The attention paid by policy pundits and the media to Europe’s debt and political crisis is no doubt justified. Its implications do actually reach further than meets the eye. The Euro-crisis is feeding, perhaps aggravating, a geopolitical crisis, whose foundations lay deeper than either the current debt crisis or monetary union itself. It is a crisis of the West in Europe – a crisis of Western Europe.
Since the end of the Second World War, an American-British-French ‘trinity of power’ has underpinned the Western system in Europe. This system has turned around democracy, open markets and national sovereignty as much as it has depended on a geopolitical balance that gravitates around the continent’s North-Western maritime fringe. The European Community (now the European Union) and the Atlantic Alliance were institutional expressions of this order. Their nature and evolution was wedded to the logic of a Western, maritime-oriented Europe.
The strategic depth provided by the Atlantic Ocean and America’s military mass and political commitment were the ultimate guarantees of the West’s position in Europe. Britain and France, two maritime and globally oriented powers, played a critical role in harnessing and entrenching American power through the Atlantic Alliance and via European integration. (West) Germany’s firm integration in the two institutions not only served as proof of its political allegiance to the West, for it was also critical to the very success of Western Europe. The importance of Germany’s material contribution to the Atlantic Alliance and European integration can hardly be overstated. Germany’s manpower and industrial might underpinned a formidable conventional defensive military capability that played a key role in holding the Alliance’s front line in Central Europe. In turn, its economic vitality was the engine of the European Community. As important as it was, though, Germany’s was the role of the infantry. In many ways, its subordination to the United States’ (and United Kingdom’s) military command and strategy in the Atlantic Alliance mirrored its junior status to France in setting the politico-strategic direction of the European Community.
The West made Europe prosperous and stable. It meant the European Community and the Atlantic Alliance were compatible and predictable, as they were both largely articulated around a shared geostrategic vision. But this also made the study of Europe and its institutions numbingly boring. Not anymore. Not without irony, as the Cold War order ended and the West expanded in Europe and globally, the geopolitical foundations upon which Western Europe was premised may have begun to erode.
Over the last two decades, Germany’s autonomy and influence in Europe has expanded substantially. Unification, the end of Soviet Russia, and the eastern enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance greatly contributed to Germany’s security and to reducing its geopolitical dependence on the West. Monetary union allowed Berlin to expand its economic and political influence into Southern and Western Europe. Critically, the eastern enlargement of the European Union cleared the way for the flow of German products and money into Central, Eastern and much of South-Eastern Europe, traditional areas of German projection that had been politically out-of-bounds during the Cold War.
After a heavy fall and a period of weakness and introspection, Russia too has experienced a serious comeback. The interruption of the enlargement of the Atlantic Alliance, Ukraine’s geopolitical turnaround and the invasion of Georgia are the most evident geopolitical signs of this fact. Moscow’s economic influence (particularly in the energy sector) is also rising in much of Eastern, Central and South-Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Turkey has been propping up its strategic presence in the Levant and Eastern Mediterranean and its economic outreach to the Caucasus and some parts of the Balkans continue unabated.
All in all, a shift in the continent’s geopolitical fulcrum from west to east is underway. In the background are the blurring of the Atlantic Alliance ; Britain’s progressive disengagement from the European Union ; France’s strategic eclecticism (between its Atlantic and continental personas) ; and the United States’ diminishing attention to Europe. Going back to the end of the Cold War, America’s waning interest in Europe was further aggravated by the protracted engagements of Iraq and Afghanistan. The so-called ‘pivot’ to Asia is not about to reverse the situation. The United States will of course not just leave Europe. It will strive to maintain as much influence as it can with as little resources as it must. But less resources and less attention will mean a less coherent West in Europe.
To all this a strong debt crisis with serious economic, political and (potentially) social ramifications must be added, as well as – in the longer term – a looming demographic and competitiveness problem. Only when looked at through the lens of these broader geopolitical changes can the nature of Europe’s foes be fully appreciated.