dangerous precedent.
  • Corsica: Corsica was long ruled by Italian states and even enjoyed a brief period of independence in the mid-18thcentury.  However, since 1768, Corsica has been a part of France, but this situation has been opposed by a sizeable portion of the island’s population.  While support for outright independence is relatively muted, a majority of Corsicans desire a greater deal of autonomy from France. Should a new violent independence movement arise, the potential for a much higher degree of unrest in Corsica cannot be ruled out.
  • The German Question: Since Bismarck united Germany in 1871, the German question has been the one that has bedeviled West Europe more than any other.  While Germany is no longer the dominant military power in Europe, it remains the region’s strongest economy and this prevents its neighbors from entirely shaking their fear of German intentions in Europe.  Today, Germany’s military power is shockingly negligible, but should the United States continue to reduce its presence in Europe, Germany might be forced to re-take security matters into its own hands, something that might not sit well with many of its neighbors.

Since the Second World War, West Europe has largely surrendered its geopolitical independence to the United States. Sure, countries such as Britain and France continue to maintain spheres of influence inside and outside of Europe, but they have been unable or unwilling to act on issues of global geopolitical importance if facing serious opposition from the US.  Now that Washington is focused more on issues at home and in the Pacific, Europe might find itself being forced to retake the geopolitical initiative, even if it is unable or unwilling to do so. Furthermore, with Russia seeking to regain lost power and influence in Europe, the countries of West Europe will be forced to refocus on security issues.  Likewise, Europe’s recent migration crisis has highlighted the threats to the region emanating from across the Mediterranean Sea, threats that will also force European countries to focus more on defense and security.  

While external threats are rising, internal divisions are also coming back across the region.  For the moment, it is hard to imagine that a conflict could erupt within a West European country, or between two or more European countries. However, the threat of conflict in West Europe is rising and this trend is forecast to continue in the coming years. For Europe, the decades-long period of peace that followed the devastation of the Second World War is by no means permanent and the threats to the region’s security must be taken seriously. As the memory of the Second World War fades, the risk of new unrest in Europe is once again rising.