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Europe turns inward, just as challenges on its borders mount

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By Alan Cowell

New York Times

LONDON >> It is hard, if not impossible, to recall a time when Europe’s view across the Mediterranean has been so clouded by conflagration in what seems a redrawn crescent of crisis from North Africa to Turkey.

And, some analysts have come to conclude, it is equally difficult to remember a moment when European leaders have seemed more distracted in rising to the challenge beyond their own frontiers.

The powerful seem hamstrung by the ascendancy at home of rightist insurgents whose appeal to disaffected citizens feeds on opposition to migrants in their midst. A decision by British voters to leave the European Union has only deepened the introspection.

The term “arc of crisis” was coined at the height of the Cold War by Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, who spoke in 1978 of an area “stretching along the shores of the Indian Ocean, with fragile social and political structures in a region of vital importance to us threatened with fragmentation.”

These days, with the Cold War’s harvest supplanted by the sour fruits of the Arab Spring, a comparable fragmentation threatens equally fragile polities along the Mediterranean littoral, consumed by the battle with the Islamic State and Turkey’s campaign against Kurdish separatists.

At the center of the arc is the Syrian civil war, but, said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a policy specialist with the European Council on Foreign Relations, the spillover has left neighboring states — Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — “very vulnerable.”

“They all face the challenge posed by the Islamic State, and, perhaps more importantly, the challenge of maintaining the fragile political balance that maintains the status quo,” he said in a study this week.

“While Jordan and Lebanon have managed the situation far better than expected, the regional trend is not in their favor,” the report said. “In Turkey the challenges are growing more acute with the Syria war also reigniting its conflict with the Kurds.”

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is seeking to negotiate easier access for his citizens to the European Union in return for curbing the flow of refugees from Syria across his country. But if Europe colludes in his increasing authoritarianism and his war against Kurdish separatists, the report said, their actions “risk storing up longer-term destabilizing forces.”

“European states also need to stay focused on strengthening regional resilience mechanisms, and stepping up support to the inclusive political consensus that is essential for holding these states together,” the report said.

That is precisely where the geopolitical considerations collide with a narrower self-interest.

European countries must show a willingness to “take in larger numbers of Syrian refugees,” the report said. Yet, for many European governments troubled by the rise of xenophobic challengers at home, the migrant influx has become a political minefield.

Now, if Middle Eastern countries fear contagion from Syria’s civil war, so, too, do many European countries fear infection by the British referendum to withdraw from the European Union.

The vote on June 23 that produced a majority in favor of what is commonly referred to as Brexit has left Britain rudderless.

Prime Minister David Cameron has said he will step down within months. Resignations, betrayals and power plays have coursed through the political classes with a ferocity reminiscent of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar.”

After its most momentous and divisive decision since World War II, Britain’s spasm of internecine political warfare has left other European leaders desperate to forestall similar turmoil in their own countries.

From a small seed sown decades ago by a few conservative Britons, repercussions of the referendum have built their own arc of crisis.

“For the time being,” said Marc Pierini, of the Carnegie Europe policy institute, “the first casualty of Brexit will be the crafting of a bold, security-based global strategy for the EU.”

“This,” he said, “is obviously no time for grand strategies.”

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