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Europe’s Double Torment

Thomas Flichy de La Neuville is an IWP Research Professor and the Chair of Geopolitics at the Rennes School of Business.

Europe is currently undergoing a series of fundamental changes. It is midway through the process of reconstituting itself, leaving its landscapes completely reshaped and mixing a whole array of identities within its major cities faster than ever before. This integration is, however, being managed digitally. Technology appears to have supplanted the previous purely financial mindset, thanks to its ability to unify disjointed areas – or at least mollify them over the short term.

Europe’s geopolitics seems to be being shaken by two simultaneous movements. At its center, its German economic heart (which is currently experiencing a labor shortage) has ceased acting as Central Europe’s normative power. The Visegrad Group remains financially dependent on German economic power, but it has taken advantage of this turn of events to position itself as a political intellectual leader in Germany’s stead. It has set itself up in opposition to France’s aspirations to become the sole occupant of the political void left by the Central Empires. At Europe’s seafront, the combined effects of President Trump’s election and Brexit have created a divide between British liberal isolationists and an abidingly liberal Europe.

Germany’s Geopolitical Belly Connected to Two Political Brains

The ultimate consequence of the Austrian and German Empires’ political dissolution has been a severing of connections between the economic motor that powers Europe and its political brain. Having dithered at length, the latter has split in two, forming a liberal West and a conservative East. As such, France and Hungary are playing a game of political tennis over manufacturer Germany, which has staked its future on production.

How to explain this disassociation? In 2004, Germany moved mountains to expand the European Union eastwards. Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary’s entry into the EU has enabled Germany to integrate these economies into its supply chains. As a result, a Central European manufacturing hub has emerged away from Russia’s grasp.

However, once the integration process was complete, Berlin became much less vocal about its political initiatives in Central Europe. The 2008 crisis accelerated the geoeconomization of German thinking, while France’s geopolitical hopes have leapfrogged constantly delayed structural economic reforms.

Yet it was the migrant crisis that catalyzed the various states’ divergences. Central states have distanced themselves from Europe’s heart, even using China[1]or America’s[2] presence in their countries as a way of keeping themselves on the sidelines.[3] On the other hand, Western Europe has sometimes played on fears around Russia to recapture Central Europe.[4] The Visegrad Group (or “V4”) has defended national sovereignty against federal politics and rejected the European Council’s decisions to distribute migrants out evenly between member states out of a sense of solidarity.[5]

Economically, Central Europe has sometimes appeared to be more liberal than Western Europe,[6] whose libertarian policies it has contested. It is cultivating an identity of its own, considers technocracy alienating, and defies all attempts at centralization. Hungary wants to make a clear distinction between refugees, who are protected by the Geneva Convention, and migrants, the management of whom is, in its opinion, down to individual countries. The fact that Central Europe has drawn a line between itself and Western Europe explains why Germany has been asked to take the geopolitical reins[7] once more and promote the Western model in a way that makes it less easy to reject.

Trump and Brexit: Preludes to a Divorce of Two Liberalisms

Far to the west, Donald Trump’s election triggered another national resurgence. It was not unconnected to Brexit, in that the same advisers were used by both the American and British nationalists.[8] In reality, the British Conservative Party’s usual policy (which extracted concessions from the EU while subtly preserving transatlantic links) did nothing to prevent the UK’s increasing marginalization within the EU. Within the UK’s borders, post-industrial Northern Ireland is experiencing considerable difficulties, with unemployment rates approaching 25%. The region is largely subsidized by the European Union.[9] It is crucially important to Great Britain that Northern Ireland remains within the EU. The English-speaking world’s nationalist elements – which have invested heavily in Central Europe in competition with Russia – have thus distanced themselves from the EU’s central motor.

Aside from the increasingly distant relationship between Eastern and Western Europe, the latter’s amnesia has triggered secessionist ambitions among other peripheral states. From 2015 onwards, the Danish government has taken a whole series of measures to contain the flow of migrants from Germany. Greece, humiliated by its financial correction and the disbandment of its army, is turning away from its German creditors. The fragmentation currently underway definitively demonstrates the limits of a federative model founded exclusively on economic criteria.

While a financial system can be up and running within a few weeks, it takes several centuries to form a culture. One is a quick contrivance, while the other is, by its nature, impossible to manufacture. Because it ignored this truth, the European Union is now struggling to determine its own future.

[1] Hungary has relied on Chinese capital to build a new high-speed railway between Belgrade and Budapest. As such, Chinese muscle has enabled it to get closer to Serbia.

[2] When it canceled an order for 50 Airbus Caracal transport helicopters in favor of Sikorsky’s American models in 2016 and asked the USA to open a permanent base within its borders, Poland weakened France’s dearly cherished plans to reinvigorate Europe’s defenses.

[3] Daniel Hegedus, “L’Allemagne a abandonné la géopolitique au profit d’une géoéconomie à court terme en Europe centrale,” Le courrier d’Europe centrale (2 August 2019).

[4] When the Nord Stream gas pipeline running under the Baltic Sea between Russia and Germany was doubled and France softened its stance on Russia, Poland considered this a geopolitical betrayal.

[5] The V4 states refused this shared resolution, their stated reason being to combat the Islamisation of Europe.

[6] Poland’s unemployment rate is 3.9%. More than one out of every four employees only has a temporary contract, which is twice as high as the EU average.

[7] Ursula von der Leyen has spoken of a Europe with a stronger presence on the international stage. The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, Spaniard Josep Borrell, believes that the von der Leyen Commission’s ambitions are geopolitical.

[8] The newly resurgent Anglo-Saxon identity politics were very quickly amplified in Poland because of waves of Polish migrants who have recently set up home in Great Britain and the American military-industrial complex’s presence in Poland.

[9] Between 1995 and 2016, it received €1.3 billion from the European PEACE program designed to support inter-community harmony. A further £270 million program is now being delivered.