Forecasting is fool’s work, especially in the social sciences. Even when done well, the odds of success can make a punter cringe. But some ways of looking at the future are more useless than other.
The most common fallacy is that of linear projection: just because things have been one way recently, they will remain more or less the same. When was the last time your personal life has not been thrown off course by unexpected drama or joy?
A somewhat more sophisticated predictor will therefore try to divine the coming disruptions. But the probability of a foretold event happening in any given year is usually low. Then there’s the more serious flaw: a discontinuity alone, even if one predicts its timing correctly, tells little about the consequences. That’s the main stock in forecasting: not just foreseeing an event, but sketching out how it will change the world.
I find it useful to think of Europe in 2018 in the same way as seismologists look for the next big quake. What tensions have built up that could break in the near future? Which societies are ready for them and which ones aren’t? This does not amount to a precise forecast of what exactly will happen and when, but it does give a sense of what needs to be done by way of preparation—and how urgently.
Three kinds of trouble bubble under Europe’s surface. The first threatens the EU project itself: it is the continued sense among too many Europeans that the old elites and mainstream parties are out of touch with electorates and—worse—dangerously incompetent. Coupled with depression about one’s economic future, this sentiment, given the right impetus, might bring Euroskeptic populism back to the fore.
French President Emmanuel Macron has released some of the pressure by taking steps to sort out France’s sclerotic labor market. In doing so, Macron has restored some faith that the establishment—if not the established parties—can produce a competent manager who is unafraid of taking on structural problems. This political example will be helpful beyond the country’s borders, and the expected improvement in European economies should also help let off steam. But skepticism toward the old ruling classes remains high, and a return of mass migration, an economic downturn, or failures of the elite in Germany, Italy, or Spain in 2018 could bring back the black dogs.
The second and related pressure comes from outside EU borders. The migrant population of Europe has risen from roughly 20 million in 1990 to 35 million in 2015—and the trend shows no signs of stopping. To state the obvious, much good has come with these arrivals, including new talent and workers to fill the gap in Europe’s working-age population. But the recent migration wave has also fed a sense among many Europeans that they are becoming a minority in their home societies. As Ivan Krastev notes in his new book, when voters feel that they are losing the cultural ground under their feet, they respond particularly viciously, with anger and intolerance. More arrivals could bring more defensive angst in 2018, feeding tensions between Western and Central Europe and aiding populists everywhere.
The third issue simmers in the defense realm. Nearly four years ago, Russia made clear that it was willing to upset the existing order in Europe. The arrival of U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017 has introduced the possibility that the United States might not stand in Putin’s way. Central Europe faces a greater possibility of external intrusion than it has in decades, and its capacity to resist is being further eroded by disinformation campaigns.
Deployments of American and other Western forces along Europe’s Eastern flank have gone some way to shore up the status quo. But they will be of little use if Donald Trump proves unwilling to use them when needed. No crisis has yet tested the stability of the region, but the absence of upheaval is not the same as the presence of stability or order. Defense budgets have gone up everywhere in the region; like earthquake insurance premiums, they are a telltale sign of underlying trouble.
If this is a disappointingly imprecise guide to 2018, it is by design. Specificity in forecasting comes at the expense of reliability. But the lack of clarity needs not be disempowering. Policymakers can still draw useful lessons from understanding where and how the ground is shifting.
Intelligent leaders will recognize that the first kind of pressure on European order is treatable, but the cure will take time and the skill of the sort that Macron has displayed lately, and which unwieldy coalitions in Germany and in Italy (post-election) may find hard to summon.
Migration pressures are not reversible; at least not at acceptable human and ethical costs. So Europe is left managing the consequences. Any dramatic changes will be on the downside, though whether a crisis on par with 2015 will happen this year is anyone’s guess.
The third underlying stressor has a partial technical solution: the completion of deterrence measures that NATO allies started putting in place in 2014. These lessen the odds that the security order in Europe can successfully be challenged and thus reduce Russia’s temptation to try. However, allies on the alliance’s Eastern border will continue to worry throughout 2018 about Donald Trump’s interest in their defense. The odds are he’s not leaving office in 2018. And this, at the risk of being proven wrong by the U.S. Senate, is as specific as this prognostication will get.